Religion and the Founders
The United States is the product of a unique history, and in no area is that more evident than in the realm of religion. Americans have managed to produce a pattern of religious life that is vibrant, diverse, and tolerant. While religious belief and practice have atrophied in much of Western Europe, in the United States they have flourished—and this despite the fact that many Western European countries continue to have established churches supported by public funds, of precisely the sort that the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution forbids. How to explain this seeming paradox?
There are several parts to the answer. In the first place, American religion tended to support the idea of a secular state. Christianity itself, the dominant faith of the Founding generation, is unique among the great world religions in its emphasis upon the “two spheres” or “two kingdoms” or “two cities” that have always been taken to divide up reality. The Jesus of the Christian Bible insisted that his followers should “render under Caesar what is Caesar’s,” a statement that credits the secular authority with a proper and independent role to play in the scheme of things, a view that is reinforced elsewhere in the Christian New Testament (for example, in Romans 13:1-7).
Furthermore, the initial religious tone of the United States was established by Protestant Christian reformers, who had in common a rejection of the organizational hierarchy, priestly authority, and traditionalism of Roman Catholicism. They sought to restore the church of Christ’s time, with its simplicity, charisma, and dedication to equality among its members. In addition, they shared a belief that the individual conscience is the ultimate measure of authentic faith, and the conscience should never be coerced by government, priests, or other powerful figures.
This highly individualistic and voluntaristic approach to religious faith, and the absence of serious opposition to it, led in America to a high degree of religious democratization, because people could affiliate or not affiliate by choice, precisely as their conscience dictated. Far from undermining religion, this voluntarism has made it thrive in America. And the resulting religious diversity has made it nearly impossible to imagine any establishment of religion that would ever have a prayer of being successful.
The Constitutional framework devised by the Founders sought to protect this vibrant freedom of religious belief precisely by refusing to impose upon it. Still, it cannot be said often enough that, for the Founders, the separation of church and state did not mean the separation of religion from public life. The U.S. Constitution and the First Amendment were not intended to create a purely secular government that was neutral about or indifferent to religion. The Founders understood the term “establishment” in a very specific way, as referring to a national church established by a national government that could command assent to its doctrinal statements, receives tax monies to support it, and require attendance at its services.
The Founders meant the First Amendment to prohibit the national government from establishing such a church for the whole country. But they did not mean to prevent government from supporting religion in non-sectarian ways, or even from the possibility of there being religious establishments in the individual states. Soon after passing the First Amendment, for example, Congress passed a resolution proposing a national day of “public prayer and thanksgiving,” on which President Washington soon acted. Congress also provided land for churches and mentioned the necessity of religious education in the Northwest Ordinance. Thus, the people who actually voted to ratify the First Amendment saw no incompatibility between the establishment clause and some degree of general government support of religion.
More generally, eighteenth-century Americans experienced surprisingly little tension between their version of the Enlightenment and their versions of Protestantism. In many ways, the two were entirely complimentary. Both emphasized the central importance and independence of the individual conscience, both embraced the absence of religious establishment, both eschewed the use of coercion. Whatever the theological differences, figures such as Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, James Madison, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson were of one mind in endorsing the crucial importance of religion for the sustenance of public morality.
The best analyst of how these arrangements worked was the French observer Alexis de Tocqueville, whose experience of his own nation brought home to him, during his visit to America in the 1830s, how remarkable it was that the “spirit of liberty” and the “spirit of religion” coexisted and reinforced one another in the American context, in a manner that was so directly contrary what had been the French historic pattern.
Tocqueville was deeply impressed by the persistence of the Christian religion in American democracy, and by the ways that American religion served to support democratic values and institutions. Such a development seemed particularly surprising, coming as it did at the very time when so many educated Europeans were abandoning religious faith and practice, in the belief that the “spirit of liberty” was ultimately incompatible with the authoritarian “spirit of religion.” One could certainly have drawn such a conclusion from recent French history, in which being a political liberal necessarily seemed to mean that one had to be an ecclesiastical and theological one, and vice versa. But Tocqueville’s visit to America convinced him that the antagonism of liberty and religion was not a necessary one.
Although religion took no direct or official role in governance, it was, he declared, “the first of [Americans’] political institutions,” for all Americans regarded it as indispensable to the maintenance of republican government. In a society that had clearly separated church and state, the “spirit of liberty” and the “spirit of religion” would actually reinforce one another. Liberty supported religion by making it voluntary, the democratic form of assent. But religion was also needed to support liberty, both to guide citizens in the proper exercise of their freedom, and to strengthen the “moral tie” binding society.
Tocqueville’s words capture perfectly the disposition of the Founders. They signaled the importance they assigned to religion by making freedom of religion the first item protected by the First Amendment, placing it ahead even of the freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of assembly. But a more positive signal came from the greatest of the Founders, George Washington, in his 1796 Farewell Address, when he cautioned his fellow Americans never to forget that “of all the dispositions and habits, which lead to political prosperity, Religion and Morality are indispensable supports,” or ever to imagine that “national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.” Such words were, for Americans at the end of the eighteenth century, merely the common sense of the matter.
Wilfred McClay is the SunTrust Bank Chair of Excellence in Humanities at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, where he is also a professor of history.