19th Century Religion

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The Reality of Religious Liberty in 19th Century America
“America was founded on ideals of religious freedom.” It is a sentiment that has been repeated time and time again throughout the history of the United States, drummed into every child’s head from the earliest of history or civics lessons. However, to claim that freedom of religion has always existed in this country to the extent it does today is a gross oversimplification of the very gradual progression in these rights that has taken place throughout history. Such progress has always been preceded by democratic debate as norms change and blatant bigotry against those deemed acceptable targets at the time becomes passé—often only to be replaced by a new group of targets to be denounced
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Following the ratification of the Religion Clauses in the First Amendment to the Constitution, which provided very general guidelines as to the disestablishment of religion in the government of the new nation, there could be no national religion nor infringement by the federal government on the religious exercise of any citizen. Individual states, however, were not actively prevented from maintaining at least de facto establishments of religion within their borders, as the federal government avoided enforcing the Religion Clauses on the state level in this era when public favor remained firmly on the side of a Christian America—more specifically, a Protestant America, where rising ideals of civil individualism were closely bound to religious tenets of self-determination. Consequently, in contrast to the idealistic, rose-colored lenses through which the period is often viewed, religious liberty in the United States during the first half of the 19th century existed fully only for those whose beliefs fell within the bounds of Protestant Christianity. While the legitimacy of their liberties was reaffirmed by the widespread mixture of religious and public institutions, these institutions simultaneously served to deny the same degree of religious liberty to minorities, such as in the case of Jews and Catholics, and in other cases even to actively oppress…show more content…
The teaching of morality was believed to be as important in education as the teaching of arithmetic, and the Bible, from whence a Christian nation such as the United States perceived itself to be would learn its morals, was initially established as a fundamental part of the curriculum. In keeping with the Protestant norm of the era, which focused on religious individualism as the key to Christian faith, this teaching was “non-sectarian”, as students simply read the Bible without any more specific instruction, that it might be left to their own understanding and interpretation. As Vincent P. Lannie wrote in 1970, “the Scriptures—invariably the Protestant King James Version—embodied the precepts necessary to transform an impressionable and pliable child into a morally mature and Christian adult,” and “no committed Christian… questioned its salutary influence”. Catholics, whose faith was built on centuries of established doctrine and ritual in addition to scripture, disagreed with this belief, and with the use of the label “non-sectarian” for a curriculum that used a Protestant Bible as well as anti-Catholic literature taught by Protestant, sometimes anti-Catholic teachers (Lannie, 1970). In reality, when Protestants called public education “non-sectarian”,
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