In the sweltering summer of 1789, James Madison penned sixteen words in spare prose that became the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. Herein the founding fathers of a young government pledged separation of church and state, thus guaranteeing religious freedom for its citizens and establishing a free marketplace for religion in the United States. Utterly unprecedented in Western history, this construction of a government without the interlocking authority of religion set a new course for faith and politics and has produced a vibrant religious culture unmatched anywhere in the world. First Freedom details the progression of religious liberty from pilgrims and Puritans to the creation of the Bill of Rights and how it shaped a new nation. – From Randall Balmer in his companion book for the PBS Special, “First Freedom: The Fight for Religious Liberty”
The Postmodern Debate Over Church and StateWhen it comes to understanding the constitutional principles of the separation of church and state, and the free exercise of religion, what is the truth? In today’s passionate melee over the Health and Human Services’ Contraception Mandate—or whether it be the issues of Gay Marriage, School Prayer, the placement of Ten Commandment monuments in public buildings, or the direct funding of federal and state funds into private and religious schools—factions on the religious and political Left and Right are co-opting and invoking the nation’s Constitutional Founders. Many summon them ignorantly and incredulously.
PBS Video Overview
In an effort to bring understanding to the public, the Public Broadcast System (PBS) entered the national discussion in December by producing a basic yet nuanced overview of the history of the development of religious freedom during America’s Puritan and constitutional founding periods in their televised docudrama “First Freedom: The Fight for Religious Liberty.” The cast of scholars participating represented America’s finest in the discussion of the cultural, religious and legal foundations of these founding periods of our country’s history.
First Freedom provides five broad segments covering 1) an introductory overview, 2) the Puritan founding period titled “A City Upon a Hill,” 3) the First Great Awakening and its influence on the American Revolution titled “The Road to Revolution,” 4) America’s revolutionary and transitional periods to a new nation titled “A Prayer for a Nation to Come,” and 5) “A Constitution without God,” a discussion of America’s constitutional founding period, the election of 1800 and the role of religion in public life. Both the sidebar companion article and this article effort on the role of James Madison will specifically focus on the founders’ views regarding the proper constitutional roles of church and state.
While such a production by PBS could be quickly tossed into the “BORING BIN” of obscurity by many Americans, it nevertheless represents a masterpiece of the blended nuanced views of center, center-left, and center-right leaning scholars in a unified presentation on how our country’s Constitutional Founders separated the supervisory and regulatory power of the state from the church, and the manipulating and coercive power of the church from the state, recognizing that a truly successful democratic republic could never survive without making both the church and the state independent and free. And this distinction is worth noting because PBS, and the cast of scholars it chose, made very clear the stark differences between America’s Puritan and Constitutional Founding periods, with the Great Awakening thrown in-between to make sense of the theological, cultural, and political seeds of the American Revolution and the gradual transition between these two main periods of American history.
The three overriding themes of the PBS Special were:
- Freedom of Conscience—the ability to honor God in the way God wished to be worshipped, or not worshipped at all in the New World.
- The Gradual Disentanglement of Church and State, beginning with Roger Williams and progressing with Enlightenment period influences that shaped the thinking of leading clergy during the Great Awakening and such constitutional luminaries as Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin.
- The Role of Religion in Public Life in the aftermath of the ratification of the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the presidential election of 1800.
The purpose of this article is to provide a broad overview of the PBS Special and then to wrap it up by connecting the dots to the heroic and barely successful religious freedom efforts of James Madison, universally considered by scholars to be the Father of the United States Constitution and Bill of Rights. If there was ever a time in which America’s fledgling experience in Republican and Democratic forms of government rested so crucially in the hands of two men, it was with James Madison and Thomas Jefferson. While it took an entire nation of enlightened peoples—“We the People,” religious and enlightened people—to pull off such a grand and noble experiment, that initial phase of Constitution-building rested in Madison and Jefferson’s mental lab of political science.
“A City upon a Hill”
America’s nascent journey toward religious freedom sprang from both religion and politics. It began with the English Pilgrim Separatists who settled Plymouth Colony upon their arrival on the Mayflower in 1620. They were Puritans who broke away from the monarchical Church of England because they felt they had not completed the work of the Protestant Reformation. This, they believed, was due to the Church-State unity that corrupted both the state and the church’s “separate but holy” duties. Then the Congregationalist Puritans came, who were given a Royal Charter to settle what would become the Massachusetts Bay Colony centered in Plymouth, and later in Boston. These Puritans accepted some of the customs and rights of the Church of England and defined church-state collaborations for their own holy and utopian societal purposes.
