RELIGION AND THE
The Theology and Politics of the Religion Clauses
The American Experiment
The American Experiment in religious liberty
cannot be reduced to the First Amendment
religion clauses alone.
Nor can the framers’ understanding be
determined simply by studying the debates on
these clauses in the First Session of Congress
The American Experiment
Within the ample eighteenth-century sources
at hand, four views on religious liberty were
critical to constitutional formation:
The Puritans of the New England states of
Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire,
Vermont, and Maine were heirs of the theology
of religious liberty taught by the Reformed or
In the New England communities, the Puritans
adopted a variety of rules designed to foster
this basic separation of the institutions and
operations of the church and state.
Initially the New England leadership left little room
for individual religious experimentation.
Quakers remained unwelcome, although Baptists,
Episcopalians, and other Protestant groups came
to be tolerated in the New England colonies.
Over time, the growing presence of religious
nonconformists in New England shifted the
Puritan understanding of liberty of conscience.
The eighteenth-century American Evangelical
tradition of religious liberty has its roots in
sixteenth-century European Anabaptism.
Evangelicals did not emerge as a strong
political force in America until after the Great
Awakening of 1720-1780.
In the place of religious establishment,
religious voluntarism lay at the heart of the
was for God, not the state, to decide which
religions would flourish and which would fade.
Autonomy of religious governance also lay at
the heart of this Evangelical view.
Evangelicals advocated the institutional
separation of church and state.
Evangelicals argued that all religious bodies
should be free from:
state control of their assembly and worship
State regulation of their property and polity
State incorporation of their society and clergy
State interference in their discipline and
State collection of religious tithes and taxes.
The Enlightenment movement in America
provided a political theory that complemented
the Evangelical theology of religious liberty.
The Enlightenment movement was not a
single, unified movement but rather a series of
diverse ideological movements in various
academic disciplines and social circles
throughout Europe and North America.
John Locke – Letter Concerning Toleration
(1689) – provide ample inspiration for the
Letter presupposed a magistracy and
community committed to a common Christianity.
A century later, American Enlightenment
writers pressed Locke’s theory of religious
toleration further, and into more concrete legal
and political forms.
The state should not give special aid, support,
privilege, or protection to religious doctrines or
A contractarian view of society believed that
religion was one of the natural and unalienable
rights that God had given to each person.
the state nor the church could take away
this natural right of religion, nor could a person
transfer it to someone else.
The Civic Republican movement provided a
sturdy political philosophy to complement the
Puritan theology of religious liberty.
By the later eighteenth century, Republican
leaders had found their most natural
theological allies among the Puritans.
they still shared much common ground
with Evangelical and Enlightenment exponents.
The “Publick Religion” or “civil religion” of
America taught a creed of honesty, diligence,
devotion, public spiritedness, patriotism,
obedience, love of God, neighbor and self.
Icons: the Bible
The Declaration of Independence
The bells of liberty
These four views helped inform the early
American experiment in religious rights and
The common point of departure for all four
views was their rejection of the traditional
Anglican establishment that had been the
formal law of the American colonies until the