As we saw in my last post, Christian Nationalism substantially distorts the biblical heritage from which it supposedly draws its inspiration. In this post, we will see how it similarly distorts the very American values it is supposed to champion.
Religious Freedom During the Colonial Period
Anyone with even a casual acquaintance with American history knows that many of the American colonies that eventually became the first states were founded by groups seeking to escape religious persecution. Some, though not specifically founded as religious havens, nonetheless realized that offering a certain amount of religious freedom would encourage settlement and development.
However, the modern concept of religious liberty was still a work in progress. In those days, religious toleration was often toleration in the most narrow sense–the religious majority reluctantly put up with people of different views. And some colonies, such as Massachusetts Bay, were more than happy to expel people who weren’t willing to conform to the Puritan religious establishment. It’s not hard to find quotations from leaders in that time enthusiastically advocating a theocratic society (based on their own religion, naturally).
Most of the American colonies had a religious establishment of some kind. The Southern colonies normally established the Anglican Church (the American branch of which became the Episcopalian Church after the Revolution). In contrast, the New England colonies generally established Puritanism (which later evolved into Congregationalism). Since Anglicans and Puritans held opposing views in some areas, it’s a good thing there was no effort to create a church establishment that involved all the colonies, Likely, such a thing could not have been accomplished peacefully.
Yes, at that point, religious liberty was a novel concept that all too often was defined as freedom for one’s own religion. (In other words, it wasn’t right to be persecuted, but it was perfectly fine to persecute others.) It’s important to realize, however, that even in those early days, there were many voices raised in favor of a more fair and balanced concept of religious liberty.
One of the most outspoken advocates for religious freedom was Roger Williams. Exiled from Massachusetts Bay for his tolerant views, Williams eventually founded Providence, where the Providence Agreement of 1637 became the first legal protection for religious freedom in America. Williams subsequently engineered the union of Providence with neighboring towns that became the basis for Rhode Island.
In response to his detractors, Williams wrote a letter to Providence in 1655 explaining and defending his inclusiveness:
“That ever I should speak or write a tittle, that tends to such an infinite liberty of conscience, is a mistake, and which I have ever disclaimed and abhorred. To prevent such mistakes, I shall at present only propose this case: There goes many a ship to sea, with many hundred souls in one ship, whose weal and woe is common, and is a true picture of a commonwealth, or a human combination or society. It hath fallen out sometimes, that both papists [Catholics] and protestants, Jews and Turks [Muslims], may be embarked in one ship; upon which supposal I affirm, that all the liberty of conscience, that ever I pleaded for, turns upon these two hinges–that none of the papists, protestants, Jews, or Turks, be forced to come to the ship’s prayers of worship, nor compelled from their own particular prayers or worship, if they practice any. I further add, that I never denied, that notwithstanding this liberty, the commander of this ship ought to command the ship’s course, yea, and also command that justice, peace and sobriety, be kept and practiced, both among the seamen and all the passengers. If any of the seamen refuse to perform their services, or passengers to pay their freight; if any refuse to help, in person or purse, towards the common charges or defence; if any refuse to obey the common laws and orders of the ship, concerning their common peace or preservation; if any shall mutiny and rise up against their commanders and officers; if any should preach or write that there ought to be no commanders or officers, because all are equal in Christ, therefore no masters nor officers, no laws nor orders, nor corrections nor punishments;–I say, I never denied, but in such cases, whatever is pretended, the commander or commanders may judge, resist, compel and punish such transgressors, according to their deserts and merits. This if seriously and honestly minded, may, if it so please the Father of lights, let in some light to such as willingly shut not their eyes.
I remain studious of your common peace and liberty.”
Williams didn’t have the same political vocabulary that we do, but he clearly advocated something like church-state separation in this letter, echoing the earlier Providence Agreement. He insisted that society can appoint leaders and enforce laws–but not in matters related to religion.
His statement is noteworthy for its inclusiveness. Some other thinkers were willing to extend toleration to all Protestant Christians. Others were willing to go as far as extending toleration to Catholics as well, though that was less common. Far fewer were willing to extend toleration to members of non-Christian religions. Williams probably didn’t know much about Eastern religions, but he clearly included the non-Christian traditions he had heard of–Judaism and Islam–as religions equally entitled to protection from state interference.
