“Whatever we once were,” Barack Obama insisted in a 2006 keynote address on religion and politics, “we are no longer just a Christian nation; we are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, a Buddhist nation, a Hindu nation, and a nation of nonbelievers.” Although the future president’s claim drew criticism during the 2008 campaign, his contention that the religious landscape of American politics has changed dramatically since the late eighteenth century is undoubtedly correct. Obama is, after all, the product of Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ—a congregation that bills itself as “Unapologetically Black”—and he, along with our Catholic vice president, is now engaged in a presidential campaign against a devout Mormon.
Of course, blacks, Catholics, and Mormons have been disfavored and stigmatized by white Protestants at different junctures in American history—at times even restricted in their eligibility for state offices by custom or the force of law—and the current presidential campaign thus marks a significant era in America’s civic and religious life. Indeed, whatever we once were as a nation with respect to church and state, we are no longer. But this is to state a mere truism, and the historical question of what America once was is the subject of a long-running academic debate.
What complicates the issue is that historical questions are often tied up with contemporary concerns. As Michael Meyerson contends, our current debate about the role of religion in American history has been shaped largely by modern politics, and this tends to limit “discussion to a false dichotomy.” In one camp are secularists who believe that the wall separating church and state must, as Thomas Jefferson famously maintained, remain “high and impregnable.” In another camp are those who point, as Supreme Court Justice David Brewer did in 1892, to the “mass of organic utterances that this is a Christian nation” while contending that the government may rightfully endorse or financially support a range of religious activities—from national days of prayer to public displays of the Decalogue to government grants for religious social service organizations. Each side reads contemporary concerns back into the historical record to establish that the American founders were either secularists or accommodationists in a modern sense.
In his book Endowed by Our Creator: The Birth of Religious Freedom in America, Meyerson endeavors to craft an account of “religion and the early American government” that “does not fit neatly into the narratives of either those who argue that the framers created a secular nation that prohibits governmental involvement with religion or those who are convinced history proves that the United States is not merely a religious country but a ‘Christian’ or ‘Judeo-Christian’ nation.” For this task, Meyerson looks in particular to George Washington, the man “who probably did the most to create popular support for the national ideal of religious liberty” and whose nuanced understanding of the relationship between religion and politics offers a challenge to both of the dominant frameworks today.
Consider Washington’s celebrated Farewell Address: “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity,” the first president counseled his countrymen upon leaving office, “religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens.” Washington here spoke from the perspective of the civil authority, and his appeal was to the believer and unbeliever alike. “The mere politician, equally with the pious man,” he claimed, “ought to respect and to cherish them.” The reason the mere politician and the pious man ought both to respect and cherish religion and morality, Washington further suggested, is that religion—or at least a particular kind of religion—provides the basis for morality, and morality the basis for republican self-government. “And let us with caution indulge the supposition,” he warned, “that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of education on minds of a peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”
Over the course of his presidency, Washington combined this utilitarian case for government support of religion with a vigorous defense of religious liberty and a denial that the United States was, in any official or legal capacity, a Christian nation. Writing to the Swedenborgian New Jerusalem Church of Baltimore, Washington declared that in “this Enlightened Age and in this Land of equal Liberty it is our boast, that a man’s religious tenets will not forfeit the protection of the Laws, nor deprive him of the right of attaining and holding the highest Offices that are known in the United States.” Additionally, as Meyerson notes, Washington “was frequently urged to express his support for a religious interpretation of the national government, and each time he refused.”
George Washington’s was not the only influential view, however, and a battle over a religious assessment bill in Virginia in the 1780s highlights “three distinct, though related strands of thought that contributed to the American concept of freedom of religion, none of which were hostile or opposed to religion.” When Patrick Henry introduced a bill that would tax property to fund Christian clergy of all denominations within the commonwealth of Virginia, detractors of the bill raised “religious, philosophical, and political concerns” that were not “mutually exclusive” and which provided “separate insights into the principles underlying religious liberty in America.”
The first concern was religious—or more specifically, Christian—and it was “epitomized by John Leland,” a Baptist minister who “contended that the biblical admonition ‘my kingdom is not of this world’ meant that ‘religion, in all its parts, is distinct from civil government.’” The separation of church and state was, for Leland, rooted in the teachings of Jesus, who urged his followers to “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s.” The religious community was, in other words, something distinct and separate from the political community, and the civil authority erred when it meddled with the practices and voluntary organizations of religious believers.
A second line of argument, articulated in different ways by James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, offered philosophical reasons why “‘religion is essentially distinct from government, and exempt from its cognizance.’” As Madison wrote in his famous Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments, the religion of “every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man, and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate.” Madison’s argument was rooted in eighteenth-century natural rights liberalism, which held that the right to religious liberty was “in its nature an unalienable right” that a man did not forfeit by entering into civil society. Jefferson, relatedly, saw religious liberty as a central aspect of the natural right to freedom of thought and belief. As the preamble to the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom—a bill Jefferson took particular pride in drafting—declared: “Almighty God hath made the mind free.”
Finally, a “third strand” of thought was “best exemplified by George Washington, who strove to ensure that the combination of religion and government would not ‘rankle, & perhaps convulse the State.’” If Jefferson and Madison “can be said to have had primarily philosophical objections to the assessment bill,” Meyerson contends, “Washington’s objections might be described as political.” Although not opposed to a religious tax in principle, Washington confided in a letter to George Mason that he hoped Henry’s bill would “die an easy death” since its defeat would be “productive of more quiet to the State, than by enacting it into law.” As in his Farewell Address, Washington was attentive to religion’s power to unite and divide civil society, and his concern was rooted less in philosophical principle than practical politics.
Henry’s bill did eventually die in the Virginia legislature, and, as Meyerson maintains, the idea of religious liberty during this episode found reinforcing support in religion, philosophy, and the demands of political life. Yet Meyerson also concedes that the relationship between religion and government during the founding era was more complex than the combined views of these influential Virginians. Although “broad-minded, tolerant, and pluralistic,” Patrick Henry’s proposed tax to fund teachers of the Christian religion was itself part of a larger tradition of state establishments of religion, which persisted well into the nineteenth century. A streak of anti-Catholicism and anti-Semitism, combined with intramural squabbles among Protestant denominations, made religious politics particularly rancorous at the state level during this period. However, under the leadership of Washington and his successors, Meyerson argues, “the national government was able ‘to begin the world anew’ and create a revolutionary new understanding of religious liberty,” with the states eventually following “the national model.”
Although Meyerson’s history does not offer easy solutions to our pressing church-state issues, it does offer two broad challenges to contemporary judges, academics, and pundits. The first challenge is leveled at those who would interpret every religious statement uttered by one of the American founders in some public capacity as an example of “ceremonial deism,” a kind of pro forma tradition rooted in a distant past and long detached from any actual theological content. The second challenge is aimed at those who overreach in the other direction by highlighting the theological aspects of early American politics while ignoring the complexity of the founders’ views of the relationship between church and state. By “including the good and the bad and the complicated balances created by the framing generation,” Endowed by Our Creator issues a timely invitation to reflect on the creation of religious liberty in the United States and the principles that are necessary for its maintenance.
Justin Dyer is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Missouri and author of Natural Law and the Antislavery Constitutional Tradition (Cambridge University Press).