Photo by Tim Dirven/Panos
The US Constitution guaranteed freedom of religion, but the fight for religious equality was only just beginning
The age of revolution brought an enlightened political ideology to the modern world. Among its many achievements, none faces greater global challenges than freedom of religion. Today, it seems almost unthinkable that any deeply religious people, whether in the Middle East or the United States, would create constitutions, bills of rights and statutes that would not only guarantee their own freedom of conscience, but also the religious faith of others. Why, we wonder, and how, did revolutionary-era Americans choose to adopt a radical regime of religious freedom?
Their reasons did not rely on any idealistic consensus that religion must be separate from politics and instead owed everything to their deep suspicion of power in the hands of flawed humanity. Informed by centuries of European history, revolutionary-era Americans believed that governments empowered to coerce belief – long the common European practice – became tyrannical. History proved that, where religion was concerned, governments resorted to coercion. Consequently, to provide a barrier against tyranny, key American patriots believed that protecting religious freedom was vital.
But old ways died hard. Leaders in every American state argued that religious observance was not only a divine commandment, but also a bulwark of social and political order. As a result, defenders of Protestant faiths battled over religious taxation almost everywhere, and debated whether to maintain established churches. At independence in 1776, nine of the 13 colonies were supporting state churches; yet by 1860, the US would become a country of almost complete religious freedom. How did this happen?
As early as June 1776, Virginia’s Declaration of Rights laid down the principle that ‘all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion’. This language, composed by George Washington’s neighbour George Mason appealed to Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson was at work drafting a state constitution and, in it, he echoed Mason’s doctrine with a provision that ‘All persons shall have full and free liberty of religious opinion; nor shall any be compelled to frequent or maintain any religious institution’. Virginia’s long-established Anglican Churchmen fiercely opposed this proposed disestablishment of their church. Arrayed against them, the state’s numerous Baptists and Presbyterians favoured the measure. Still, many patriots thought that ending state support for the Anglican Church would plunge Virginia into immorality and infidelity – magnifying the very disorder that the revolution provoked. The reformers’ rejoinder – that Pennsylvania, which possessed no religious establishment and no state support for religion, was not awash in immorality or infidelity – did not convince defenders of the status quo.
The result in Virginia in 1776 was compromise. Virginia suspended support for Episcopal priests and exempted Presbyterians and Baptists from religious taxes. Followers of other faiths and non-believers must still support the Episcopal Church, though they were not required to attend its services. The Episcopal Church also kept its monopoly of marriage fees and revenues from land dedicated to poor relief. This arrangement briefly stilled sectarian conflict. Three years later, when Jefferson won election as governor in 1779, he and James Madison attacked the remaining Episcopal establishment by sponsoring a statute of religious freedom. Though the legislature tabled their statute, it voted to end tax support for the Episcopal Church.
A few years later, after the war ended, governor Patrick Henry, supported by Episcopalians and Methodists, proposed using taxes to pay clergy of major Protestant denominations. Leading Virginians such as John Marshall and Washington, the national hero, thought Henry’s proposed state support for Protestantism reasonable. Baptists and Deists, however – coming from opposite ends of the religious spectrum – mobilised and blocked it with petitions carrying an unprecedented 11,000 signatures. Exploiting this momentum, Madison seized the offensive, bringing Jefferson’s Statute for Religious Freedom to a victorious vote in the Virginia legislature.
Virginia’s Statute for Religious Freedom expressed the revolutionary generation’s most fully developed commitment to equal religious rights. God, the statute read, had ‘created the mind free’. Indeed ‘the Holy author of our religion’ rejected earthly coercion. The law proclaimed that ‘our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions, any more than our opinions in physics or geometry’. As Madison explained, if government could establish one religion, government could establish any religion. Just before Christmas 1785, Jefferson’s bill passed by a vote of 74 to 20. Afterwards, when a delegate proposed that ‘the Holy author of our religion’ be identified as ‘Jesus Christ’, a great majority of the delegates voted that down. The law, Jefferson wrote, aimed to be ‘universal’; it should protect ‘the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and infidel of every denomination’…