Faith in America

Thomas Jefferson didn’t mince words when he gave his view on religious freedom: “It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God,” he once wrote. “It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”

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Thomas Jefferson didn’t mince words when he gave his view on religious freedom: “It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God,” he once wrote. “It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”

Jefferson’s no-skin-off-my-nose attitude is so thoroughly modern that it’s hard to remember just how radical his view was in its day. Despite the fact that America was colonized partly by settlers looking to practice their beliefs without discrimination, the Founders still lived in a world where government-sanctioned and supported religion was the norm, where differences of faith and conscience could lead to seizure of property, bodily harm, and worse. By guaranteeing freedom of worship as a basic Constitutional right for all Americans, Jefferson and the rest of the Framers were attempting something entirely new. Almost miraculous, in fact.

Consider that the Constitution and the Bill of Rights were written and ratified by a group composed exclusively of white, male landowners (many of them slaveowners), most with ties to just one specific religion — more than 50 percent of the Founding Fathers were affiliated with the Episcopal church, according to some historians. Not exactly the diverse dream team you or I might have chosen to safeguard the religious freedom of a new nation.

But that’s exactly what they did, and in the first lines of the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof …” Known forever after as the Establishment Clause, this pronouncement — and the entire amendment — has over time proven to be a versatile tool that does more than separate church and state. It protects America’s faithful and faithless alike, providing both freedom of religion and freedom from it, as appropriate.

To be sure, the Founding Fathers couldn’t foresee how their efforts would one day help to make America the most religiously diverse nation in the world, nor anticipate how the Establishment Clause would come into play on future issues, from the teaching of evolutionary theory in schools, to the displaying of the Ten Commandments in public buildings, to the constitutionality of the Pledge of Allegiance.

For more than 200 years, the balance between religious liberty and the rule of law has been constantly renegotiated. To understand how that balance has been maintained both then and now, we need to look back at the influences that shaped the Founders and the documents they created to serve their country and — ultimately — us.

Founding Faith

Christ Church in Philadelphia contains the <em>Liberty Window</em>, which depicts the opening prayer in the first Continental Congress.<br />Courtesy of Christ Church Philadelphia, Photo by Will Brown
Christ Church in Philadelphia contains the Liberty Window, which depicts the opening prayer in the first Continental Congress.
Courtesy of Christ Church Philadelphia, Photo by Will Brown

The traditional idea of the Founding Fathers as conventionally pious Christian gentlemen is a myth, of course. But neither were they actively hostile to religion. John Adams, to pick one, remained a regular churchgoer throughout his long life. Jefferson, meanwhile, was skeptical of religion, yet revered Jesus as a great moral philosopher, even assembling a personal edition of the New Testament with scissors and a glue-pot, retaining the ethical teachings of Christ while editing out the miracles. (You can see the Jefferson Bible today at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.)

The time was ripe for change. This was the Age of Enlightenment, when advances in the sciences forced philosophers to reconsider humanity’s place in the universe. Educated men of the day, including Jefferson and other Founding Fathers, were attracted to Enlightenment ideals and beliefs, including Deism: the notion of a Creator whose existence could be deduced from His handiwork, but who took no active part in human affairs — God as absentee landlord.
Another Enlightenment ideal that exerted a powerful influence over the Framers was the social contract. “Social contract theory holds that government doesn’t descend from on high, but from voluntary agreements among ordinary citizens,” says Gary Kowalski, author of Revolutionary Spirits, an account of the philosophical foundations of the Constitution. This all but flew in the face of conventional wisdom, which held that government derived its authority from God, from the top down.

As if that wasn’t enough to lay the ground for revolutionary change, there was also an upswell of religious devotion among the colonial populace, with Evangelicals preaching that all men are created equal, and that each person’s value is determined not by social class, but by moral behavior. Sound familiar?

The Declaration of Independence, then, served not just as the founding document of the American Revolution, but as a balance of the influences of the Founders and the average citizen. It asserted our unalienable rights, endowed by our Creator. But this truth was not handed down in a mystical vision; rather it was self-evident, revealed by rational observation.

The declaration makes no further mention of God. The Founders strove to emphasize that separation from England was an expression of human rights, rather than Divine Right. “The Founders believed that religion could be a healthy force in society — if it were exercised within a zone of personal autonomy,” says Kowalski.

