Jonathan Zimmerman: America's War on Blasphemy

Roundup: Historians' Take

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

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....

comments powered by Disqus