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Human Rights and Freedoms
 
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The Cornerstone of Liberty

Let Freedom Ring


Liberty Bell

Special to Freedom

 T
he Liberty Bell, America’s symbol of freedom, has inscribed on it words from the Biblical Book of Leviticus (25:10): ‘Proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants.’ I believe that, in a more real sense than symbolically, the bell and its inscription have set the moral and ethical tone for the country.

      What always has fascinated me is the bell’s celebrated break. Notice sometime in which direction it winds its way, almost as if it were an indicator arrow pointing toward the word ‘proclaim’. Most of us are not given to reading into symbols more than should be intended, but it often has struck me that the bell has more character to it than if it were whole. To me, the crack in the bell seems to be Providence’s way of underscoring a duty that is incumbent upon every American. ‘Proclaim’—the active verb in the command to the Nation.

      Proclaim that in this land there is liberty—freedom—for everyone. It is such a simple word, meaning to put forth the claim that there is liberty. Where? Throughout the land, uniformly and thoroughly. To whom? To all its inhabitants, not just the majority or the more favored ones, but all.

      But it always is easier to put forth claims than it is to claim, or to allow others to make good the claim.

      Long before the Liberty Bell (it was not named that until 1839 by an anti-slavery group) was conceived of as a symbol by the colonial government of Pennsylvania, many groups had noble aims for America, foremost among them being the right to religious freedom. But for most, the understanding of what that meant, was limited. When others tried to claim it, they were denied it. The oppressed in Europe, once in America, often became the oppressors.

      The Puritans, spurred on by John Locke’s ‘Treatise on Civil Government’ and the notion that government rests on the approval of those governed and the liberating ideas put forth by John Milton, left Europe to implant religious freedom for themselves. But that, for all the noble words and sentiments they expressed, was the limit they set—for themselves alone.

      When Anne Hutchinson sought to speak out with religious ideas that ran contrary to what was preached, she was banished from Massachusetts by the colonial government and ‘4:12 PM 5/3/02; turned over to the heathens and to Satan.’ When Roger Williams, a Baptist, sought to propound ideas that were in opposition to the Puritan doctrines and polity, he likewise was banished from the colony.

      Or take the Quakers, people who had left England’s intolerance in the hope of claiming what they thought was to be afforded them in a land that was to be based on a new order of things. While they were free in Pennsylvania, these gentle people, with their strange doctrines, were hanged in Boston Common. Their claim to freedom fell on unhearing ears.

      One year before the Declaration of Independence, another group came over from England, desiring only to worship and serve God as they felt the Scriptures commanded them. The Shakers were beaten, they were dragged, their homes set afire, in the land of religious freedom. The words of freedom had a hollow ring to them.

      When we Americans went to grammar school, we were shown pictures of the Puritans, muskets in their arms, making their way to churches so they could worship as they pleased. It conveyed to us the idea that that is why we have ‘all those Methodists, Baptists and Episcopalians in this country.’ A nice thought, but teacher failed the exam that day.

      The truth of the matter is that, despite Maryland’s noble Act of Toleration in 1649 and Pennsylvania’s Great Law of 1682, there was not a single one of the original 13 colonies in which freedom of worship was fully and consistently practiced.

      Even Patrick Henry, in helping to draft the famous Virginia Bill of Rights in 1776, had spoken merely of ‘toleration’ instead of religious freedom. Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians and others had suffered severely in colonial Virginia because the Anglican Church was the established, or official, church there. For others there was not even toleration, let alone freedom.

      Fortunately, minds like George Mason, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson prevailed and the concept of mere toleration was stricken from Henry’s draft. Freedom, with its much broader implications, was substituted. After the United States had won its freedom, this great leap forward in Virginia was incorporated into the American Bill of Rights, accepted by the new nation in 1791. It was made applicable to all states by the 14th Amendment in 1868.

      But not even this made religious freedom a sure thing in all its implications in the United States. The message of freedom was being proclaimed, but groups such as the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses, egregious in the crowd of hundreds of religious expressions which were prospering in this newly-established freedom, had difficulties staking their claims.

      Even as recently as 90 years ago, Mormons were not allowed to vote because of their religious beliefs. Late into this century Jehovah’s Witnesses were jailed because they feel it is idolatrous to salute the Flag, notwithstanding their impeccable record of fine citizenship.

      But freedom is a process. That process still is being worked out in this country. Our Constitution, safeguarded by the Supreme Court, is working out the aberrations left over from an old order that didn’t even know the true meaning of toleration, let alone freedom. The Constitution undergirds the message of the Liberty Bell.

      When individuals can freely, in the year 1976, deprive young adults of their religious beliefs by kidnapping them from religious groups their parents do not agree with and dismiss it merely as ‘deprogramming’; when government agencies, because officials do not like certain religious groups, can, with immunity, wage smear tactic and right-depriving warfare against those religions and their followers, then apparently the message has not sunk in throughout the land.

      All the land’s inhabitants are not heeding the message that freedom is for all the inhabitants.

      The future of religious freedom? The same as always. Two hundred years have brought us a long way. But cracked though the Liberty Bell may be, the message still is the same: Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom.

      Through the courts, through every other legitimate means open to those who still are oppressed, they must let the world know that they have heard the message: ‘Proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants.’

      What has been proclaimed in America these 200 years, everyone has the right to claim.


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