This utopian purpose was defined by John Winthrop’s phrase, “the shining city upon a hill,” pointedly suggesting that they were God’s chosen people, that America was the promised land, God’s New Israel, and a light to all the nations. This is what would establish the enduring theme of American Exceptionalism, a concept cherished from Colonial times and on into the 21st Century. God was watching the Massachusetts Bay Colony. It was to be a place in which colonists were to be “self-conscious models of righteousness,” guided by righteous civil laws inspired by both tables of God’s Moral Decalogue, the Ten Commandments. As Dale Kuehne observes:
The Congregationalists had erected an enlightened republican government on top of a Puritan base, and they were trying to fuse the two using a cement composed of the Covenant and the millennium. The ministers’ primary question focused on whether a liberal notion of religious freedom could be held along with the codification and promotion of a Christian standard of virtue, which included the obligation to support a government-sanctioned religion.
But the seeds of their own unraveling came through their lack of tolerance for dissension, usually resulting when anyone expressed a differing point of view. This led to the martyrdoms of evangelical pioneers Mary Dyer and Anne Hutchinson, the Salem Witch Trials in which twenty women and girls were put to death, and the subsequent persecution and exile of Roger Williams, the Baptist pastor and legendary inspiration for future Baptist pastors such as Isaac Backus and John Leland who would in turn go on to nurture Williams’ heretical doctrine of church-state separation in the minds and hearts of America’s Revolutionary Founders, particularly Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. As Timothy Hall writes in his book Separating Church and State: Roger Williams and Religious Liberty, that unlike his timid and insolent colleagues—John Cotton and John Winthrop—“it was precisely because of Williams’ fierce religious dogmatism that led to his religious tolerance, making him one of the most articulate champions in history of the argument for the necessary separation or church and state.”
The Great Awakening and the Road to Revolution
The PBS Special moves gradually from the Puritan colonial years to the First Great Awakening in which evangelicalism began to sweep all the colonies – north, middle, and south. According to colonial period scholar Jon Butler from Yale University, this period was particularly significant because the Congregational Puritan Church gradually became the stepchild of the government, and no longer the master. Clergy came under fire for increasingly boring sermons as the Dutch and English field preachers, inspired through the charismatic and winsome ministry of the Great Revivalist George Whitefield, spread the emancipating message of universal salvation through Christ. His sermon tracts, as well as his preaching throughout all the colonies gave birth to America’s First Great Awakening.
Columbia University historian Randy Balmer provides a masterful window of revelation in his book A Perfect Babel of Confusion: Dutch Religion and English Culture in the Middle Colonies showing how it was the Dutch Reformed field preachers, led by the Freylinghuysen family (the Martin Luther’s of the Dutch Reform Movement) and many others, who were inspired by George Whitefield’s evangelical ministry to break free of their mother church in Holland in order to freely share the Good News of Salvation in their native English tongues—whether in preaching the Word or in their published sermons and hymnbooks. Balmer points out that during these turbulent but exciting times, Dutch Reformed Revivalists of New York and New Jersey fundamentally altered and even transformed the colonists’ ideas of the proper roles of church-state relations, a precursor of the impending American Revolutionary Period.
But surprisingly, what remained constant in both the Puritan and First Great Awakening periods was the idea that America was the New Israel in a New Promised Land. What changed was the insertion of a revolutionary cause whose message was universal salvation and freedom through Christ alone, and not a king, a specific denominational polity, or government.
Benjamin Franklin was impressed by Whitefield’s persuasive and revolutionary life-changing message, causing him to believe more fully in a Creator God. Yet he held that this God left it up to man to figure out his own destiny and govern his own affairs. Franklin, like others in his time, was not a fan of organized religion, an outgrowth of this spiritual awakening in which various new and enlightened evangelical denominations emerged and boomed, while churchgoers in the traditional mainline churches ebbed and dropped dramatically, scattering to other emerging faith traditions, or becoming increasingly unchurched altogether. Religious pluralism, largely a Protestant phenomenon, was germinating the spirit of democracy and anti-establishmentarianism.
The Quebec and Coercive Acts of 1774
With it came more persecution of religious minorities—the Dutch Reformed clergy in the Middle Colonies, Baptist clergy in the South, and Catholics in the North. British and Scottish Protestants in the North and South feared that if the Catholic faith were allowed to grow through reproduction, America would someday be under Rome’s ruling thumb like France and Spain. The Quebec Act was put forward by the British Parliament in 1774 to accomplish three things in this regard:
- Oath of allegiance was replaced with one that no longer made reference to the Protestant faith.
