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Michael Meyerson

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In the Beginning: Religious Freedom in the Country's Founding Moments

Posted: 07/04/2012 8:22 am

Our collective understanding of the framers' view of the appropriate relationship between religion and government has been clouded by the divisive nature of contemporary politics. On one side are those who say history counsels against any governmental acknowledgement of religion. Challenging them are those arguing that the same history endorses governmental assistance and support for a wide range of religious activities.

Fortunately, we are not restricted to such simplistic choices. The framers were capable of sophisticated thinking, and they approached this issue with far more nuance and subtlety than is generally appreciated.

The framers saw religion as both a force for magnificent good and unspeakable evil. John Adams wrote to Thomas Jefferson after both had left the White House, "Twenty times, in the course of my late reading, have I been on the point of breaking out, 'this would be the best of all possible worlds, if there was no religion in it!!!'" But, Adams quickly added, he feared that, "Without religion, this world would be something not fit to be mentioned in polite company -- I mean hell."

Those who founded our nation feared divisiveness, sectarian violence and intolerance, yet they also believed that religion could help unify a diverse nation. The general understanding they developed can be traced to three distinct strands.

The first can be considered a philosophical justification, that government must not invade sanctity of human intellect. For Jefferson, the fight to prevent religious establishments was based on his "eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man."

The second strand might be called a political rationale. George Washington, as head of the Continental Army, realized that great sensitivity to religious differences was essential to avoid, "the smallest uneasiness & jealousy among the Troops." As president, he wrote: "Religious controversies are always productive of more acrimony and irreconcilable hatreds than those which spring from any other cause."

Lastly, many supporters of religious freedom were motivated by religious concerns. A leading exemplar is John Leland, a Baptist minister who was instrumental in James Madison's election to the Virginia Ratifying Convention and one of the most important advocates for amending the Constitution to protect religious freedom. Leland would preach that the biblical admonition "My kingdom is not of this world" meant that "religion, in all its parts, is distinct from civil government." He argued that the "Government should be so fixed, that Pagans, Turks, Jews and Christians, should be equally protected in their rights."

These approaches combined to produce a national consensus. It was widely accepted that American citizens were to have absolute "freedom of conscience." As George Washington wrote during the Revolutionary War, "While we are contending for our own liberty, we should be very cautious not to violate the rights of conscience in others, ever considering that God alone is the judge of the hearts of men, and to him only in this case they are answerable."

Next, the federal government was prohibited from regulating or funding religious activities. In 1811, Madison vetoed a bill granting land to a church which had accidently erected a building on federal property. Madison declared that this grant would violate the Constitution by setting a "precedent for the appropriation of funds of the United States for the use and support of religious societies."

The framing generation also disapproved of governmental speech that favored a particular denomination. John Adams, the only one of the first four presidents to use explicitly Christian language in his speeches, was also the only one who was not reelected. His 1799 thanksgiving proclamation had implored, "through the grace of His Holy Spirit we may be disposed and enabled to yield a more suitable obedience to His righteous requisitions." In a letter written after his retirement, Adams belatedly recognized, "Nothing is more dreaded than the national government meddling with religion."

Yet, this distinction between religion and government was not understood to cleanse all religious references from political speech. As presidents, Madison, Jefferson and Washington all employed sincere religious language in their inaugurals. Madison, for example, gave his pious supplication to "the guardianship and guidance of that Almighty Being whose power regulates the destiny of nations."

To the framers, phrases like "Almighty being," "Creator," "holy author of our religion," and even "Almighty God," were expansive enough to permit each individual to join in the experience of a conscientious communion with the rest of their nation. As Jefferson wrote, such language demonstrates an intent to include, "the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and infidel of every denomination." One is free to disagree, of course, but the framers' goal was to communicate to all, including the Deistic, agnostic, and atheistic, that they were fully valued members of the political community.

The Framers Top Ten: Essential Writings on Religious Freedom

The story of the development of religious freedom in America is not the simple narrative conveyed by contemporary political partisans. There is prejudice as well as acceptance, clarity followed by frustrating ambiguity and moments of courage mixed with political expediency. The following, in chronological order, are 10 of the most important statements from the founding generation concerning religious freedom. They begin with the anti-Catholic prejudice of the Continental Congress and continue through the attempts of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison to create a society that can truly foster true liberty of conscience.

