Living in the United States, we don’t often dwell on how unique it is in history to be able to worship God as we see fit and celebrate the holidays we hold dear. For most of human history, kings and other rulers generally wanted those they ruled to join in the approved rituals and holidays. This national unity prevented a lot of headaches, like of factions popping up to challenge their authority.
Often, that meant those who insisted on worshiping apart from the community were suppressed, exiled, or even killed. The Roman Empire was actually relatively lenient in this area. Because they ruled vast areas with diverse people groups, they decided it was wiser to just add the local gods to a pantheon, so the gods of all the people could be worshiped without tensions — that is, as long as the people also acknowledged that the emperor was among those worthy of worship.
Jews, and later Christians, frustratingly for the Romans, didn’t go along with this dynamic. Believing they worshiped the one true God, they wouldn’t burn a pinch of incense to Caesar in the pantheon. For this, there were terrible consequences, which led to things like the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem for Jews and being fed to lions or being used as human torches for Christians.
When Christians inherited the Roman Empire, they didn’t always do much better regarding freedom of worship, even if they had a foundation for separating religion and state from Jesus’ words to “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s.” Ultimately, it took reflection on the horrors of the European Wars of Religion in the 16th and 17th centuries, especially the 30 Years War, before genuine freedom of religion began to emerge.
The Peace of Augsburg in 1555, when the various German-speaking states in the Holy Roman Empire agreed to stop attempting to force their religion on the other states, was a major step. From almost the first moment after the Protestant Reformation, Catholic leaders had sought to bring everyone back in the fold and Protestant leaders sought to pull more land away from them. But they all agreed now that it was futile.
The Peace of Augsburg introduced a new rule, cuius regio, eius religio — or “whose realm, their religion.” Each prince would have the freedom to determine the religion of his realm (and all his subjects). It was a sort of “freedom of religion” but only for the leaders and only if they were Catholic or Lutheran. More “radical” forms of Christianity, like Anabaptism and Calvinism, hadn’t yet been accepted.
But excluding the Calvinists led to more turmoil, as they fought for their own realms, too. This was a major element kicking off the 30 Years War, one of the bloodiest conflicts in European history. When all sides realized that killing each other for God was not creating heaven on earth but hell on earth, they began to rethink the relationship between church and state. They asked: What if cuius regio, eius religio could be implemented on a house-to-house basis, or even a soul-to-soul basis, rather than state by state?
So, with this in mind, the belligerent parties signed two documents, together called the Peace of Westphalia, in 1648, which reaffirmed cuius regio, eius religio but added protection for minority religions. The prince could declare a state Catholic or Lutheran or even Calvinist, but the signatories agreed to no longer force their subjects to convert to the prince’s religion and agreed to give minority religions time and space to worship how they wished.
The American colonists watched all of this from across the ocean — with many Anglicans, Calvinists, Lutherans, and Anabaptists (and even a few Catholics and Jews) living side by side — and drew similar conclusions about religious freedom. The English Civil War, which was also happening in the 1640s and also largely concerned traditional versus emerging forms of Christianity, shocked them even more — especially when the king, Charles I, was overthrown and beheaded for insufficient support of Protestant wars and reforms.
Many who settled in the United States were fleeing all of this bloodshed or were simply trying to find a place to live out their faith safely. Seeing just how bloody things can get when everyone tries to use the sword to create religious homogeneity helped solidify the newly forming American people in the importance of freedom of worship.
But the old instincts to control how one’s neighbors worshiped and celebrated holidays died hard. In New England, the Puritans — Calvinists who largely held to practices found directly in the Scriptures — banned the celebration of Christmas. They believed that many of the elements in the festivities traced back, not to Christian theology, but to ancient paganism. They also held that the common people took the celebrating too far, with drunken brawls and lewd behavior.
After beheading the king, the Puritans’ Calvinist cousins in England, Scotland, and Wales also banned Christmas in the mid-1600s. But these laws didn’t last. The rowdy American individualist spirit demanded the right to celebrate Christmas, and the traditionalist Brits soon demanded a return to monarchy and Christmas.
Here in North Carolina, Christmas has been celebrated in many different ways by many different groups (even on different days) since before the state was established. With fewer Puritans than Anglicans (or as they became known, Episcopalians) in the South compared to New England, there wasn’t nearly the controversy over all the festivities.
When the Bill of Rights was added to the US Constitution, partly due to the insistence of North Carolinians, the “first freedom” was the right to worship. Notably, the first part of the First Amendment not only guaranteed the freedom of exercise for religion. It also prohibited the establishment of any national church. Even the Peace of Westphalia’s vision — of a state religion with allowances for minority faiths — did not go far enough in the founders’ eyes. Some states did establish churches, but this too was done away with by 1833, with Massachusetts being the last to hold onto an established church.
In Section 13 of Article I of our own state constitution, the Declaration of Rights, there is also a strong religious liberty clause, which says, “All persons have a natural and inalienable right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own consciences, and no human authority shall, in any case whatever, control or interfere with the rights of conscience.”
As we remember all that we’re grateful for this Christmas, whether our families, jobs, homes, or comforts, we should consider our right to worship how we please near the top of the list. It may seem an obvious arrangement to us, but it only became so after centuries of bloodshed.