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.