Over the past few years, various Christian organizations have sued the United States government over measures that combine sacred and secular practices — such as the provision of contraception in employee insurance plans and the redefinition of marriage to include same-sex couples. The boundary between private religious concerns and government policies has always been contested, but there is a need to restate the primacy of individual liberties in light of the expansive agenda of 21st-century politics. Examining the history of the religious liberty clause may allow better understanding of its proper use and avoid its misuse.
Within a broad entanglement of enlightenment principles and political struggles, the friendship and political alliance of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison played a pivotal in shaping the First Amendment. They began collaborating on defining religious freedom in Virginia, where Jefferson wrote “A Bill For Establishing Religious Freedom,” which terminated the tenure of the Church of England as the official church of Virginia in 1779. Later, Madison authored “The Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments,” which supported Jefferson’s view and argued against funding churches with state taxes. These undertakings ultimately worked to cement their friendship and allowed them to promote the same radical agenda on a national stage.
From 1784 to 1789, Jefferson served as ambassador to France and quickly became embroiled in the turmoil of the French Revolution. Despite his initial support of the the revolution’s seemingly egalitarian goals, he soon distanced himself from the country’s escalating violence. Back in the United States, Madison also found himself entrenched in political turmoil. The weak central government established by the Articles of Confederation had proved inadequate, leading to calls for a new constitution. A leader at the Constitutional Convention, Madison took on a great share of responsibility in authoring the document, which he subsequently sent to Jefferson in France for review.
The Constitution created a strong central government, which prompted many people to demand a bill of rights in order to prevent the possibility of future tyranny. While Jefferson supported this view, Madison thought that the Constitution clearly outlined the powers granted to the federal government.
Jefferson and Madison shared a common purpose in their desire to create a tradition of religious liberty in America, yet they differed in personal religious experiences. Though each man was raised in the Church of England in America and each rebelled against the orthodoxy and political status of the church, their similarities end there.
Jefferson’s break with Anglicanism appears to have begun after his enrollment in the College of William and Mary. There, Jefferson became acquainted with the governor of the Virginia colony — who may have introduced Jefferson to the works of radical religious thinkers. Jefferson’s notebooks indicate that he copied more than 50 passages from Lord Bolingbroke, a British philosopher, politician and deist, most of which rejected scripture as a basis for religious truth and praised “right reason” as the path to truth. Jefferson optimistically believed exposure to reason would lead others to become deists, writing “I trust that there is not a young man now living in the United States who will not die an Unitarian.”
In contrast to the intellectual focus of Jefferson’s conversion to deism, Madison’s own religious transition was more experiential. Madison combined enlightenment thinking with Calvinist teachings that proposed that men were inherently sinful. When 22-year-old Madison saw six Baptist preachers jailed in Virginia, he wrote to a friend “that diabolical Hell conceived principle of persecution rages among some, and to their infamy the Clergy can furnish their Quota of Imps for such business.”
Though Madison opposed the need for a bill of rights, he undertook the task of writing and submitting them to Congress. Madison and Jefferson, both, wanted an amendment that would protect religious freedom, and also survive a Congressional vote. Yet their egalitarian views were opposed by many who embraced a strong role for churches in government. In a conciliatory move, Madison’s first draft stated, “No State shall violate the equal rights of conscience.” By writing “rights of conscience” instead of “religion,” Madison sought to avoid the need for Congress to define religion, and freedom was intended to apply to any belief, including deism or even atheism. This first draft represented Madison’s attempt to pass the most broad amendment possible and was rejected by the Senate in June 1789.
To pass the First Amendment, Madison was forced to compromise. The broad term “rights of conscience” was deleted and substituted with “the free exercise” of religion. This phrasing, however, extended only to the practice of religion and did not explicitly guarantee freedom of belief or conscience. Madison may have feared that future legislation might define religion in narrow terms — excluding those that were at the time believed to be cults or based on broad philosophical tenets in lieu of sacred traditions. Jefferson shared Madison’s concerns over the wording of the amendment. When Madison sent him a draft of the amendment, Jefferson replied, “I like it as far as it goes; but I should have been for going further.”
The first amendment to the Constitution passed Congress on Sept. 25, 1789, and read: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” As though to test the boundaries of the included clause “established religion,” George Washington later proclaimed a day of public Thanksgiving and stated, “Whereas it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God…” This proclamation opened a debate over the relationship between religion and government — one which continues today.
The contemporary principle of religious freedom assumes a dual role inasmuch as it both prevents the government from interfering in personal religious practice and also bars religion from governmental practices. The establishment of an official religion is explicitly prohibited in the United States, and yet elected officials still take oaths of office on the Bible and hold prayers during open sessions of Congress. Conversely, churches are forbidden to express support for political candidates — or risk losing their tax-exempt status. Within this delicate balance of faith and government, the right of the individual to practice his or her religion ought to be regarded as standard practice. When there is a conflict between government policy and religious belief, policy should dominate only in extreme cases. The freedoms enumerated in the Bill of Rights, including freedom of religion, must outweigh any partisan agenda.
David Anthony is a staff writer for The Weekender. Contact him at [email protected]