this week's column
09 August, 2012

 

William Penn was a Quaker aristocrat who lived in Great Britain in the late 1600s. During this time, England was torn by religious civil wars fought among the Church of England (a spin off of the Roman Catholic Church), the politically ambitious and religiously severe Puritans, and the tolerant, anti-materialist, pacifist Quakers who had no political ambitions. Penn proposed a mass migration of Quakers to the American colonies and he was given a 120,000 square kilometer land grant, making him the largest non-royal land owner in the world at that time. Today this land grant is better known as the state of Pennsylvania. Many thousands of Quakers left for the new world along with Penn and together they founded the city of Philadelphia.

 

 

North of Penn and the Quakers, there were already many different religious groups chafing against one another. Most of the settlers in Britain's American colonies were religious minorities of one sort or another who had fled religious strife. Each town and city needed to balance the strong feelings of religious majorities with religious minorities.  The latter were often driven out of town. Such events caused problems with property rights and long-term planning.

 

Penn drafted a royal charter in 1682 that gave complete religious freedom to everyone who lived or visited the territory. Within fifty years, many individuals who were tired of religious squabbles in the rest of the colonies moved to Philadelphia, which became the biggest and richest city in British America. Not only was the Declaration of Independence signed in Philadelphia in 1776, the US Constitution written a hundred years after the founding of the city was in many ways based on the Penn Charter.

 

You are probably wondering at this point: what does this have to do with Georgia? In Georgia's history, there were many periods of religious tolerance: David the Builder was famous for his being tolerant; in general, the Ottoman Empire and many Muslim empires were largely religiously tolerant as well. The difference between these tolerances and that of Pennsylvania is that the latter was not the doing of a monarch: the Penn Charter legally ensured this equality.

 

The world today is not so different from the world back then. Near Georgia there are countries where it is illegal to be too religious, to not be religious enough, or to own much property if you aren't of the correct religious persuasion. These laws are usually to benefit whoever is in charge, but they deeply bother the multitudes of people who simply want to live their lives and provide for their families. Happily, Georgia doesn't have problems like this because of its history of religious tolerance.

 

There is a great deal of conversation about this issue, however. In Georgia, there is not complete separation of church and state.  For instance, every year the state gives several million lari of taxpayers' money to the Orthodox Church and to no other. Furthermore, it is not clear which direction religious tolerance is moving in Georgia. Is Georgia becoming more or less tolerant? And  most importantly, what is happening to law in this regard? Recently several other religions were given codified legal status in the country. Opinions change over time so legal protection is what matters most. In America, despite the number of different religions and religious people, religious freedom is legally ensured for all.

 

Orthodox Christianity is so much a part of Georgia's history that it is difficult not to say that Georgia is a Christian country. At the same time religious tolerance has been a big part of Georgia's history. Georgia is moving towards joining the collection of developed capitalist democracies and a part of that requires treating religions the same by law. As history shows, it is also a good way to attract business and investment. I think of Philadelphia every time I pass the Iranian businesses across from the colonnade on Kostava Street.