A sound understanding of the United States requires an appreciation of the historical commitment of the American people to certain fundamental liberties. High on the list of these liberties is freedom of religion. The image of brave seventeenth-century English Puritans making the difficult journey across the Atlantic to American shores in pursuit of the freedom to live according to their faith is a powerful part of the American myth. Less remembered, however, is the fact that the commonwealth established by the Puritans was as intolerant as Anglican England, from which they had fled. Indeed, the road to achieving full religious liberty in the United States was long and arduous. By the time of the writing of the United States Constitution in 1787, Americans were committed to the principle of religious tolerance (or, to use the term of the time, “toleration”) and the idea of separation of church and state, but only to a limited degree. It would be another five decades before all states granted broad religious liberty to their citizens and provided for the complete separation of church and state.
Modern ideas about freedom of religion were developed in the wake of the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, which shattered the unity of Christendom and plunged Europe into political and religious conflict. Though some European states remained religiously homogeneous, either retaining the traditional faith of Roman Catholicism or adopting some brand of Protestantism, religious division within many countries led to discord and bloodshed. In England, the church established in the mid-sixteenth century by King Henry VIII (who reigned from 1509 to 1547) faced stiff resistance, first from the many Catholics who refused to abandon the faith of their ancestors, and then from the Puritans who opposed the rule of bishops and wanted to purify the church so that it included only the elect.
Henry VIII’s successors, Elizabeth I (1558–1603) and James I (1603–1625), successfully quelled opposition to the Church of England (the Anglican Church), largely through harsh persecution of dissenters. In 1642, however, England was engulfed by religious civil war, from which the Puritans emerged victorious. The Puritan Commonwealth established by Oliver Cromwell ruthlessly persecuted Anglicans and Catholics. But Puritan rule was short-lived. An Anglican monarch, Charles II, was restored to the throne in 1660. This “settlement” of the religious crisis, however, was threatened by the accession of a Catholic, James II, to the throne in 1685. Anxious Protestants conspired and invited a foreigner, William of Orange, to assume the kingship of England. William invaded England, drove James into exile, assumed the throne, and reestablished the Church of England as the national church.
In this contentious atmosphere some English political thinkers, such as John Locke, began to advocate a policy of religious toleration. Locke’s ideas reflected a key assumption of Enlightenment thought—that religious belief, like political theory, is a matter of opinion, not absolute truth. “The business of laws,” Locke wrote in his Letter on Toleration (1689), “is not to provide for the truth of opinions, but for the safety and security of the commonwealth and of every particular man’s goods and person.” Public security was in no way dependent on a uniformity of religious belief among the citizenry. “If a Jew do not believe the New Testament to be the Word of God,” Locke stated, “he does not thereby alter anything in men’s civil rights.” Rather, intolerance led to “discord and war,” and Locke warned that “no peace and security” could be “preserved amongst men so long as this opinion prevails . . . that religion is to be propagated by force of arms.” Religious belief, in Locke’s view, was a matter of individual choice, a matter for society, not for government.
Locke’s views on religious liberty had a profound influence on American thinking in the next century. Other writings, however, particularly the Bible, had at least as great an impact on American political theory. Indeed, the American experiment in religious toleration began years before the publication of Locke’s treatise, though the early history of Puritan Massachusetts Bay was hardly indicative of the course that toleration would take in America. Established by John Winthrop in 1630, Massachusetts was a repressive place where church and state were one and where religious dissent was ruthlessly stamped out. Dissenters had few options: they could be silent, suffer persecution, or leave the colony. Roger Williams, a freethinking preacher, was forced to choose this last option, leaving Massachusetts in 1636 to establish the colony of Rhode Island.
In Rhode Island, Williams instituted toleration for all people, and his new colony quickly became a refuge for persecuted groups like Quakers and Baptists. Williams’s case for toleration was at least as radical as Locke’s. Basing his arguments on the Bible, Williams insisted that the Jews, Muslims, and atheists were also deserving of religious liberty. The only “sword” to be used in fighting their opinions was scripture itself. Intolerance was an offense to God. “An enforced uniformity of religion throughout a nation or civil state,” Williams wrote in The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution (1644), “denies the principles of Christianity.” Williams argued that forced belief was not only a violation of God’s law but also an unwise policy. “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.”
