Was this country founded on religious liberty?


In the linked article from the Baptist Press, the opening line reads, “In a nation founded on religious liberty.”  Is this an accurate statement?  There are many who hold that it is truthful, but does this match up with history?

Here is what history shows. The US Constitution, as ratified in June 1788, gave no right of religious liberty to any citizen.  The only reference to religion in the document was only to say that, on the federal level, there would be no religious test to hold office.  This did not apply to states and, thus, states were free to continue having these religious tests for office, such as in Pennsylvania where officeholders had to swear that they believed in God and a future state of rewards and punishment.

The framers punted the issue of religion to the states, only promising that the power of the federal government would not be used to advance one wing of Christianity, say Congregationalist (New England region), over another, such as Anglicanism (middle and southern states).  This still allowed states to declare official state churches and grant privileges to specific denominations.  States, such as Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, Connecticut, and South Carolina continued to support a particular church out of the public treasury.  Blasphemy was forbidden in Delaware until 1826.  The last state constitution to have an official state church removed from it was Massachusetts in 1833.

Even the First Amendment, when ratified in 1791, only applied to the federal government.  It would not be applied to the states until into the 20th century.

So, as can be seen, this country was not founded on true religious liberty for states were still allowed to have an official state church and have religious requirements of its citizens.

Now, while not requiring a religious test for holding office was radical for its time, the reason why it was included rests in the opening words of this new constitution – “In order to form a more perfect union…”  The framers were aware that choosing one brand of religion over another would quickly lead to this proposed new constitution to be defeated.  So they needed to assure states that the federal government would stay out of religion and leave it as a matter for the states to do as they pleased.

In order to understand why the framers of the constitution felt it necessary that there be a new way of organizing this young nation, it is necessary to understand what had happened under the Articles of Confederation, the original organization of this new nation.

Under the original organization of this nation, there was economic chaos.  Congress could not regulate trade and the states were involved in severe competition with each other.  There was no uniform currency for Congress could print money, but so also could each state.  And each state could decide what currency it would even accept.  Only the state had the right to impose taxes and raise revenue.

A lack of central leadership under the Articles of Confederation led to no independent judiciary.  This allowed state courts to overturn national decisions they found objectionable.  And Congress had no means to oppose them.  There was no foreign affairs head.  And there was no ability to deal with internal or external threats.

There were legislative inefficiencies under the Articles of Confederation.  Each state had one vote, no matter the size of its populace.  Because of this, there was a difficulty in passing laws.  It took 9 of 13 states to vote yes to pass a law.  Therefore, if the five smallest states united against any legislation, they could defeat anything.  The amendment process was so difficult, it was virtually impossible.  Congress and every state had to agree to the change.

So, the text of, purpose for, and rationale for the new constitution must be examined against this backdrop.  When one reads the Constitution in light of the issues expressed under the Articles of Confederation and that opening phrase of “In order to form a more perfect union…,” it is readily apparent that the framers were not concerned at all with religious liberty.  Religion was a matter for each state, and if a state decided to continue to have an official state church, as many did, that was its right.  They were motivated by fixing the problems experienced under the Articles of Confederation.

Therefore, because of this reality, religious liberty, as we know it today, was not present at the founding of this nation.  However, it did grow out of the First Amendment to the Constitution as the concept of religious liberty as a civil right that transcended all levels of government evolved as individuals such as Baptist cleric John Leland pushed for true religious liberty for all in this country, no matter their religion or lack thereof.


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