It’s not that Williams didn’t have strong religious beliefs of his own. He was a committed Christian, an early member of the Baptist Church. He was every bit as much of a fan of Calvinism as were the New England Puritans. And one of his works, George Fox Digged out of his Burrowes, is a criticism of Quaker beliefs, some of which Williams considered heretical.
Williams was eager to debate those with opposing views. But he was unwilling to persecute them for those views, even if they wouldn’t give them up. Why did he feel that way? He explains his rationale in The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution in 1644. A few key statements from the first part are reproduced below:
“First, that the blood of so many hundred thousand souls of Protestants and Papists, spilt in the wars of present and former ages, for their respective consciences, is not required nor accepted by Jesus Christ the Prince of Peace….Eighthly, God requireth not a uniformity of religion to be enacted and enforced in any civil state; which enforced uniformity (sooner or later) is the greatest occasion of civil war, ravishing of conscience, persecution of Christ Jesus in his servants, and of the hypocrisy and destruction of millions of souls.”
In other words, Williams sees persecution as contrary to Christian principles and ultimately contrary to its own aims. He implies in his eighth statement and makes explicit in other places that coercion never results in sincere conversion. The only sword effective at bringing about conversion is for Williams, “the sword of God’s spirit, the Word of God.” Williams believed that preaching and discussion can bring about sincere conversion, but force never does.
Williams was ahead of his time–but he was not alone. Below I’ve included some quotations from other colonial founders and legislation. They aren’t all as inclusive as Williams is, but they all illustrate a strong feeling in early America that the authority of the state over religion needed to be restricted.
Maryland Act of Toleration (1649)
“…And whereas the enforcing of the conscience in matters of Religion hath frequently fallen out to be of dangerous Consequence in those commonwealths where it hath been practiced, And for the more quiet and peaceable government of this Province, and the better to preserve mutual Love and amity amongst the inhabitants thereof, be it therefore also by the Lord Proprietary with the advice and consent of this Assembly ordained and enacted (except as in this present Act is before declared and set forth) that no person or persons whatsoever within this Province, or the Islands, ports, harbors, creeks, or havens thereunto belonging professing to believe in Jesus Christ, shall from henceforth be any ways troubled, molested or discountenanced for or in respect of his or her religion nor in the free exercise thereof within this Province or the islands thereunto belonging nor any way compelled to the belief or exercise of any other religion against his or her consent, so as they be not unfaithful to the Lord Proprietary, or molest or conspire against the civil government established or to be established in this Province under him or his heirs. And that all and every person and persons that shall presume contrary to this Act and the true intent and meaning thereof directly or indirectly either in person or estate willfully to wrong, disturb, trouble, or molest any person whatsoever within this Province professing to believe in Jesus Christ for or in respect of his or her religion or the free exercise thereof within this Province other than is provided for in this Act that such person or persons so offending, shall be compelled to pay treble damages to the party so wronged or molested, and for every such offence shall also forfeit 20s sterling in money or the value thereof, half thereof for the use of the Lord Proprietary, and his heirs Lords and Proprietaries of this Province, and the other half for the use of the party so wronged or molested as aforesaid….”
The vision here is clearly not as expansive as that of Williams, since, as earlier sections make clear, toleration is only extended to Christians who believe in the Trinity, and free exercise of religion doesn’t include certain acts of public “blasphemy.” That said, Maryland was one of the first places outside of Rhode Island where Catholics were welcome, and initially, the colony functioned as a haven for them.
Charter or Fundamental Laws of West New Jersey (1676)
“…no men, nor number of men upon earth, hath power or authority to rule over men’s consciences in religious matters, therefore it is consented, agreed and ordained, that no person or persons whatsoever within the said Province, at any time or times hereafter, shall be any ways upon any presence whatsoever, called in question, or in the least punished or hurt, either in person, estate, or privilege, for the sake of his opinion, judgment, faith or worship towards God in matters of religion. But that all and every such person, and persons may from time to time, and at all times, freely and fully have, and enjoy his and their judgments, and the exercises of their consciences in matters of religious worship throughout all the said Province.”
