16 Crucial Words

The First Amendment in the Bill of Rights begins with 16 words. "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof...."

Simple, direct, profound.

Political genius.

With the stroke of a pen, believer and nonbeliever alike share a stake in guaranteeing each other's freedom of thought in the most sacred of realms - the practice of religion.

Sects, naturally vigilant in protecting their own rights from intrusion by a national church, gain a self-interest in protecting the rights of all other religions from that same intrusion.

Passions, for which history repeatedly shows people willing to wage war, become transformed into a motive for unity.

The practical result: individuals worshipping widely and freely as no one nation of people ever had.

Still a work in progress, religious diversity flourishes as the United States enters the 21st century. It remains one of the deepest currents in American experience.

This week's cover story by Jane Lampman examines this quintessential American experience in light of contemporary fact - the significant growth of non-Christian faiths and their general acceptance by society at large.

She examines the dramatic increase of nontraditional communicants, especially in the Muslim, Buddhist, and Hindu faiths.

Look to history as prologue. Pilgrims and Puritans come to New England in the 17th century seeking to worship God in their own way. Roger Williams settles Rhode Island to escape religious persecution by those same Massachusetts Puritans and practice his Baptist faith. Quakers found and govern Pennsylvania, and then transfer rule to a majority not of their faith.

In a 1789 letter to the Jewish congregation in Savannah, Ga., President George Washington lends his imprimatur to religious liberty for non-Christians.

From an enclave in Baltimore in the 1700s Roman Catholics grow to become the largest denomination in a Protestant country. Waves of German, Irish, Italian, and Polish, immigrants make this possible. Latinos continue the pattern today.

The African-American struggle for civil rights is synonymous with religious freedom. Native Americans for the first time are seeing partial acceptance of their spiritual beliefs.

Despite many dark moments of intolerance who can deny that the long march of religious freedom, under law, continues forward, expansive, and unstoppable?

Our cover story presents a vignette of a Hindu woman recently settled in Chicago. Religion and the immigrant experience often are inextricable.

"A stranger in a strange land," she must stitch her religion into the fabric of Christian America by defining it to nonbelievers as well as her children, something she never had to do in India. Her children will come of age in a multireligious society. She will watch as her faith and theirs are transformed.

Welcome to America.

* Comments or questions? Write to Ideas Editor, One Norway St., Boston, MA 02115, or e-mail Ideas@csps.com

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