- Guaranteed Catholics the freedom to worship and practice their faith.
- Restored the Catholic Church’s right to impose tithes.
This act was largely attacked by American Protestants because it was seen as a strategic affront by the British Parliament in 1774 to blunt the growing revolutionary influence of a predominantly Protestant America on a British colonial neighbor on its borders to the North.
American Protestants saw this as a sign that they were increasingly becoming hemmed in and surrounded by Catholics to the North in Canada, Catholic Spaniards to the South in Florida, and Catholic Francophiles in Louisiana. It only had the effect of augmenting the growing revolutionary fervor in America against Britain. The absolute right to religious freedom was a fickle and blasphemous notion to King George of Britain. He believed that he was ordained by God, therefore he alone possessed the God-given right to hand out rights and privileges, and to deny them, based on whatever suited his and Britain’s geopolitical strategic interests at the time. Colonists recognized the Quebec Act as an age-old abuse of kingly power, a major provocation to their carefully nurtured sense of Protestantism and the correspondent loathing of Catholicism.
To the colonists, “The Quebec Act was actually an insidious attempt by the Anglican establishment to introduce through the colonies’ back door the evils of popery, civil law, and eventual absolutism.” Coinciding simultaneously were the Coercive Acts, also known as the Intolerable Acts, so named by the colonists for their punitive nature. These laws were passed by the British Parliament in 1774 shortly after the Boston Tea Party. They stripped Massachusetts of self-government and revoked the historic rights the colonists had enjoyed since the Toleration Acts had passed in 1689. This did more to trigger outrage and resistance in the Thirteen Colonies, leading to the outbreak of the American Revolution in 1775 which began with the “first shots heard around the world” in Concord and Lexington. As Brown University professor Gordon Wood puts it in his book The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787, combined with the “mental atmosphere” surrounding the Quebec Act, “the Coercive Acts could be but flagrant confirmation of the Crown’s grand strategy.”
Declaration of Independence Coincides with Virginia’s Declaration of Rights
The historical significance of reversing the Toleration Acts of 1689 with the Coercive, or Intolerable Acts of 1774, is that it represented a frontal assault and rejection by King George III and Parliament of John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government which was published in London in 1689. Locke’s central premise was that individual rights, equal rights, were inalienable and came from God and not kings. The educated elite in the American colonies took immediate note of this significance. Therefore it is not surprising that the very language of Thomas Jefferson’s authorship of the Declaration of Independence had John Locke written all over it in philosophy, message and tone, serving as a corresponding assault on King George III and the so-called divine right of kings:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
In this mix of heady revolutionary talk was Virginia’s Declaration of Rights, drafted by George Mason in May of 1776, with a special section emphasizing religious freedom authored by James Madison. Unanimously adopted on June 12, 1776 by Virginia’s Convention of Delegates, it too had John Locke’s name written all over it. The Virginia Declaration of Rights influenced 1) the United States Declaration of Independence (drafted in June and ratified on July 4, 1776), 2) the United States Bill of Rights, of which Virginia’s Declaration of Rights acted like a working draft of enumerated rights (1789), and 3) the French Revolution’s Declaration of the Rights of Man (1789). Section XVI on religious rights declared
That religion, or the duty which we owe to our Creator and the manner of discharging it, can be directed by reason and conviction, not by force or violence; and therefore, all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience; and that it is the mutual duty of all to practice Christian forbearance, love, and charity towards each other.
James Madison had witnessed Baptist preachers rounded up by Anglican divines and local law enforcement officers, and he recoiled to see religious freedom being denied in his own beloved Commonwealth of Virginia. For James Madison, America’s First Great Awakening had an extended mission—that of securing religious freedom for religious minorities and all people and institutions of faith, and not for just the largest and most powerful institutions, or for the individuals with the most money and political standing. But this mission almost slipped out of his reach due to some faulty assumptions of his own.
James Madison – Almost Getting it Wrong
On June 12, 1788, with a squeaky voice coming out of his small bodily frame, James Madison, the unsung hero and little known Father of the United States Constitution made this brilliant observation to the delegates at Virginia’s ratifying convention regarding how freedom of religion was to be achieved and how it was the central basis for the hope of any successful experiment with a constituted Democratic Republic: “Is a bill of rights a security for religion?… If there were a majority of one sect, a bill of rights would be a poor protection for liberty. Happily for the states, they enjoy the utmost freedom of religion.” “This freedom,” Madison argued, “arises from that multiplicity of sects, which pervades America, and which is the best and only security for religious liberty in any society. For where there is such a variety of sects, there cannot be a majority of any one sect to oppress and persecute the rest.”