William Penn, “An Act for Freedom of Conscience” (Pennsylvania, 1682)
“Almighty God, being only Lord of conscience, father of lights and spirits, and the author as well as object of all divine knowledge, faith, and worship, who can only enlighten the mind and persuade and convince the understandings of people, in due reverence to his sovereignty over the souls of mankind:
Be it enacted, by the authority aforesaid, that no person now or at any time hereafter living in this province, who shall confess and acknowledge one almighty God to be the creator, upholder, and ruler of the world, and who professes him or herself obliged in conscience to live peaceably and quietly under the civil government, shall in any case be molested or prejudiced for his or her conscientious persuasion or practice. Nor shall he or she at any time be compelled to frequent or maintain any religious worship, place, or ministry whatever contrary to his or her mind, but shall freely and fully enjoy his, or her, Christian liberty in that respect, without any interruption or reflection. And if any person shall abuse or deride any other for his or her different persuasion and practice in matters of religion, such person shall be looked upon as a disturber of the peace and be punished accordingly.”
Pennsylvania doesn’t go as far as Williams did, either, but it extended protection to all Christians and became a particular haven for Quakers.
Georgia Charter (1732)
“And for the greater ease and encouragement of our loving subjects and such others as shall come to inhabit in our said colony, we do by these presents, for us, our heirs and successors, grant, establish and ordain, that forever hereafter, there shall be a liberty of conscience allowed in the worship of God, to all persons inhabiting, or which shall inhabit or be resident within our said provinces and that all such persons, except papists, shall have a free exercise of their religion, so they be contented with the quiet and peaceable enjoyment of the same, not giving offence or scandal to the government.”
Although Georgia specifically excluded Catholics, it didn’t make a similar specification against Jewish people. This enabled founder James Oglethorpe to defy his fellow Georgia trustees and permit Jewish settlement and land ownership in the colony.
Religious Freedom in the Revolutionary and Post-Revolutionary Periods
As a result of the Great Awakening and the arrival of diverse immigrants, religious diversity increased in the period leading up to the Revolution. As we’ve seen, Rhode Island had already become a haven for people of all religious persuasions. New Jersey and Pennsylvania had already become havens for Quakers, and Maryland was intended to be one for Catholics. The Great Awakening gave additional impetus to various Protestant groups, including Baptists, Presbyterians, and Methodists. Jewish and Muslim immigrants became a small but growing part of the population. (You can find more details here.)
As the Revolution neared, it is probable (according to History.com) that no one denomination could claim more than one-fifth of the population. Anglicanism, probably the largest group initially, was hard hit by the growth of anti-British sentiment. (It was tough to advocate revolution against the British while attending a church of which the king of England was the nominal head.) And potential revolutionaries would also appreciate the utility of giving their ideology the broadest possible appeal, a difficult task if the movement became too closely affiliated with any one denomination.
The Declaration of Independence and Other Works by Jefferson
To return for just a moment to Ryan Walters, whom you may recall from the previous post, it’s obvious that he makes a great deal out of the religious language in the Declaration of Independence. And yes, the Declaration does include statements such as, “the laws of nature and of nature’s God,” and “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” It also refers to God as “Supreme Judge,” near the end.
Christian Nationalists would argue these statements are evidence of the Christian origins of the document. Indeed, all the delegates involved in the process were at least nominal Christians. And the document is undoubtedly theistic in nature. But, though it invokes God, it doesn’t refer specifically to Christianity or even Judaism. Someone from another monotheistic religion, such as Islam, could readily agree with the role that God is assigned in the Declaration. It certainly doesn’t refer to Jesus, the trinity, or other specifically Christian beliefs. And it is odd that nature’s laws are mentioned before nature’s God.
Jefferson was the primary author of the document, though some revisions were made in committee and on the floor prior to the ratification vote in the Continental Congress. Though Jefferson was a nominal Episcopalian (in other words, a member of the established church in his native Virginia), his private beliefs would horrify today’s Christian Nationalists. He was a Deist, one who saw God as a creator but had doubts about the extent to which He actively intervened subsequently. Like other Deists, Jefferson also questioned the inspired nature of the Bible, divine revelation, and miracles, among other things.
