Religious Establishments

In a 1999 article in the Journal of Church and State , John Witte, Jr. offers a neat typology of forms of religious establishment. “Institutional” establishment involved the diversion of tax funds to support the clergy and religious activity. This form of establishment existed in a number of states into the 19th century, and it was the form of establishment that was most contentious during the era of the founding. John Adams’s religious article for the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 required tithes for the support of worship and religious education, and new churches needed to go through a legal application to gain recognition. But the tithes were voluntary, local, and ministers could be paid directly by their congregants in any case. Both the governor and lieutenant governor had to swear an anti-Catholic oath when taking office. Even this comparatively loose form of institutional establishment was, however, ultimately rejected.

But that doesn’t mean, Witte argues, that there was no religious establishment in America.

“Ceremonial” establishment still existed, and still exists: Presidents still swear the oath of office in the name of God, placing their hand on a Bible, and Presidents and Presidential candidates observe the informal ritual of ending speeches with “God bless the United States of America.” Further, the US continued to have a “moral” establishment in that the moral demands of Protestant Christianity were embodied in and encouraged by American law.

This scheme is exceedingly helpful for historical purposes. What can sound like contradictory statements from the Founders regarding public religion are clarified when we recognize that they more often opposed institutional than ceremonial or moral establishment.

This scheme also helps us discern the shape of the American religious establishment today. Institutional establishment is long gone. Ceremonial establishment remains in many respects, though it is eroding and sometimes is explicitly attacked. Moral establishment has deteriorated for the past century or more, and the deterioration became rapid and legally institutionalized in the aftermath of Roe v. Wade .

Today’s culture wars are being fought primarily in this last arena of moral establishment, though the public battles are often in the arena of ceremonial establishment (cf. Roy Moore’s Ten Commandments battle). No one seriously proposes an institutional establishment, though the terrifying specter of Christian Muftis issuing fatwas is often raised.

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