Monday, February 8, 2010


 By (c) Russ Barnes

In the aftermath of 9/11, sectarian vandals defaced the Southern Maryland Islamic Center in Prince Frederick.  You see, the pendulum still swings in Maryland today between the two extremes -- of tolerance on the one hand and intolerant sectarianism on the other -- very much the way it did in colonial times.

In the months after 9/11, following the best tradition of Maryland, Trinity Church in Historic St. Mary's City reached out and invited the congregation of the Islamic Center to its church functions. And the Islamic Center returned the invitation with graciousness and a meal that was a delicious Middle Eastern feast, accompanied by heartful conversation.


Regarding this oscillation between tolerance and intolerance, my guide, Pete Himmelheber observed, "In colonial Maryland, religious tolerance and intolerance acted like a see-saw." Which is still the case in present day Maryland -- bringing to mind Thomas Jefferson's assertion that "the price of liberty is eternal vigilance."

Because of this "see-saw" of tolerance and intolerance, the religious saga and sites of Southern Maryland are not merely antiquarian. Maryland's saga brings living history right up against current public policy.


For the United States Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), the issues raised by the Southern Maryland experiment in religious freedom are more than just public policy. Finding resolution for those same old issues of colonial Maryland -- still unresolved in so much of the world today is considered essential by the USCIRF to the security of the United States and to peace world-wide.


Tad Stahnke is Policy Director for USCIRF. His commission's job is to identify problem areas around the world where religious rights are being violated. One of the areas Stahnke uses for illustration is the Maluku Islands in the late '90s where Christians and Muslims have perpetrated violence and destruction largely because of the great degree of isolation between the two groups. Stahnke observes that such pockets of intolerance are an immediate and dangerous threat to the world community.

"Religious intolerance results from a mixture of things -- and that mixture differs in different places," explains Stahnke. "But there are common denominators: intolerance and fear propagated by governments for their own gain, ideology unencumbered by practical necessities, ethnic chauvinism and segregation, localized conflicts over land and use of resources."

Stahnke believes that outside political and economic pressure can help eliminate intolerance, but that local leadership always needs to be encouraged. And somehow there need to be factors that make a region with religious strife ripe for change.


Pete Himmelheber explains some of the factors which made the old colony of Maryland ripe for working toward religious tolerance. He simply calls these factors "practical reasons for people to get along." His list is as plain as a Southern Maryland soybean field:

* No established religion to provide favorites.

* Living conditions that allow little choice of who your neighbor will be. In early
Maryland, most arrivals were indentured servants and slaves. Most of these had no
choice as to their master and hence their living arrangements. Freeholders were granted land that was available and so also usually had no choice of neighbors.

* Everyone must be in a position to depend on all the expertise, manufacturing, goods, and labor resources offered in the community regardless of who happens to be offering them. In Maryland, everyone was raising one crop: tobacco. To be successful, one used the only labor, agents, and ship captains available.

* There has to be a perception that there isn't any place else where it would be that much better to go. So then one might least as well try to work it all out right here.

As in Maryland, other colonies were also having their internecine problems.


For all the see-saw precariousness of the religious tolerance experiment in colonial Maryland, with its many pragmatic motivations, there was also a truly spiritual dimension to its on-going provisional success. One might even call it spiritual power.  And that power is felt even now when one is in the presence of the religious sites in the Southern Maryland of today.

You feel. being here, "Something happened. There is a spirit -- maybe hovering ghosts -- who know something.  They are telling us something about what they know. "

Maybe the spiritual dimension one feels in Southern Maryland is best summed up in the words of Sister Doroda, describing her first experience of the Mount Carmel Monastery, Port Tobacco,  when she says, "The first time I walked into this monastery, it was like walking through a nuclear reactor cooler room. You couldn't hear it. You couldn't see it. But you knew there was tremendous energy here."


St. Mary's County Maryland Historical Society,

Calvert County Maryland Visitor Guide,

Charles County Maryland Economic Development & Tourism,
St. Mary's College,

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