In this respect, his private correspondence is a more accurate gauge of his beliefs than the general references to God in public documents he wrote. For example, here is part of what he wrote to William Short in 1813:
“but the greatest of all the Reformers of the depraved religion of his own country, was Jesus of Nazareth. abstracting what is really his from the rubbish in which it is buried, easily distinguished by it’s lustre from the dross of his biographers, and as separable from that as the diamond from the dung hill, we have the outlines of a system of the most sublime morality which has ever fallen from the lips of man: outlines which it is lamentable he did not live to fill up. Epictetus & Epicurus give us laws for governing ourselves, Jesus a supplement of the duties & charities we owe to others. the establishment of the innocent and genuine character of this benevolent Moralist, and the rescuing it from the imputation of imposture, which has resulted from artificial systems, invented by Ultra-Christian sects, unauthorised by a single word ever uttered by him is a most desirable object, and one to which Priestly has succesfully devoted his labors and learning. it would in time, it is to be hoped, effect a quiet euthanasia of the heresies of bigotry and fanaticism which have so long triumphed over human reason, and so generally & deeply afflicted mankind. but this work is to be begun by winnowing the grain from the chaff of the historians of his life.”
I doubt most Christian Nationalists would be comfortable with placing Jesus in a sequence that includes Epicetus and Epicurus rather than the Old Testament prophets. They would probably also be concerned over Jefferson’s preoccupation with reason triumphing over “the heresies of bigotry and fanaticism.”
But it’s Jefferson’s comments on the sources for Jesus’s life that most clearly define Jesus’s differences from conservative Christian thinking. It’s clear he sees many contemporary church doctrines as being contrary to the teachings of Jesus. It’s also clear that the “historians of his life,” from which Jefferson wants to winnow the wheat from the chaff include the gospel writers, those “biographers” whose dross has to be distinguished from the “lustre” of the authentic teachings of Jesus.
If you doubt that last statement, consider Jefferson’s Bible, a heavily edited version of the gospels that Jefferson prepared for his own use from 1804 to 1820. As History.com describes it,
“This Bible was focused only on Jesus, but none of his mystical works. It didn’t include major scenes like the resurrection or ascension to heaven, or miracles like turning water into wine or walking on water. Instead, Jefferson’s Bible focused on Jesus as a man of morals, a teacher whose truths were expressed without the help of miracles or the supernatural powers of God.”
In other words, Jefferson believed Jesus’s morality was an excellent guide, as he also says in the letter to Short. But he doubted or outright disbelieved much of what the gospel writers said of Jesus’s life. This attitude is not atypical among Deists, but it’s probably not what Christian Nationalists are thinking of when they insist that the nation was founded on Christian principles.
Consider also Virginia’s Statute for Religious Freedom, drafted in 1779, mostly by Jefferson. It begins,
“Well aware that the opinions and belief of men depend not on their own will, but follow involuntarily the evidence proposed to their minds; that Almighty God hath created the mind free, and manifested his supreme will that free it shall remain by making it altogether insusceptible of restraint; that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments, or burthens, or by civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and are a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, who being lord both of body and mind, yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as was in his Almighty power to do, but to extend it by its influence on reason alone; that the impious presumption of legislators and rulers, civil as well as ecclesiastical, who, being themselves but fallible and uninspired men, have assumed dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible, and as such endeavoring to impose them on others, hath established and maintained false religions over the greatest part of the world and through all time: That to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors, is sinful and tyrannical; that even the forcing him to support this or that teacher of his own religious persuasion, is depriving him of the comfortable liberty of giving his contributions to the particular pastor whose morals he would make his pattern, and whose powers he feels most persuasive to righteousness…”
It’s hard to miss the similarity to the position of Roger Williams, though with a few new twists. For example, note the emphasis on reason. Jefferson doesn’t share the full scope of his Deism, which he considered private and which would have been irrelevant to his purpose here. But, just as in the Declaration, statements about religion are theistic, not specifically Christian.
It’s also hard to miss the point of the act’s ending:
“We the General Assembly of Virginia do enact that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer, on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.
