Anti-blasphemy laws have a history in America

    In 2007, George Kalman received notice that he had violated a law against blasphemy. But Kalman wasn’t in Pakistan, Egypt, or any of the other Middle Eastern countries that have burst into violence over an anti-Muslim YouTube video.

    No, Kalman was right here in Pennsylvania. After filling out a form to register his new film company as “I Choose Hell Productions L.L.C.,” the Downingtown resident got a letter informing him that his request was rejected under a state law barring “blasphemy, profane cursing, or swearing” in corporate names.

    At the time, just five other states still had anti-blasphemy laws on the books. But such measures were ubiquitous across America for three centuries, from the founding of the colonies into the mid-20th century. As we try to understand the current anger and mayhem in the Middle East, then, we might pause to examine our own history of religious intolerance.

    It starts, like so much else, with the Puritans. Although we still tell our kids that the Puritans came to the New World to find “freedom,” their laws tell another story. In 1636, for instance, the Massachusetts Bay Colony made blasphemy – defined as “a cursing of God by atheism, or the like” – punishable by death.

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    So did the colony of Maryland, in its famous 1649 “Act of Toleration.” We remember that law as granting rights to Catholics, forgetting that it omitted Jews; indeed, the measure made it a capital crime to deny Jesus Christ as the son of God. It also specified death at the stake as the penalty for blasphemy, defined as “acursing or wicked speaking of God.”

    A Christian people

    With the founding of the United States, the federal government and most states guaranteed religious liberty. But many states extended or even sharpened their anti-blasphemy laws on the curious grounds that America remained “Christian.”

    In 1811, for example, New York’s highest court upheld the conviction of a man who had publicly declared that “Jesus Christ was a bastard, and his mother must be a whore.” The court found that if the accused had insulted Islam or Buddhism, which the chief judge dismissed as “superstitions,” his speech would have been protected. But “we are a Christian people,” the judge continued, “and the morality of the country is deeply engrafted upon Christianity, and not upon the doctrines or worship of those imposters.”

    Even Pennsylvania got in on the act. Founded by the Quaker dissident William Penn, who had himself served eight months in the Tower of London on a blasphemy charge, the colony began as a beacon of religious tolerance. But after independence, the state’s supreme court upheld an 1824 blasphemy conviction of a man who called the Bible “a mere fable.”

    In another context, the court allowed, the accused’s words might have been legal. But “when spoken in a Christian land, and to a Christian audience,” they were “an insult … directly tending to disturb the peace.”

    Singular truth

    Listen closely to the court’s words and you can hear echoes of anti-blasphemy campaigns in the contemporary Middle East and even in the United Nations, where several countries are demanding international bans on blasphemy. To be sure, these countries insist that they oppose insults against all religions, not just Islam. But across the Muslim world, vicious denunciations of Christians, Baha’is, and Jews have gone mostly unpunished.

    This is a movement to defend Islam, plain and simple, just as America’s forefathers tried to protect Christianity. The rationale was the same, too: American Christians had a deep and passionate attachment to their idea of a singular truth, and they couldn’t abide its violation without losing their sense of themselves.

    But anti-blasphemy laws were wrong then, just as they’re wrong now. In 1825, in one of his last letters to his fellow ex-president Thomas Jefferson, John Adams called such measures “great obstructions to the improvement of the human mind.” How could the country promote “free inquiry,” Adams asked, if citizens “encounter the risk of fine or imprisonment” for speaking their minds?

    That brings us back to George Kalman, who was eventually allowed to keep his film company’s name. In striking down Pennsylvania’s blasphemy law in 2010, a federal judge noted that the measure let state officials bar certain words “based on nothing but their own religious beliefs.”

    That’s what Middle Eastern protesters are trying to do, too, while Americans look on in horror. But we did the same thing, and for longer than we like to admit. Even as we condemn the protesters for their ignorance and intolerance, we should also confess the sins of our own past. That’s the only route to a better future for all of us.

    Historian Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history at New York University and lives in Narberth, PA. He is the author of “Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory” (Yale University Press)

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