Bahai News -- The freedom of faith
Posted on Fri, Jul. 04, 2003
The freedom of faith
S.C. always has been home to diversity of religious expression
By RODDIE BURRIS
It's one of America's most enduring traditions - religious freedom - and its roots sink as deep in South Carolina as in any of the 13
Three hundred and thirty-three years after its English charter, the Palmetto State is home to more than 20 faiths, claiming memberships that
exceed 2 million followers.
That diversity reflects a long-standing commitment to religious freedom that goes back to the state's founding, historians and others
"We have a religious history we can actually be proud of," said Jan Love, a USC religion professor.
Consider that in the 1600s and 1700s, South Carolina was a small colony for Jews. (Until the 1800s, more Jews lived in Charleston than in
New York City.)
While Jews were being persecuted and ostracized throughout Europe, the first known Jew elected to public office in the modern world was
elected in South Carolina. Francis Salvador was elected to First Provincial Congress of South Carolina in 1774, from the state's Ninety-Six
Consider also that, at least nine European nationalities had a significant presence in the state before the Revolutionary War in 1776.
"South Carolina had one of the more heterogeneous European populations in British North America," historian Walter Edgar writes in his epic
book, "South Carolina, a History."
Historians generally concede two points about South Carolina's past that have enabled its residents to enjoy their faiths unfettered through
the centuries: the initial stab at a state constitution and its beginnings as a moneymaking colony.
AHEAD OF THE TIMES
The state's original constitution was the first in history to mandate religious freedom.
"Jews, heathens, and other dissenters from the purity of the Christian religion" should not fear settling in Carolina, nor be kept out, the
97th Article of the Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina mandated.
That constitution, drafted in 1669 as the first European settlers set sail for Carolina, never was adopted. However, the document had
"It expressed the climate of the place," said Dale Rosengarten of McClellanville, curator of the Jewish heritage book and exhibition, "A
Portion of the People," which currently is in New York City and will travel to Charlotte in September.
"It said that Charleston was a colony that had the climate and the atmosphere that was going to let them practice their religion.
"They were certainly ahead of their time - just look at other colonies. You had Pennsylvania that only wanted Quakers, Maryland wanted only
"South Carolina was unusually cosmopolitan both in terms of religion and nationality," Rosengarten said.
The King's Grant to the Lord Proprietors of South Carolina was founded as a commercial colony, with economics at its base. Europe was
crowded, with little productive land, historians say, and if most men could survive, they had little hope of moving ahead.
Plentiful land, the enticement of slavery and fertile hunting grounds was South Carolina's promise.
"It occurred to the benevolent Queen (Anne) of France that she could better provide for these ‘.‘.‘. by inducing them to
become settlers in her American colonies," wrote G.D. Bernheim in his book, "German Settlement and the Lutheran Church in North and South
"Accordingly, some were settled in the Province of New York ‘.‘.‘. and some found a home in various portions of the colony
of South Carolina, principally in Charleston and along the banks of the Congaree, Saluda and Broad rivers."
Whether because of holdover attitudes from Europe or other factors, certain suspicions and some religious suppression did exist in South
At Charleston's St. Matthew's, one of the area's oldest Lutheran churches, services were held in German until World War I, in part because
the language offered a protective barrier.
"South Carolina is a Baptist state," said Fred Reisz, president of the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia. "The Lutheran
religion has been able to grow and thrive in South Carolina, in part, because of the Baptists' commitment to the separation of church and
state. And, I think there is a general Southern predilection to allow other Christian faiths to grow and flourish."
Catholics faced persecution in South Carolina until the American Revolution.
"They fought and got killed in the war, and that, in an odd way, earned them acceptance," said David Heisser, a Catholic historian in
Charleston and biographical librarian at The Citadel.
EVEN MORE DIVERSITY
Religion scholar Diana Eck writes in her recent book, "A New Religious America," that a continuing influx of religions from across the globe
is changing the face of American society, though few are paying attention.
Eck points out that the 1960s Immigration Act opened our borders to new numbers of Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Muslims and other religious
"Right now, people are quite open," said the Rev. Matt Russell of Orangeburg, who practices a form of Earth-based paganism known as Wicca.
For Russell and his fellow believers, high holy holidays include such nature changes as the summer solstice and a new moon.
Since Sept. 11, of course, Muslims have been closely scrutinized.
"There's been a spirit to know more about Islam," said Imam Omar Shaheed of Columbia. "That's been more positive than negative. Christians,
Jews, Muslims - we should know each other. Overall, there have been less problems in South Carolina than in other states."
Shaheed points out that Muslims, who he said first arrived in South Carolina on slave ships, have been more proactive here than in other
states. He credits the people of South Carolina, who, "despite the image that's projected, have been exposed, traveled," and are receptive to
those of different faiths.