And though we well know that this Assembly, elected by the people for the ordinary purposes of legislation only, have no power to restrain the acts of succeeding Assemblies, constituted with powers equal to our own, and that therefore to declare this act irrevocable would be of no effect in law; yet we are free to declare, and do declare, that the rights hereby asserted are of the natural rights of mankind, and that if any act shall be hereafter passed to repeal the present or to narrow its operation, such act will be an infringement of natural right.”
Again, the scope is as sweeping as that of Roger Williams and is an utter rejection of any kind of religious establishment. Interestingly, this time Jefferson refers to “natural rights” without the Declaration’s reference to divine endowment.
As with the biblical passages, Christian Nationalists argue from the text without really understanding the context.
But is Jefferson typical, or is he just an aberration? There were doubtless many Americans at the time who would have disagreed with his religious sentiments and perhaps almost as many who would have wanted some kind of religious establishment. But it’s amazing how many of America’s leaders at the time agreed with Jefferson, at least as far as establishment was concerned.
Articles of Confederation
Our first constitution (written in 1777 but not ratified until 1781) has only two references to religion. The first one is in Article III:
“The said States hereby severally enter into a firm league of friendship with each other, for their common defense, the security of their liberties, and their mutual and general welfare, binding themselves to assist each other, against all force offered to, or attacks made upon them, or any of them, on account of religion, sovereignty, trade, or any other pretense whatever.”
That doesn’t provide much information, except that the delegates believed that a religiously motivated external attack was a possibility. Keep in mind, though, that those states with religious establishments differed in which denomination that they favored. This article requires Congregationalist Massachusetts and Episcopalian North Carolina to defend each other against religiously motivated attacks regardless of their differing religious traditions.
In the final article, there is a reference to the “Great Governor of the World.” As with the Declaration and the Virginia legislation discussed above, the statement is theistic, not specifically Christian.
John Dickinson, one of the principal drafters of the Articles, had a Quaker background and would have said more about religion if he had been given the opportunity. This article reports his attempt in an early draft.
“No person in any Colony living peaceably under the Civil Government, shall be molested or prejudiced in his or her person or Estate for his or her religious persuasion, Profession or practice, nor be compelled to frequent or maintain or contribute to maintain any religious Worship, Place of Worship, or Ministry, contrary to his or her Mind by any Law or ordinance hereafter to be made in any Colony different from the usual Laws & Customs subsisting at the Commencement of this War provided, that such person frequents regularly some Place of religious Worship on the Sabbath . . . ”
This is not quite the sweeping approach of Williams or Jefferson in that its protection is limited to those who regularly attend “some place of religious worship,” though it is noteworthy that the language doesn’t specify a church. The protection would thus extend to active participants in any religion.
While the proposed language doesn’t eliminate existing religious establishments–which Dickinson doubtless knew might be a barrier to ratification–it does preclude those establishments from becoming more restrictive. It also precludes the creation of new establishments except those that conform to the standard of religious liberty established above–in other words, a verbal endorsement of a particular religion with no regulatory force or taxation behind it.
Another person worthy of mention in this context is Benjamin Franklin. Among many other contributions, he was the first to suggest a confederation among the colonies (and later, the states), though his 1775 proposal was initially rejected. Franklin was, like Jefferson, a Deist, though his approach was somewhat different.
In Franklin’s Autobiography XI, he discusses his plan for attaining moral perfection. Interestingly, he proposes a system of hard work on one virtue at a time, supported by reflection and some rather retentive record keeping. It goes without saying that this isn’t a particularly biblical approach. Indeed, the list of thirteen virtues he sets up for himself, while it sometimes overlaps with biblical morality, cites no biblical support and doesn’t even invoke God. The closest he comes to a religious reference is with the thirteenth virtue, humility, which he describes as an effort to “Imitate Jesus and Socrates.”
The implication is clear–Franklin, like Jefferson, sees Jesus as a good moral example but also finds examples of good morality outside the Christian tradition. That, plus his non-biblical approach, places him firmly outside the Christian mainstream of his day–and that of Christian Nationalists today.