But Madison’s observation was in defense of the erroneous sentiment, held by a significant number of Constitutional Convention delegates that had met in Philadelphia in 1787, that a Bill of Rights was not needed. To secure ratification of the Constitution among Virginia’s delegates, Madison believed that the Constitution must be ratified on its own merits and not on the basis of the demand for a Bill of Rights. It was a point of contention between Thomas Jefferson and Madison at this particularly sensitive time in which success or failure to secure true religious freedom was at stake.
Shortly after this, in the fall of 1788, Madison, in his extensive correspondence with Thomas Jefferson said that he had always been in favor of a bill of rights” if it was “so framed as not to imply powers not meant to be included in the enumeration.” In other words, it was assumed that since Congress possessed no power to interfere with basic rights, the Constitution alone would be enough. The problem remained, Jefferson argued, that such basic rights had yet to be spelled out in a formal guarantee. But Madison persisted in reasoning that certain essential rights, particularly the rights of conscience, could never be fully guaranteed by law.
A year later, James Madison began to see light in Jefferson’s arguments regarding the necessity of negative law to serve as a counterbalance to the positive law rights enumerated in the Constitution itself. As a result, Madison argued just the opposite before the First Congress in 1789 when drafting the Bill of Rights, but with a different twist:
The prescriptions in favor of liberty ought to be leveled against that quarter where the greatest danger lies, namely, that which possesses the highest prerogative of power. But this is not found in either the executive or legislative departments of government, but in the body of the people, operating by the majority against the minority.
No mention of religion or religious freedom is mentioned here, but the parallel concern, when viewed in light of his first observation before the Virginia ratifying convention in 1788, can be clearly seen: a Bill of Rights was needed in order to protect against the run amok fickle and lynch-mob-will of overbearing majorities to tread on the basic rights of all Americans, and not the mere anthropological assumption that religious and political factions as a whole would serve to naturally check themselves against the discrimination and persecution of one another.
Madison certainly understood this a few years earlier when writing a Memorial and Remonstrance against religious assessments and the establishment of state churches put forward by Patrick Henry. Point 8 of his 15-point argument asked: “What influence in fact have ecclesiastical establishments had on Civil Society? In some instances they have been seen to erect a spiritual tyranny on the ruins of Civil authority; in many instances they have been seen upholding the thrones of political tyranny; in no instance have they been seen the guardians of the liberties of the people.” The direct relationship between persecution and state established churches was clear to Madison, as it was to Jefferson and so many others during this amazing moment in history as they worked to “get it right.” So why was Madison failing to grasp this at such a crucial moment?
No one knows for sure exactly, except that Madison, like Alexander Hamilton and his Federalist colleagues, may have wanted to make sure the Constitution was ratified first before entertaining a Bill of Rights, which many saw as a strategy to kill ratification by those opposing it. This is confirned by MIT American History professor Pauline Maier’s recent work Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788, which is the most credible book detailing the history of the ratifying conventions in the states for both the Constitution and Bill of Rights. In Maier’s work, Madison is reluctant and unenthusiastic about a Bill of Rights for this strategic reason primarily. Madison’s reluctance is contrasted with Thomas Jefferson’s forceful enthusiasm expressed in his extensive letter correspondence with Madison via Paris urging him to follow his lead. Maier’s work demonstrates, as does the first volume of the edited three-volume work by James Morton Smith of their correspondence, that the “getting it right” part for future generations of Americans very much lay in the minds and hands of this intellectual partnership between James Madison and Thomas Jefferson. And getting it right was vitally important, lest the American experiment fell into injurious minds and hands who zealously believed they were doing God’s bidding to ultimately thwart and defeat it. [See the sidebar article titled “Similar Statements – Two Founding Views.”]
James Madison – Getting it Right
At the First Congress of 1789, the House of Representatives and the Senate wrote separate draft language for what they thought should be the wording of the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses of the First Amendment.
On the House side, James Madison led the way, bringing his vast experience to the table in drafting the religious freedom section in Virginia’s Declaration of Rights, Section XVI, and in his long fight with Thomas Jefferson to pass Virginia’s Statute of Religious Freedom and defeating Patrick Henry’s “Bill Establishing a Provision for Teachers of the Christian Religion.” Madison’s leadership produced drafts that avoided language that would open the door to nonpreferential or so-called nondiscriminatory types of funding for churches and private religious schools, or for constitutional amendment language stating that the nation was a “Christian nation.”