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  • Religious Bigotry from the Continental Congress

    In 1774, Great Britain enacted the Quebec Act, which permitted the Catholics in Quebec to practice their faith freely and authorized the Catholic Church to collect dues from its parishioners. The American colonies' reaction, including a fevered letter of complaint to the people of Great Britain, revealed the extent of anti-Catholic animus that existed at the time. It also shows that whenever the colonial powers discussed "Christianity," they excluded Catholics. As Alexander Hamilton wrote, if the British Parliament had truly, "been friends to the Protestant cause, they would never have provided such a nursery for its great enemy; they would not have given such encouragement to Popery."

  • An Early Mixed Message

    In its most important piece of legislation, the Confederation Congress enacted the Northwest Ordinance, which detailed how the territories west of the existing states would become states themselves. The first part of the sentence ("Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind") places the Congressional imprimatur on the principle that religion is necessary for government. Then the sentence suddenly shifts course and deliberately omits any mention of religion, declaring only that education in the broadest sense is to be encouraged. It can be read as a governmental statement that religion is important for government but is not within the purview of governmental responsibility.

  • Madison's Opposition to a Tax for Supporting Christian Teachers

    In opposing a proposal by Patrick Henry to levy a tax "for the support of Christian teachers," James Madison wrote an anonymous petition that became one of the foundational works in the creation of an American understanding of freedom of religion. Combining theories of religious obligation with personal autonomy, Madison stated, "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."

  • Washington's Epihany

    George Mason, a strong proponent of religious freedom, presented George Washington with a copy of Madison's Memorial and Remonstrance. Washington began this letter by saying that he did not in theory oppose a tax to support religion, as long as those who "declare themselves Jews, Mahomitans or otherwise" could "obtain proper relief." Nonetheless, Washington saw that the attempt to obtain financial support for religion from government threatened political unity and, when he became President, he was insistent that religion foster unity, not division, in the new nation.

  • Prohibiting Governmental Funding for Religion

    After Henry's tax to support Christian teachers was defeated, Madison convinced the Virginia legislature to adopt the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which had been drafted by Thomas Jefferson several years earlier. The law barred the state from either favoring or penalizing religious faiths and declared that people's religious beliefs, "shall in no wise diminish, enlarge or affect their civil capacities."

  • Religion in Presidential Pronouncements

    While most presidents, especially George Washington, were careful only to use non-denominational language, they were also not afraid of using religious language in presidential speeches. Many are unaware that similar language was used in the inaugural addresses of both Thomas Jefferson ("May that infinite power, which rules the destinies of the universe, lead our councils to what is best...") and James Madison ("my confidence will under every difficulty be best placed the guardianship and guidance of that Almighty Being whose power regulates the destiny of nations")

  • Keeping Government in Its Place

    When conservative Congregationalist clergy wrote President Washington to complain that the Constitution lacked any "Explicit acknowledgement of the only true God and Jesus Christ whom he hath sent, inserted some where in the Magna Charta of our country," Washington responded, in this letter, that that religion did not need governmental assistance. Moreover, he subtly chided the ministers that it was their job to "instruct the ignorant, and to reclaim the devious," while the government would pursue the more secular goal of furthering "the progress of morality and science."

  • "To bigotry no sanction"

    During his presidency, Washington often responded to letters from religious organizations and clergy to reinforce his message of the importance of religious inclusiveness and the values of religious faith. This particular letter also emphasized that liberty of conscience was not provided by governmental decree but was a fundamental guarantee for all people: "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."

  • Jefferson's Wall

    In a response to a letter from Connecticut Baptists, who were persecuted because they were not part of the Congregationalist establishment in that state, President Jefferson both expressed sympathy with their plight and created perhaps the most influential metaphor in American history. A different metaphor was used in an 1833 letter by James Madison: "it may not be easy, in every possible case, to trace the line of separation between the rights of religion and the Civil authority with such distinctness as to avoid collisions & doubts on unessential points." Jefferson's solid wall is more apt for governmental aid to the "church," or similar sectarian interests. Madison's slightly more flexible "line" better describes the government discussion of "religion" in general, assuming that "religion" includes all expressions of a connection to a divine power or presence.

  • Conflicted About Thanksgiving

    Sometime after he left the presidency in 1817, James Madison wrote a series of private papers that have become know as his "Detatched Memoranda." In these papers, he explained his opposition to government funding for legislative clergy as well as to official religious proclamations. He acknowledged, however, that he himself had issued four religious proclamations issued during the War of 1812, including one that began by "recommending to all who shall be piously disposed" to unite, "in addressing at one and the same time their vows and adorations to the Great Parent and Sovereign of the Universe."