Elsewhere in the Autobiography, Franklin writes,
“My parents had early given me religious impressions, and brought me through my childhood piously in the Dissenting way. [His upbringing was Presbyterian.] But I was scarce fifteen, when, after doubting by turns of several points, as I found them disputed in the different books I read, I began to doubt of Revelation itself. Some books against Deism fell into my hands; they were said to be the substance of sermons preached at Boyle’s Lectures. It happened that they wrought an effect on me quite contrary to what was intended by them; for the arguments of the Deists, which were quoted to be refuted, appeared to me much stronger than the refutations; in short, I soon became a thorough Deist.”
As statements go, you couldn’t find a much clearer one than that. Franklin wasn’t a Christian in any way that modern Christian Nationalists would acknowledge. Yet, like Jefferson, he was one of the most influential figures of his day.
Franklin did advocate respect for religion–for all religions. Also from the Autobiography:
“This respect to all, with an opinion that the worst had some good effects, induc’d me to avoid all discourse that might tend to lessen the good opinion another might have of his own religion; and as our province increas’d in people, and new places of worship were continually wanted, and generally erected by voluntary contribution, my mite for such purpose, whatever might be the sect, was never refused.”
Far from being an advocate for defining America as a Christian nation, Franklin was a proponent of respecting the religious diversity that he saw all around him. Note that he specifically does not restrict that respect to Christian denominations. In fact, he contributed to the support of a Philadelphia synagogue (as did other prominent citizens, including a future Pennsylvania governor–see here for more information).
The Constitution and Bill of Rights
We are fortunate to have James Madison’s notes from the Constitutional Convention, so that we can see, not only the final language, but also a little bit about how it evolved.
On August 20, 1788, Charles Pinckney of South Carolina introduced a series of propositions for referral to the Committee of Detail, one of which read, “No religious test or qualification shall ever be annexed to any oath of office under the authority of the U. S.”
Keep in mind that the British government at the time required that all officials, from the monarch on down, be members of the Church of England and swear an oath to that effect. But aside from any philosophical objections, such a provision in America would have been difficult to implement because of the number of different Christian denominations, each with a different set of beliefs. It would have been possible in theory to have established Christianity in general–but that would have opened up debates about what constituted Christianity. Even today, conflicts exist among mainstream Christians over whether or not members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, much persecuted in the past, should be considered Christian. Christian Scientists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Seventh Day Adventists have faced similar conflict. In the past, Unitarians were also subjected to similar debates. Even today, there are some conservative Christians who question whether liberal Christians are Christian enough. As we’ve seen, colonial and revolutionary societies were similarly conflicted over the boundaries of toleration. Did it include Catholics? Quakers? Antinomians like Anne Hutchinson? Having that debate dragged into the Constitutional Convention might conceivably have derailed the whole enterprise. And it’s certainly a debate that no one wants government to be having on an ongoing basis–unless a person is self-serving and thinks that his religion can win.
On August 30, Pinckney moved to add his prohibition of religious tests for officeholding, this time with slightly different wording. This is the only discussion Madison recorded:
“Mr. SHERMAN [Connecticut delegate Roger Sherman] thought it unnecessary, the prevailing liberality being a sufficient security agst. such tests.”
Let’s think about that statement for a minute. Admittedly, there were many divisions in America at that time, some of which concerned religion. But Roger Sherman was sufficiently sure prevailing attitudes would be against religious tests for officeholding that he thought the prohibition unnecessary. Given that there is no recorded objection to his assessment, that would suggest that the delegates to the Constitutional Convention generally agreed with him. That blows a pretty wide hole in the argument that the founders didn’t intend for church and state to be separated.
Two other speakers approved of Pinckney’s proposal, though Madison didn’t indicate what they said. After that, the motion passed unanimously. It’s worth pointing out that very few decisions in the convention were completed unanimous. That’s how Article VI, Clause 3.2 became part of the final text. “…no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”
We know that in 1789, one of the first acts of the first congress was to create a bill of rights, a series of amendments designed to safeguard individual liberties. It was largely authored by James Madison, and as you probably know, its first amendment it reads as follows:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Several minor revisions were made to the original wording (which, among things, had two separate amendments, one dealing with religion, and one dealing with the other freedoms). But as far as we can tell, there were no objections to the concept.
