Religious Freedom in America, or Why School History Books Stink

There was a massacre of an entire wagon train, about 120 Christian men,

women and children on 9/11.  The “Mountain Meadows Massacre” was

etching of the Mountain Meadows Massacre

Mountain Meadows Massacre, via Wikipedia

committed in 1857 by Christians of a different sect, Mormons.  This might seem bizarre, but historically speaking it is not unusual.  If you haven’t heard of this event before it isn’t surprising because the bloodier and more controversial topics in the history books used in U.S. classrooms have traditionally been minimized or purged, often with religious motives, leaving students to memorize dusty names and dates sanitized of interest.

I was reminded of the Massacre because of an interesting article in the

religion + war = no winners

Image by Shootin' the breeze via Flickr

October 2010 issue of Smithsonian Magazine, “God and Country”, available online under the alternate title, “America’s True History of Religious Tolerance”.   The article discusses the long, bloody history of religious intolerance in America and how the separation of church and state came to be incorporated in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.  It is a

fascinating story when told, as it is here, by a researcher who does not shy from controversy.  Persecutions of the Mormons by others are mentioned, but the Massacre was not.  I am confident the omission was not intentional – there is so much material on the subject.

An objective awareness of history and principles of government in this

Joan of Arc is interrogated by The Cardinal of...

Cardinal interrogates Joan of Arc, via Wikipedia

country is abysmal.  How can citizens

vote wisely if they don’t understand how we got where we are and what the rules are?  One theme I hear repeatedly in newspapers, letters and blogs, particularly in current passionate political debates, is that we are a “Christian Nation”.  We are not.  Some people are very angry when they hear politicians say we are not.  However, unlike many countries such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, we have no state religion.  Legally, we are a nation of religious tolerance because the First Amendment says so.  Factually, we are a religious mess because of our tribal nature.  (Americans like people to be religious as long as the religion is similar to theirs.)  The most recent example of religious intolerance is the case involving the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka that was heard by the Supreme Court yesterday.

President Obama has spoken out a number of times to emphasize, as he ought, that this is a country that tolerates all religions, or no religion at all, so long as those beliefs do not infringe on the freedoms of others.  I hope the Supreme Court finds in the Westboro case that such “freedom” does NOT extend to invading funerals or other public religious rites.  That’s simply wrong.  I see that as one religion infringing on another, the equivalent of another exception, “fighting words”.

I hope, dear Reader, that you will study the referenced Smithsonian article by Kenneth C. Davis.  It is very well written, not too long, and better than a ton of dry school history texts.  Think of it as continuing education. I do.

About Jim Wheeler

U. S. Naval Academy, BS, Engineering, 1959; Naval line officer and submariner, 1959 -1981, Commander, USN; The George Washington U., MSA, Management Eng.; Aerospace Engineer, 1981-1999; Resident Gadfly, 1999 - present. Political affiliation: Democratic.
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