Religious Tolerance and its Limits in Early America
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This article posits that religious toleration in early America was rooted in practical considerations amid the necessities of settlement. The British colonies in North America achieved an unparalleled degree of religious liberty. Even groups that were on the social margins of American life--e.g., Roman Catholics, Jews, African Americans--gained a measure of social recognition and religious toleration because they found a role or served certain necessary functions in a developing society. Native Americans were not similarly treated because they were never able to establish equivalent functional utility. Philosophical advocates of Religious Toleration and Freedom of Conscience--principally Roger Williams and John Locke--envisaged a regime of religious liberty that specifically included America's native peoples. But because religious toleration developed out of necessity rather than out of profound philosophical or ideological commitment, Colonial America did not achieve the standard or religious liberty that Williams and Locke would have applied particularly as this concerned Native Americans. Despite a growing scholarly literature on Native American history and culture, and, in particular, the increasing appreciation of the Native American spiritual legacy, native peoples continue to suffer the consequences of a continuing bias on issues of religious freedom. This bias is rooted in America's earliest historical experience.