Two years before the founding of Rhode Island, Cecil Calvert founded the colony of Maryland and proclaimed toleration for all Christians. Calvert himself was a Catholic, but he knew that the viability of his colony depended on luring enough Protestant settlers to make it an economic success. A policy of toleration, he hoped, would serve this purpose. In setting up Pennsylvania in the 1680s, William Penn, a Quaker, followed a similar course, making his colony a haven not only for his fellow coreligionists, but, like Rhode Island, a refuge for people of all religious sects.
Pennsylvania and Rhode Island would preserve uninterrupted their traditions of religious liberty, but in Maryland, freedom of religion would be curtailed for Catholics once Protestants came to power in the last decade of the seventeenth century. Still, the idea that some degree of religious liberty was a healthful policy for government became firmly rooted in America by the eighteenth century. Americans learned from the example of seventeenth-century England that religious persecution was ultimately detrimental to the political, social, and economic welfare of the nation. In America, where the Christian sects were more numerous than in England, the repercussions of religious intolerance would be especially adverse to the nation’s prospects. Americans’ devotion to religious freedom, then, was a product of necessity and experience as well as reason.
The crisis of empire during the 1760s and 1770s served to strengthen the American commitment to religious liberty. It was not only the intrusive economic measures passed by Parliament during these years that alarmed Americans. Patriot leaders also warned of the danger of the Anglican Church’s interference in American religious affairs. There was much talk that the British government would install a bishop in America who would become the instrument of tyranny. This idea that political and religious liberty went hand in hand was reflected in the New York Constitution of 1776, which explicitly connected “civil tyranny” with “spiritual oppression and intolerance.”
Nearly all the state constitutions written during the American independence movement reflected a commitment to some degree of religious liberty. The Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 promised that “no subject shall be hurt, molested, or restrained, in his person, liberty, or estate, for worshipping God in the manner and season most agreeable to the dictates of his own conscience.” The Virginia Declaration of Rights of 1776, authored by George Mason, proclaimed “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.” Mason’s ideas mirrored Locke’s belief that government should not intrude upon the concerns of society.
But many states limited religious liberty to Christians in general, or to Protestants in particular. The North Carolina Constitution of 1776 decreed “That no person, who shall deny the being of God or the truth of the Protestant religion . . . shall be capable of holding any office or place of trust or profit in the civil department within this State.” Similarly, the New Jersey Constitution of the same year declared that “there shall be no establishment of any one religious sect in this Province, in preference to another,” but promised Protestants alone full civil rights. Thanks largely to the efforts of Charles Carroll of Carrollton, a Roman Catholic, Maryland’s Revolutionary Constitution was more liberal in its guarantee of religious liberty to “all persons, professing the Christian religion.”
The Protestant majority in America was indeed particularly concerned about the Catholic minority in its midst. Catholics constituted the largest non-Protestant creed in the country, and it was believed that Catholicism demanded loyalty to the pope above devotion to country. The connection between Catholicism and absolutism was deeply ingrained in the American Protestant mind and was a legacy of the Reformation, which Protestants saw as a period of liberation from the ignorance, superstition, and tyranny of the Roman Catholic Church. During the crisis with England, a wave of religious hysteria swept over American Protestants, who worried that the pope would personally lead the Catholics of Canada in a military assault on American forces. “Much more is to be dreaded from the growth of Popery in America,” patriot leader Samuel Adams asserted in 1768,“than from Stamp-Acts or any other acts destructive of men’s civil rights.” This bigotry caused Roman Catholics to become outspoken proponents of religious toleration and the separation of church and state. In a country dominated by Protestants, this was the only realistic course for them.