As you know, amendments require a two-thirds majority of both houses of Congress and a three-fourths majority of the states to be ratified. The first amendment had no problem meeting these high standards. That’s not to say that there was unanimity about how to handle religious diversity. But there weren’t a lot of people in America who wanted the federal government to legislate on religious questions.
Of course, that states remained free to address those questions; the original Bill of Rights only restricted the power of the federal government. However, states gradually dropped their own religious establishments, with Massachusetts being the last state to do so in 1833. If anything, this suggests that the sentiment against government interference in religion had gotten stronger over the years.
In 1868, the writers of the Fourteenth Amendment intended to extend the prohibitions in the Bill of Rights to state governments. According to the National Archives, “Congressman John A. Bingham of Ohio, the primary author of the first section of the 14th Amendment, intended that the amendment also nationalize the Bill of Rights by making it binding upon the states. When introducing the amendment, Senator Jacob Howard of Michigan specifically stated that the privileges and immunities clause would extend to the states “the personal rights guaranteed and secured by the first eight amendments.”
No one in Congress objected to this reasoning, though like so many other things in the Reconstruction Amendments, it took the courts a while to catch up. It was not until 1947 that the Supreme Court ruled in Everson v. Board of Education that the establishment clause in the First Amendment applied to the states. Though questions remain about exactly how much the establishment clause prohibits, in general, the thrust of American history until relatively recent times has been toward separation of church and state.
George Washington presided over the Constitutional Convention and sometimes participated in the debates. He raised no objection to barring religious tests for officeholding. Nor did he object to the anti-establishment provisions of the First Amendment, adopted early in his first term as first president of the United States.
But we know far more about Washington’s views on religious freedom than just his agreement to such provisions in the Constitution. Unlike Jefferson and Franklin, Washington was no Deist. He was a devout and active member of the Episcopalian Church. But, like Williams, Washington understood the need for freedom of conscience in society. (For a more detailed treatment than the one I will give below, see this article from mountvernon.org, which is also the source of the following quotes.
Washington’s travels during his military service brought him into contact with people of many different religions and opened his eyes to the fact that virtue was not monopolized by any one religion. After the Revolution, when looking for skilled workers for Mount Vernon, Washington wrote in a letter, “If they are good workmen, they may be of Asia, Africa, or Europe. They may be [Muslims], Jews, or Christian of any Sect, or they may be Atheists.”
Of course, it’s one thing to consider hiring people of diverse religions. It’s quite another to allow equal rights to members of all religions. However, Washington’s seventeen surviving letters to members of different religious groups make quite clear that he was a big believer in religious liberty. Below is a representative sample:
To the United Baptist Churches of Virginia, 1789
“If I could have entertained the slightest apprehension that the Constitution framed in the Convention, where I had the honor to preside, might possibly endanger the religious rights of any ecclesiastical Society, certainly I would never have placed my signature to it; and if I could now conceive that the general Government might ever be so administered as to render the liberty of conscience insecure, I beg you will be persuaded that no one would be more zealous than myself to establish effectual barriers against the horrors of spiritual tyranny, and every species of religious persecution—For you, doubtless, remember that I have often expressed my sentiment, that every man, conducting himself as a good citizen, and being accountable to God alone for his religious opinions, ought to be protected in worshipping the Deity according to the dictates of his own conscience.”
To the Society of Quakers, 1789
“Government being, among other purposes, instituted to protect the Persons and Consciences of men from oppression, it certainly is the duty of Rulers, not only to abstain from it themselves, but according to their Stations, to prevent it in others.
The liberty enjoyed by the People of these States, of worshipping Almighty God agreable to their Consciences, is not only among the choicest of their Blessings, but also of their Rights—While men perform their social Duties faithfully, they do all that Society or the State can with propriety demand or expect; and remain responsible only to their Maker for the Religion or modes of faith which they may prefer or profess.”
To Roman Catholics in America, 1789
“As mankind become more liberal they will be more apt to allow, that all those who conduct themselves as worthy members of the Community are equally entitled to the protection of civil Government. I hope ever to see America among the foremost nations in examples of justice and liberality. And I presume that your fellow-citizens will not forget the patriotic part which you took in the accomplishment of their Revolution, and the establishment of their Government: or the important assistance which they received from a nation in which the Roman Catholic faith is professed.”