In abstention, since he was not a U.S. Senator from Virginia, the Senate drafts nevertheless strongly reflected Patrick Henry’s perspective which directly allowed for government endorsement and funding of churches and private religious schools. This was particularly true of the first and third drafts:
- “Congress shall make no law establishing one religious sect or society in preference to others, nor shall the rights of conscience be infringed.”
- “Congress shall make no law establishing any particular denomination of religion in preference to another, or prohibiting free exercise thereof, nor shall the rights of conscience be infringed.”
The Senate’s fourth draft nearly matched the fourth draft in the House and as a result a Joint Resolution was agreed to by both chambers: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”
The battle was not nearly as hard fought in Congress as it was in previous years in Madison’s experience. In time, this wording of the Religion Clauses continues to produce the same divide between those who seek to keep church and state as separate as possible and those who seek to have government both sponsor and fund faith-based charities, institutions, and schools. In the PBS Special, Professor Robert George of Princeton University subtly but clearly argued that the Religion Clauses were meant by the Constitutional Founders to foster “the right to bring faith into the public square.”
“How far, how little?” are the obvious questions that remain with us today. Does this mean government sponsorship of prayer in public schools, or government funding of religious ones? Professor Robert Alley of the University of Virginia, Jefferson’s creation, makes this extreme statement: “To whatever degree a form of religious establishment, no matter how mild, enters the Constitution through the amending process, free exercise of religion is dust.” Really? The truth—as former Associate Justice Sandra Day O’Connor continually revealed in her balanced opinions and rulings on the Supreme Court—continues to lie somewhere in between George and Alley’s two extremes.
The Founders did get it right, as did the rest of the United States of America. Thanks to Charles Pinckney of South Carolina, with the “no religious test clause” for public office holding and oath taking in Article Six of the Constitution, which directly influenced the outcome of the presidential election of 1800 and the emergence of Thomas Jefferson as President, the constitutional founders sought an Enlightenment-period influenced separation of their own from Puritan and medieval standards of church domination of the state, and then with the religion clauses of the First Amendment built-in, set in motion an America that became even more enthusiastically religious, pluralistic, powerful and free, resulting in the Second Great Awakening. As Jon Meacham observed in the PBS Special, Americans emerged in a way like no other country in history—a country in which its citizens could privately and publicly honor its civil-religious traditions without government endorsement or support, financially or otherwise. Meacham, the author of the bestselling book, American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation, eloquently made this point in the PBS Special.
When it comes to government funding, today’s reality may in fact seem to defy the separational intent of the Founders, but Jefferson’s and Madison’s proverbial “wall of separation” continues to hold back today’s zealous tide of state sponsored Puritanism, while the free exercise of religion continues to hold back the forces of extremism in the form of state sponsored godlessness.
Ultimately, America’s constitutional founders believed in freedom of religion, not freedom from religion or freedom to enforce religion on others based on their beliefs, or anyone’s beliefs, particularly acts of worship. This meant upholding both the Establishment and Free Exercise clauses of the First Amendment to a high constitutional standard against powerful forces. Using this standard, government neutrality meant that religion and religious institutions must be allowed to thrive freely, but without its official endorsement.
The First Amendment, in part, states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” Today, some seek to reinterpret the no Establishment provision separating Church and State in ways that would require government to financially support their institutions and enforce their dogmas so as to solve the moral ills of the nation.
Others seek to marginalize the Free Exercise of Religion in favor of placing a higher level of protection on lifestyles destructive to universal moral principles sustaining all societies. Both are harmful to our constitutional health. That is why the Nation’s Founders anticipated this tension. That is why they created an internal check and balance within the very wording of the First Amendment in order to prevent the Country from being overrun by either extreme in the great church-state debate (a puritanical vs. godless society). Like James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, they believed that if this balancing safeguard were somehow removed by overzealous politicians and the fickle masses, that our nation’s constitutional guarantees would be lost, and with it our civil and religious freedoms.
As former Associate Supreme Court Justice, Sandra Day O’Connor, put it in a speech at the University of Ireland, “The religious zealot and the theocrat frighten us in part because we understand only too well their basic impulse. No less frightening is the totalitarian atheist who aspires to a society in which the exercise of religion has no place.”
PBS ought to be applauded for its special production of “First Freedom: The Fight for Religious Liberty.” It will help to restore our country’s understanding of its First Freedom.
Legal Quarterly 48 (1997):1.