Was the United States actually founded on the idea of religious freedom?

Was the United States actually founded on the idea of religious freedom? May 24, 2016

I often hear it said that America was founded on religious freedom. Secularists will bring up religious freedom as often as their more theocratic-minded opponents, often pointing to Jefferson or Paine as exemplars of the separation of church and state that they so covet. However, how concerned with religious freedom was the founding generation?

What most people mean by the “founding of America” is the revolution in 1776.[1] For example, historian John Fea’s excellent book Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? focuses almost exclusively on the founding generation forward (roughly from the end of the French and Indian War to the modern day). If the founding generation was concerned with religion or religious freedom as the cornerstone of the republic’s foundation, you would expect to find religion or religious freedom written into the earliest American constitutional documents. And, it turns out, you do find that, but probably not in the way you expect. For this essay, I looked at the Articles of Confederation (the earliest constitutional document for the national government) as well as the constitutions of the 13 original states to see what they had to say about religious freedom.[2]

The Articles of Confederation, the framework of the national government from 1781 till 1789, say nothing about religion or religious freedom. Not a single word. For a nation supposedly concerned with religion and religious freedom, this is quite odd. However, at the time the states were much more powerful than they are today (or even were several decades later), so the authority for such measures likely resided with the government of the respective states. So what do they have to say?

Well, if you are New Hampshire, you say absolutely nothing. Just like the Articles of Confederation, New Hampshire’s original constitution is silent on the issue of religion or religious freedom. The same is true of Connecticut, which operated under the government set out by its Charter of 1663 until 1818. Georgia’s constitution was also silent on the issue of religious freedom, save for their oath of office requiring the words “so help me God.” So this leaves us with only 10 states that actually put religion or religious freedom into their constitutions.

Most of the states had provisions in their constitutions that recognized a person’s right to practice their religion without molestation by the state. Pennsylvania recognized that “all men have a natural and unalienable right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own consciences and understanding: And that no man ought or of right can be compelled to attend any religious worship, or erect or support any place of worship, or maintain any ministry, contrary to, or against, his own free will and consent.” Massachusetts agreed, as did Virginia, the former putting in its constitution that “no subject shall be hurt, molested, or restrained, in his person, liberty, or estate, for worshipping God in the manner and season most agreeable to the dictates of his own conscience, or for his religious profession or sentiments, provided he doth not disturb the public peace or obstruct others in their religious worship.” These sound like our modern concept of religious freedom, however, more often than not, there were caveats to that freedom.

Massachusetts had a provision in its constitution that “the legislature shall, from time to time, authorize and require, the several towns, parishes, precincts, and other bodies-politic or religious societies to make suitable provision, at their own expense, for the institution of the public worship of God and for the support and maintenance of public Protestant teachers of piety, religion, and morality in all cases where such provision shall not be made voluntarily.” In other words, the public worship of God was so important, that the legislature had to power to compel the various churches to spend their money on public displays of religiosity. This would be like if the government today had the power to force churches to display nativity scenes in the town square. Maryland had a similar provision in its constitution, which stated that “the Legislature may, in their discretion, lay a general and equal tax for the support of the Christian religion.”

North Carolina, which also recognized a person’s right to practice their faith unmolested, qualified it with the provision that “[t]hat no person who shall deny the being of God, or the truth of the Protestant religion, or the divine authority of either the Old or New Testaments, or who shall hold religious principles incompatible with the freedom and safety of the State, shall be capable of holding any office, or place of trust or profit, in the civil department, within this State.” Such provisions were common, such as New Jersey’s, which stated that no one sect could be preferred above another, but went on to say “that no Protestant inhabitant of this Colony shall be denied the enjoyment of any civil right, merely on account of his religious principles.” There was a focus on Protestantism, which South Carolina took the furthest, with their constitution stating “the Christian Protestant religion shall be deemed, and is hereby constituted and declared to be, the established religion of this State.”

Several states, like New York, held that “no minister of the gospel, or priest of any denomination whatsoever, shall, at any time hereafter, under any presence or description whatever, be eligible to, or capable of holding, any civil or military office or place within this State.” Both Carolinas agreed. However, this wasn’t from any particular distrust of clergy so much as it was a general idea, as Rhode Island’s 1663 Charter puts it, “true piety rightly grounded upon gospel principles, will give the best and greatest security to sovereignty, and will lay in the hearts of men the strongest obligations to true loyalty.”[3] A well-functioning clergy that upheld religious principles was seen as necessary to a civil society, so clergymen should not be distracted from their religious duties.

What these documents make clear is that the founding generation was not concerned with religious freedom in any modern sense of the term. While most states recognized the right of people to practice their faith without legal consequence, they also recognized the privileged status of Protestantism and Protestants. Furthermore, the states generally believed that religion was the bedrock – the foundation – of civil society and in several instances, the state could interfere with religious congregations to ensure that they upheld their civic duties as well as interfere with the civil liberties of priests and clergy members to make sure that the religious foundation of American society was properly served.

So was the founding generation concerned with religious freedom? I would conclude that no, they weren’t. A few individuals like Jefferson and Madison were, but on the whole Americans were not concerned with religious liberty in our modern sense of the term. For them, religious liberty meant maintaining the privileged status of Protestantism as the bedrock of civil society, free from foreign modes of worship. In this sense, America truly was founded on religion, with religious freedom being protected for the majority. How we got from the 18th century concept of religious freedom for the majority to our modern concept of religious freedom for the minority is the subject of next week’s essay.


[1] Or 1775, depending on how you want to date it. Early American documents actually use 1775 as the date of independence; the Articles of Confederation, for example, were done “in the Year of our Lord One Thousand Seven Hundred and Seventy-Eight, and in the Third Year of the independence of America.”

[2] I left out Vermont, which was technically an independent country until 1791. Vermont was claimed by New York until 1791.

[3] Like Connecticut, Rhode Island functioned off its colonial charter well into the 19th century. For ease of reading, I have updated some of the old-style spellings in this quote.

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