There were practical reasons, too. Different Christian sects held majorities in different colonies — some as established churches, with taxpayer support — and religious language that appeared to favor one faith over another might have jeopardized the early union entirely. “In some respects, we bungled into religious liberty,” says Charles Haynes, senior scholar at the First Amendment Center and author of several books on religion in public life. “Early on, the religious divisions in the colonies gave us little choice. So, in a way, we have religious diversity to thank for religious liberty.”

Footing the Bill

Timeline of American Faith

Mayflower arrives, carrying Puritans seeking religious freedom-for themselves if no one else.
Roger Williams banished from Massachusetts for advocating religious freedom, founds Rhode Island.
The Great Awakening comes to America as Evangelical preacher George Whitefield tours colonies.
Declaration of Independence asserts our unalienable rights.
Virginia adopts Jefferson’s Statute for Religious Freedom, the model for the First Amendment.
Bill of Rights ratified, First Amendment Establishment Clause cemented in Constitution.
Massachusetts outlaws state requirement that citizens must belong to a church.
“In God We Trust” first appears on U.S. currency.
14th Amendment secures equal protection for individuals at state and federal levels.
Driven by Protestant sects, Prohibition enacted. Repealed in 1933.
The Scopes “Monkey” Trial challenges state law that prohibits teaching evolution in schools.
Jehovah’s Witnesses win as Supreme Court overturns earlier ruling requiring Witness children to salute the flag.
The words “under God” added to Pledge of Allegiance.
Madalyn Murray, founder of American Atheists, files a lawsuit that leads to a Supreme Court decision ending enforced prayer in public schools.
Supreme Court rules about public funding in religious schools in Lemon v. Kurtzman, establishes the three-part test for government actions with respect to religion.
Religious Freedom Restoration Act passed, preventing laws that may burden free exercise of religion.
Federal judge rules that “under God” addition to Pledge of Allegiance is unconstitutional.
Kansas board of education rejects findings of Evolution Hearings that allowed teaching of intelligent design in public schools.

Like the declaration before it, the Constitution is also relatively free of religious-speak. It does not solicit God’s blessing; instead, it begins with an invocation of “We, the People.” Indeed, the Constitution’s only mention of religion is negative — in Article Six, where it expressly commands that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”

“The lack of God-language in the Constitution is not an oversight,” Kowalski says. “It provoked protest among more orthodox Christians, who thought that government needed some divine sanction.” But in the end, a majority voted to keep the Constitution faith-neutral. Meanwhile, some signatories felt that the Constitution did not go far enough to guarantee basic human rights. In response, James Madison proposed a number of amendments; of the ten that comprise the Bill of Rights, the First demarcates our religious freedoms in the plain language of the Establishment Clause which, incidentally, only applies to the federal government. Several states still had established churches, while others prided themselves as havens of conscience. The Establishment Clause split the difference by throwing the issue back to the states. Those with established churches could continue to favor them, while disestablished states were free to remain so.

The true vindication for the Establishment Clause came over the years, as a sense of common American identity began to grow, and states with official churches began, one by one, to disestablish them by acts of legislature.

Moving the Frontier

Since its beginnings, America has been extraordinarily religiously diverse. Although it’s true that, as of 1800, the majority of white Americans were Protestants of some kind, that formulation misrepresents the religious landscape of the time and the strained, even hostile relations between various congregations. The American Protestant identity — the tendency of many mainline denominations to downplay their differences and to think of themselves as “Protestant” first and foremost — only developed as immigration and expansion allowed for growth among minority faith groups. The years 1800-1850 saw U.S. population quadruple as Catholics, Lutherans, and Jews arrived from Europe, and as the country acquired territories from France, Spain, and Mexico, making their inhabitants — mostly Catholics — into newly minted U.S. citizens.

Today, as then, the country is experiencing a boom in immigration; and again, immigrants are bringing their faiths with them. Islam is considered to be one of the fastest growing religions in America. According to at least one survey, there are more Buddhists in America now than Evangelical Episcopalians. Some projections indicate that by mid-century, Protestant Americans will be the ones in the minority, a notion that makes many anxious, even now.

Over our country’s history, different groups have been singled out as threats to national unity. In the 1800s, Catholics were the bogeyman of choice. Anti-papist preachers warned that we were losing our country to those who did not share American values. Catholics, they claimed, could never be real Americans; they owed their true allegiance to a foreign tyrant and alien laws, and were too superstitious and backward to ever blend into our society.