To the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, 1790
“The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”
Yes, Washington had very strong religious opinions of his, just as Roger Williams had. Also like William, Washington had the wisdom to allow people of different religious views to have the right to practice their various faiths. His denunciations of both bigotry and spiritual tyranny are clear.
It’s harder to pin down Madison’s religious faith than it is Washington’s. In this article, the author makes the point that various biographers describe him as Episcopalian (which was his background), Unitarian, and Deist.
But while his own religious views might be questioned, his devotion to freedom of religion is clear. In his “Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments” of 1785, he writes as follows:
” Because we hold it for a fundamental and undeniable truth, ‘that Religion or the duty which we owe to our Creator and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence.’ [Virginia Declaration of Rights, 1776] The Religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate. This right is in its nature an unalienable right. It is unalienable, because the opinions of men, depending only on the evidence contemplated by their own minds cannot follow the dictates of other men: It is unalienable also, because what is here a right towards men, is a duty towards the Creator. It is the duty of every man to render to the Creator such homage and such only as he believes to be acceptable to him. This duty is precedent, both in order of time and in degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society. Before any man can be considered as a member of Civil Society, he must be considered as a subject of the Governour of the Universe: And if a member of Civil Society, who enters into any subordinate Association, must always do it with a reservation of his duty to the General Authority; much more must every man who becomes a member of any particular Civil Society, do it with a saving of his allegiance to the Universal Sovereign. We maintain therefore that in matters of Religion, no mans right is abridged by the institution of Civil Society and that Religion is wholly exempt from its cognizance. True it is, that no other rule exists, by which any question which may divide a Society, can be ultimately determined, but the will of the majority; but it is also true that the majority may trespass on the rights of the minority.”
Like Williams before him, Madison uses religious reasoning to support his argument against a bill that essentially established Christianity in Virginia by taxing all citizens to help pay ministerial salaries. In his mind, government interfering in religion was a menace to religion, as well as a violation of individual rights. He prevailed in this battle, after which he helped secure the passage of Jefferson’s Statute of Religious Freedom.
Madison is often called the Father of the Constitution because of the large role he played in its drafting. He is similarly called the Father of the Bill of Rights. If one had to pick one person who typified constitutional thinking in the early republic, it would doubtless be James Madison–and Madison was an unqualified proponent of religious freedom.
Nor is his support of religious freedom confined only to the documents we have looked at so far. Here is a selection from other sources. You can find even more here.
To William Bradford, Madison wrote in 1774, “Religious bondage shackles and debilitates the mind and unfits it for every noble enterprize, every expanded prospect.”
In an essay on property in 1792, Madison wrote, “Conscience is the most sacred of all property.”
To Jacob de la Motta, Madison wrote in 1820, “Among the features peculiar to the political system of the United States, is the perfect equality of rights which it secures to every religious sect.”
To Edward Livingston, Madison wrote in 1822, “We are teaching the world the great truth that Governments do better without Kings & Nobles than with them. The merit will be doubled by the other lesson that Religion Flourishes in greater purity, without than with the aid of Government.”
As others had realized even before Madison, government interference with religion does the cause of religion more harm than good.
I could easily fill twenty blog posts of this length with more examples, but I think I’ve invoked enough American icons to give any open-minded person a good sense of the principles on which our country was actually founded.
Doubtless, Ryan Walters and others with similar beliefs are right in thinking that a great many of our founders (thought not all) were ardently religious men who saw divine providence in the development of America. But as these examples make clear, their strong religious beliefs didn’t mean that they wanted to use government as a way to promote those religious beliefs. Indeed, many of them realized the danger of such government interference, which could lead to “spiritual tyranny,” as Washington put it. And many of them were also well aware of the damage such interference could do to religion itself.
Of course, the same principle applies to public schools, which are government institutions. They need to be religiously neutral, leaving room for students of all religious convictions to learn and grow without trying to fit them into a particular religious mode. Schools need instead to promote understanding of the diversity of our society rather than trying to artificially limit that understanding.
Christian Nationalism does not well represent the history of the nation it claims to support any better than it represents the Christianity that it claims to follow.
(The featured image was copyrighted by grandbrothers and licensed for editorial use from Shutterstock.)