All thirteen states at the time of American independence, then, acknowledged to some degree in their constitutions the principle of religious liberty. Most also provided for some degree of separation of church and state. Several states went so far as to prohibit clergymen from holding state office, a restriction in the Georgia Constitution of 1777 that the Reverend John Witherspoon of New Jersey would famously protest. But few states provided for a complete separation of church and state, for it was believed that the government should give some support to religion in general. Though a substantial number of American elites in the late eighteenth century were not church-going Christians, nearly all believed in the God of the Old Testament, and all recognized the practical value of Christianity as a check on antisocial behavior. Many of the state constitutions written in the era of independence, therefore, required that government give some support to Christianity. Though the Massachusetts Constitution guaranteed that “no subordination of any one sect or denomination to another shall ever be established by law,” it also permitted the legislature to levy taxes “for the support and maintenance of public protestant teachers of piety, religion and morality.” Similarly, the Maryland Constitution of 1776 permitted the legislature to “lay a general and equal tax for the support of the Christian religion.”
There were, however, calls for complete religious disestablishment at the state level. In Virginia, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson were two of the most prominent advocates of a strict separation of church and state. Their ideas about religious liberty were clearly influenced by John Locke and fellow Virginian George Mason. In 1785, the Virginia legislature considered a bill that would provide for public funding of Christian instruction. The measure was backed by several prominent statesmen, including Patrick Henry. But James Madison, then a member of the legislature, took the lead in opposing the bill, reminding Virginians that “torrents of blood have been spilt in the old world, by vain attempts of the secular arm, to extinguish Religious discord, by proscribing all difference in Religious opinion.” The bill was defeated, and the following year, Jefferson introduced “A Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom,” which attempted to enshrine in law the idea “that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious Worship place or Ministry whatsoever.” The bill passed with minor changes.
By the time of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, there was a broad consensus regarding the proper relationship between the national government and religion: first, that the government ought not to give support to any religious sect; second, that the government ought not to require a religious test for office; third, that the government ought not to interfere with private religious practice; and fourth, that the government ought not to interfere with the right of the states to do as they wished in regard to religious establishment and religious liberty. These points of consensus were reflected in both the body of the United States Constitution and in the First Amendment, which was ratified in 1791 as part of the Bill of Rights. Article VI of the Constitution explicitly stated that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” The First Amendment declared that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
The right of the states to set their own policy in regard to religion was implicitly acknowledged in Article I of the Constitution, which stipulated that to be eligible to vote in elections for the United States House of Representatives, “the elector in each State shall have the qualifications requisite for electors of the most numerous branch of the State Legislature.” Several states at the time mandated a religious test as a requirement for the franchise, and the Constitution therefore tacitly approved such tests. In addition, the First Amendment’s prohibition against religious establishment applied explicitly to the national Congress alone. Indeed, it was not until after the American Civil War, in the incorporation cases, that the United States Supreme Court ruled that some of the restrictions placed on the federal government by the amendments also applied to the state governments.
By 1800, then, there was a broad consensus among Americans that religious freedom was essential to political liberty and the well-being of the nation. During the next two centuries, the definition of freedom of religion would be broadened, as states abandoned religious tests and achieved complete disestablishment and as state and federal courts ruled that various subtle forms of government encouragement of religion were unconstitutional. Shortly after the dawn of the nineteenth century, in a letter to a Baptist congregation in Danbury, Connecticut, Thomas Jefferson asserted that the First Amendment created “a wall of separation between church and state.” What Jefferson meant by this term is a subject of great debate. But there is no doubt that his words have become part of the American political creed and a rallying cry for those who seek to expand the definition of religious liberty, even to mean that religion should be removed from public life altogether.
Stephen M. Klugewicz, Ph.D.
Bill of Rights Institute
Suggestions for Further Reading
Berns, Walter. The First Amendment and the Future of American Democracy. New York: Basic Books, 1976.
Dreisbach, Daniel. Thomas Jefferson and the Wall of Separation between Church and State. New York: New
York University Press, 2003.
Levy, Leonard W. The Establishment Clause: Religion and the First Amendment. New York: MacMillan, 1989.
Novak, Michael. On Two Wings: Humble Faith and Common Sense at the American Founding. San Francisco:
Encounter Books, 2003.