He also credits the efforts of a Columbia group called Partners in Dialogue, an interfaith alliance of about 10 religions that meets to
foster understanding among faiths, and to diffuse differences.
"The principle of religious freedom is something that has to be worked on," said Carl Evans, USC religious studies department chairman and
founding director of Partners in Dialogue.
"We have not been accustomed in this country to hearing the voices of new religions. Especially in the Bible Belt, there have been some
strident voices of exclusion."
But as voices of respect and appreciation for different religions are heard more frequently, Evans said, people in the pews give more
thought to how their religion relates to others'.
"That's what it means to be American," he said. "To incorporate the many into the life of the one. How we do that is the challenge. And each
generation has to find how to achieve that goal. We constantly work on it."
Reach Burris at (803) 771-8389 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
"Baha'is deeply appreciate the freedom of religion offered by the U.S. In fact, there are Baha'is in Columbia who have come to the U.S.
after fleeing persecution - purely on the basis of their religion - in Iran. A central principle of our faith is the responsibility for each
soul to investigate and understand truth for him or herself. Along with this ‘.‘.‘. comes the responsibility for us to
permit, even encourage, others to do so also."
- Nancy Songer, member of Columbia's Baha'i community
"Our church reaches out especially to members of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community and their supporters, and there hasn't
always been a large outreach to that community in South Carolina. But one thing we've found is that our churches have prospered wherever we are
because we live in a country with religious freedom. People might not always understand gay people, but they understand the concept of
religious freedom. We can make use of our freedom to worship together to strengthen our community, and we can draw strength from each
- The Rev. Andy Sidden, pastor, Metropolitan Community Church of Columbia
"I really enjoy the variety of religious expression in South Carolina. I've become involved with Partners in Dialogue (an interfaith
discussion group in Columbia), and that's given me a perspective into just how diverse a religious community we have. ‘.‘.‘.
I've never felt my religious rights were being overlooked in this state, but I do feel from time to time the majority faiths are given more
encouragement. Faith-based initiatives here have been mostly oriented toward Christian faiths; events are often planned on the Jewish Sabbath,
(which) makes it difficult for us to participate. And faith-based organizations sometimes interfere in the public sphere where they shouldn't
be. It's easy to overlook faiths that aren't heavily represented in the population."
- Rabbi Sanford Marcus, Tree of Life Congregation, Columbia
"We've got a diverse population, with five Buddhist groups alone here in Columbia, and even though the faith is unfamiliar to a lot of
people, community response has been very positive. A number of people from other faiths have come to our teachings, mainly out of curiosity and
wanting to learn more, and you wouldn't see that if people were fearful of Buddhism or had a negative feeling toward it. There's also a growing
interfaith discussion going on in Columbia."
- Frank Heflin, Buddhist, S.C. Dharma Center
"I have never felt in any way, shape or form that there was anything prohibiting me from practicing my religion. I've participated in
Jewish-Muslim and Muslim-Christian interfaith discussions, and it's very encouraging how we've been able to talk to each other. Once you start
talking to people, you realize you're not that different. Prejudice is nothing but fear of the unknown."
- Zara Rabnawaz, Muslim, resident of Columbia for 25 years
"There's a growing interest here in learning about other religions, and I'm hoping a willingness to listen to people from other faiths. As
Christians, we can't begin to hope to persuade others to learn about our faith without being willing to learn about theirs."
- The Rev. Nancy Emerson, associate pastor, Lake Murray Presbyterian Church
- Compiled by Christina Lee Knauss
By the numbers
Many religious groups are present in South Carolina. Estimates are from representatives of each:
Southern Baptists: 730,000
Baptist Education and Missionary Convention: 450,000
African Methodist Episcopal (AME): 276,512
United Methodist: 242,164
Roman Catholic: 130,000
OTHER RELIGIOUS AFFILIATIONS
Buddhist: Several hundred
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon): 25,000
Christian Scientist: 12 congregations statewide; no numbers available.
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA): 61,694
Hindu: 500 families statewide; about 2,000 people
Jehovah's Witness: Several thousand statewide
Jewish: 10,000, with more than 5,000 in Charleston
Pagan: (including Wiccans, practitioners of other earth-based religions): 5,000 (includes members of organized groups as well as solitary
Presbyterian Church in America (PCA): 25,000
Presbyterian Church USA: 80,403
Associated Reformed Presbyterian: 12,458
Quaker (Society of Friends): 100 to 200 statewide
Sikhs: 75 to 100 families statewide
Unitarian Universalist: 12 congregations statewide; no numbers available.
- Compiled by Christina Lee Knauss
©Copyright 2003, The State (SC, USA)
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