Divining America 17th & 18th Centuries 19th Century 20th Century 17th & 18th Century Essays Native American Religion in Early America Deism & the Founding of the US Puritanism & Predestination The Legacy of Puritanism Witchcraft in Salem Village The First Great Awakening Religious Pluralism in the Middle Colonies Church and State in British North America The Church of England in Early America Religion, Women, & the Family Religion & the American Revolution Divining America is made possible by grants from the Lilly Endowment and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
At the same time, many Americans who cleaved to Christian orthodoxy—especially those who dissented from former or current religious establishments—were determined to ensure that no denomination would enjoy the unfair advantage of government support.
Both groups supported the separation of church and state, with Virginia’s bill for religious freedom providing the model.
In their view, civil governments should not only tolerate all forms of religious belief—neither penalizing nor encouraging any particular faith—but also uphold the principle, as Jefferson’s bill declared, “Our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions, any more than our opinions in physics or geometry.” Specifically, candidates for public office should not be judged based on whether they “profess or renounce this or that religious opinion.” But rougher sledding lay ahead for making their ideals of religious freedom those, which would guide an entire nation.
The first challenge loomed with the meeting of the Constitutional Convention at Philadelphia in the spring of 1787.
At that time, nearly all state constitutions required office-holders to swear to their belief in either the divine inspiration of the Old and New Testaments or the truth of Protestant Christianity, and one-third of the states still levied taxes to support Christian churches.
Yet the delegates at Philadelphia wished to avoid protracted controversy over religious matters—which, in any case, most believed should be left to the states—and hoped to reach consensus on the Constitution as quickly as possible.That omission marked a departure from the founding documents of 1776: the Declaration of Independence invokes the “Creator” in setting forth the basis of human rights and the Articles of Confederation alludes to the “Great Governor of the World.” As the members of the Constitutional Convention expected, the matter of religion proved more contentious in the ratification debates, which followed.Some Anti-Federalist critics of the proposed Constitution warned that abolishing religious tests would allow Jews, Catholics, and Quakers—even “pagans, deists, and Mahometans [Muslims]”—to hold federal office, perhaps even to dominate the new national government.Even for Virginia’s government to sponsor all Christian religions, as Henry proposed, would establish a dangerous precedent, for “Who does not see that the same authority, which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other Religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other Sects?” Jefferson’s (1785) echoes a similar conviction: “The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others.In the end, Madison agreed, and the First Amendment, added to the Constitution in 1791 as one of ten amendments comprising the Bill of Rights, opens with the declaration that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” But (to indulge in a riot of understatement), the adoption of the First Amendment did not settle the matter.While unequivocally affirming liberty of conscience as a fundamental private right, it pronounced ambiguously on the separation of church and state and the relationship between religion and society.Over the course of many decades devoted to public service (including a combined 16 years in the presidency), these two men would decisively shape the relationship between church and state in the new American republic.Their earliest collaboration followed the framing of Virginia’s state constitution in 1776, which exempted dissenters like the Baptists from paying taxes to support the Anglican clergy.So the Convention spent little time debating the proposed Constitution’s two brief provisions regarding religion, one (in deference to the Quakers) allowing those assuming federal posts to “affirm” rather than to swear an oath of office, the other barring religious tests for those officeholders.More surprisingly, none of the delegates objected that the proposed Constitution did not refer to God.