If that rhetoric has a familiar ring to it, it’s because those same words have been used recently against other immigrant religious groups, particularly Muslims in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. “Every time we come to a period in our history when we are traumatized, when we are afraid, this anxiety returns us to the idea of recovering the America that’s been lost,” says Haynes. But Catholics managed to assimilate within a generation or two, and the American Catholic Church proved to be a different sort of institution than the European church, simply because of the cultural and political conditions on the ground. Just so, there’s reason to believe that Islam in our democratic, pluralistic society will be unlike Islam practiced elsewhere.

Homegrown Hallelujahs

In the 19th century, new denominations founded in the United States would prove vital to the cause of religious freedom — both for their minority status and for doctrines that brought them into conflict with the legal system.

In 1879 the Supreme Court ruled that civil laws trumped the Mormon doctrine of polygamy as a religious duty. Nasty lawsuits and countersuits raged for years, threatening the continued existence of the church itself. In the end, American identity proved so important to the Mormon church that it officially revised its religious doctrine to bring it in line with U.S. law.

But there have been times, too, when the law favored the dictates of religious conscience. In 1943 the Supreme Court reversed a ruling that originally upheld a Pennsylvania school board’s expulsion of Jehovah’s Witness schoolchildren who refused to salute the flag, but not before the controversy touched off a firestorm in communities across the country, where Witnesses were beaten, run out of town, or even jailed for sedition.

In recent years, the Mormon Church has cast itself as a defender of traditional marriage laws, leading the opposition to marriage rights for gays and lesbians. And by their very unwillingness to engage in secular politics, Jehovah’s Witnesses have done the nation a great service in helping strengthen the protection of religious practice from government intrusion.

Moving Backward, Moving Forward

While the First Amendment keeps government out of religion, it also protects against the flip side: the injection of religion into government, using the political process to pursue essentially moral goals. To be sure, many of our great social movements — abolitionism, temperance, women’s rights — had religious foundations, beginning with the idea of inalienable, God-given rights. But in trying to reform American society, some movements misstepped, promoting a particular, and even particularly extreme, religious viewpoint under government auspices. Prohibition, for instance, was enacted in 1920 under pressure from a movement led by Protestant sects. Many of the measure’s opponents were also people of faith, who believed that government shouldn’t meddle in moral issues.

We’ll probably never see Prohibition return; but other battles keep flaring up. In 2004 atheists challenged the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools as an unconstitutional endorsement of religion because it contained the words “under God.” (The motto “In God We Trust” on U.S. currency has recently come under fire for the same reason.) The Scopes trial of 1925 challenged a Tennessee law banning instruction in evolutionary theory. Eighty years later, the Kansas Board of Education voted to return creationism — calling it “Intelligent Design” — to the classroom. (The vote was reversed in 2007.)

Today, many Americans are confused and angered about the principle of separation, Haynes says. “For people afraid of losing our identity, it only pushes them to be more hostile to the First Amendment. That’s dangerous because that principle is the core condition for religious freedom that protects the rights of all.”

Proper understanding was just one of the areas addressed at a recent conference on the future of religious freedom in America, cosponsored by the First Amendment Center. There, policy experts identified several concerns for the future, including the consensus that free exercise of religion needs more protection still — especially for minority faiths; ways to prevent future backlash against certain religious groups — especially Muslim Americans in the wake of 9/11; and the need to provide more First Amendment education.

“The challenge is to reaffirm our commitment to religious freedom in a way that allows us to address our differences,” says Haynes. “It will take a real engagement, as individuals and communities, to find a way to protect the rights of people of all faiths and no faith. I think we can do it, but we can’t do it just by hoping for it.”

Or praying for it.


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  1. This article unfortunately commits several factual errors about the American Founding and may leave a false impression with the readers of The Saturday Evening Post about the role of religious belief in the American Founding.

    Author Jack Feerick’s first factual error is a whopper:

    The Declaration of Independence, then, served not just as the founding document of the American Revolution, but as a balance of the influences of the Founders and the average citizen. It asserted our unalienable rights, endowed by our Creator. But this truth was not handed down in a mystical vision; rather it was self-evident, revealed by rational observation.

    The declaration makes no further mention of God.




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