Freedom of Religion Episode 2 (concise)

Freedom of Religion in America – Episode 2 (short version)

This is the story of Freedom of Religion in the United States and its subsequent assault and attempt at subjugation by the concept of “Separation of Church and State”

The fundamental right of Religious Freedom and the imposition of the concept of the Separation of Church and State are embroiled in a constant struggle.  The latter concept as it was and is invoked in the conduct of our lives and in our society affairs is a misrepresentation, a lie, that spread throughout the nation before the truth got its boots on, and is now regarded by most as a factual truth. Paradoxically, neither the term, nor the concept of “Separation of Church and State” appears in the U.S. Constitution.  Yet, the overreaching, misguided and zealous invoking of the concept of Separation of Church and State as if it is the law of the land in our Constitution has effectively served to diminish the actual free exercise of religion specifically provided for in our Constitution’s Bill of Rights.

The first tenet in the Bill of Rights as stated in the First Amendment to the Constitution is that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”  (“respecting” may be read as “pertaining to” or “with respect to”) 

Episode 2 –Colonial Unification and Constitutional History Related to Freedom of Religion

As described in Episode 1 neither “freedom of religion” nor “Separation of Church and State” were in evidence in the early history of the 13 Colonies.  As the revolutionary period approached, “state churches” continued to exist in most of the colonies.  Although religious toleration existed in some regions, there was no organized effort to push this principle.  Commonly there were prejudicial actions against those who did not belong to the “state” sponsored church, e.g. membership in the “state church” was required to hold office. Each colony functioned relatively independently, and when the colonies did work together it  usually related to common defense, or an economic issue.  Because earning a living tended to occupy the people, religious toleration was “unofficially” practiced.

After the French and Indian War (1754-1763), the Colonists, who viewed themselves as British subjects, with the “rights” of British subjects, began complaining about taxation, quartering of British soldiers, etc. They considered England was restricting or retracting their rights.  Freedom of religion, however, was not one of the rights about which most Colonists were concerned.  Many were Anglican in the first place, and further they did not previously have a religious freedom “right” under the crown.  Religious freedom was not one of the root issues leading to the revolutionary war.  But several factors eventually drove religious freedom to the forefront of the Bill of Rights.

These factors included: (1) the necessity of the religiously disparate colonies to unite, (2) the common sense that recognized the diversity in Christian sects present among the states and within the total population had to be accommodated, (3) recognition of the incongruity of individual liberty and freedom for all and the dictating of a denomination by a colony, (4) the absence of any religious fervor or agenda among the founding fathers toward pushing for any particular Christian sect (and the “Anglican” denomination would certainly not be put forward in that role because of its ties to England), and (5) the religious freedom resolution which was put into the Virginia Constitution in which James Madison participated.

The 13 original colonies were not all that interested in uniting and giving up their “states rights”, not at the time before the Revolutionary War nor even afterward when the time came to prepare a Constitution and form a stronger central government.  However, it must have been evident to the Colonial leaders that:

  • there was no need for the central government, to establish a “state church”
  • it was not reasonable or realistic to establish a single Christian church denomination
  • such a requirement would have been against the cause of individual freedom.

Further at that time in history, Deism (believe in a Supreme Being but not the Christian Gospel) was common among many, including some founding fathers. Imposing a Christian Church upon the populous would not have been something that they would have personally supported.

Freedom of religion, while not a right given much attention with respect to the Revolutionary War, was a byproduct of winning it.  Anglicans and New England Congregationalists may not have even considered freedom of religion an issue (as they essentially had it all along). But there were likely a great number of Christians who recognized and rejoiced in the fact that there was no longer a “state church” and that freedom of religion would become a reality and an acknowledged fact.  The many Christian denominations in America who had been the receivers of religious intolerance would have been keenly interested in making religious freedom a documented fact in the new country and its constitution.  This interest was likely a major driving force behind the demand for a Bill of Rights.

One major exception to the ambivalence toward documenting religious liberty was in Virginia, which had an established Anglican “state” Church.  Virginia, was alive with the fervor of individual liberties, and one of those liberties that was being abridged was freedom of religion via the imposition of the Anglican Church.  So the Virginia patriots including James Madison, George Mason and Thomas Jefferson, urged the Virginia constitutional convention to pass “a declaration of the free exercise of religion” in their Constitution.   State aid to the Anglican Church was cut off and in 1786 Jefferson’s famous “Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom” passed. It stated “all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion”, and guaranteed Virginians that they would not be compelled to “support any religious worship place or ministry whatsoever”.  It took other states many years to include like language in their state constitutions.

The answer to the question of how and why “freedom of religion” become the first and one of the key rights, named in the Bill of Rights is now becoming a bit clearer.  But it is still three more years before “Freedom of Religion” becomes an integral part of our founding documents.

Most delegates to the Constitutional Convention in 1787 were “States Rights” delegates who came with the idea that the central government should be limited.  Thus, the focus of those preparing the Constitution was, that only the powers and responsibilities delegated to the central Government would be covered in the Constitution, everything else, anything that was not specifically identified, would remain with the states or with the people.  (This intent was later captured and still exists in the 10th amendment to the U.S. Constitution.)

Thus, it is not surprising, in light of the goal of only stating what the central government would do, that there was no consideration and no discussion of a “state church” or in fact anything to do with religion in the Constitution.   Thus, there was no administrative or legislative provision, nor any preference to be given to one church denomination over another by the Federal Government.  The Constitution assigned no powers and responsibilities to the central Government regarding religion.  There was no discussion of the concept or idea of the separation of church and state.  By silence on the matter it was clear that the past practice of a “state church” would not be the future practice. Churches and the Federal Government were viewed as distinct institutions.  But importantly, not as conflicting institutions.  Many of the founding fathers considered, just as the Pilgrims did, that the making of America was divinely inspired and divinely led.  James Madison, known as the father of the Constitution, when commenting on the Constitution, stated:  “We have staked the whole future of American civilization, not upon the power of government, far from it. We have staked the future of all of our political institutions upon the capacity of mankind of self-government; upon the capacity of each and all of us to govern ourselves, to control ourselves, to sustain ourselves according to the Ten Commandments of God.”   John Adams recognized the opportunity of the American Colonies to found a great democracy of the people as a gift from God and said we therefore “better get it right”.

So on September 17, 1787 the U.S. Constitution was sent to the states for ratification and it became the law of the land.  The Constitution did not establish a “State Church” and the Federal Government was granted no powers with respect to “governing” religion.  However, ratification came with requests from several states that specific rights of the people be spelled out.

That brings us to the end of Episode 2.  In Episode 3 we will learn how James Madison’s simply stated first sentence in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”, came to be. That statement, which is the only statement concerning religion or the church within the United States Constitution (as amended), provides the basis of a clear understanding of intent and we will see how that intent was implemented, respected and followed for the next 150 years.

(This version is somewhat abbreviated  – see episode 2 (full) for the complete version)

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