As we enter into a period of radical uncertainty regarding religious freedom—especially for Catholics, as witnessed most recently by the anti-confession laws in California—it is worth re-considering America’s track record on the issue. Frankly, it’s not good. Or, perhaps, it’s better to state, when it’s good, it’s good, but when it’s bad, it’s really bad.
Our standard textbooks, sadly, tell a false story. Not only do they claim “religious freedom” from the beginning of colonial settlement, but they also attempt to do so by identifying each colony as a place of refuge for a particular denomination. New England for the Puritans (Calvinists), Pennsylvania for the Quakers, Maryland for the Catholics, Virginia for the Anglicans, etc. What our textbooks fail to note, however, is that these colonies which might very well offer complete religious freedom to one denomination rarely do the same for competitor denominations. Virginia, for example, encouraged the members of the Church of England to the nth degree, but they persecuted Calvinists, Baptists, and any other dissenters. New England despised Catholics, but they hated the Baptists even more.
Outside of a minor attempt in colonial Pennsylvania to offer some religious freedom and Maryland, briefly, to offer complete religious freedom, the thirteen colonies were rapidly intolerant of multiple denominations. Given the frontier, there was a considerable amount of freedom, but only because the frontier allowed one to flee an oppressive situation and take refuge in the wilderness with its absence of laws.