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
Staff Writer

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 original colonies.

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 say.

"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 district.

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 influence.

"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 Catholics.

"South Carolina was unusually cosmopolitan both in terms of religion and nationality," Rosengarten said.

GENERAL ACCEPTANCE

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 Carolina."

"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 Carolina, though.

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 orders.

"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 rburris@thestate.com.


Quotes

"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 other."

- 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:

TOP FIVE

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

Anglicans: xxxx

Baha'i: 5,000

Buddhist: Several hundred

Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon): 25,000

Christian Scientist: 12 congregations statewide; no numbers available.

Episcopalian: 52,694

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

Muslim: 3,000

Pagan: (including Wiccans, practitioners of other earth-based religions): 5,000 (includes members of organized groups as well as solitary practitioners)

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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