Susan Jacoby is an award-winning independent scholar and writer and the author of seven books, including Freethinkers and Wild Justice: The Evolution of Revenge, a Pulitzer Prize nominee. She began her career as a reporter for The Washington Post and has contributed articles to numerous publications, including The New York Times, The Nation, AARP Bulletin, Vogue, Newsday, and TomPaine.com. She has lived in New York City for 30 years. (Read more at www.susanjacoby.com.)
The essential rationalism binding America’s founding secularists to one another was memorably expressed by John Adams to Thomas Jefferson in an 1813 letter commenting on Britain’s repeal of an old statute that made it a crime to deny the existence of the Holy Trinity. “We can never be so certain of any Prophecy,” Adams wrote, “or the fulfillment of any Prophecy; or of any miracle, or the design of any miracle as We are, from the revelation of nature i.e. natures God that two and two are equal to four. Miracles or Prophecies might frighten Us out of our Witts; might scare us to death; might induce Us to lie, to say that We believe that 2 and 2 make 5. But We should not believe it. We should know the contrary.”
In their seventies, with a friendship that had survived serious political conflicts, Adams and Jefferson could look back with satisfaction on what they both considered their greatest achievement—their role in establishing a secular government whose legislators would never be required, or permitted, to rule on the legality of theological views. Trying to discern the true religious opinions of the founders from their voluminous writings is rather like searching for the real Jesus in the conflicting passages of the Scriptures. Jefferson’s political opponents in the early 1800s were just as mistaken, and as hypocritical, to call him an atheist as his conservative modern rebaptizers are to claim him as a committed Christian. Adams’s critics and admirers, then and now, have been equally misguided in their attempts to portray him as a man of orthodox faith. What did distinguish the most important revolutionary leaders was a particularly adaptable combination of political and religious beliefs, constantly subject to revision in an era when modern views of nature, science, and man’s place in the universe were beginning to take shape. These views included skepticism vis-à-vis the more rigid and authoritarian religious sects of their day; the conviction, rooted in Enlightenment philosophy, that if God exists, he created human rationality as the supreme instrument for understanding and mastering the natural world; and the assignment of faith to the sphere of individual conscience rather than public duty. The logical extension of such beliefs was a civil government based not on the laws of God, as promulgated by self-appointed earthly spokesmen, but on the rights of man.
In the half century before the Revolution, an extraordinarily dynamic culture, characterized by the spread of both nonreligious freethought and religious dissent, provided fertile soil for the growth of secularist ideas that would be translated into a civic ideal in the 1789 Constitution. The proliferation of religious sects, and a hands-off policy toward religious pluralism on the part of many of His Majesty’s governors, was a conspicuous feature of colonial society. Any pope or church-sanctioned king would have been taken aback by the thanksgiving services held in August 1763 in New York City to commemorate the British victory in the French and Indian War. There is of course nothing unusual in the annals of human conflict about the victorious sides thanking God. What was unusual, indeed unprecedented in a world of unquestioned union between church and state, was the religious diversity in evidence on the day of thanksgiving proclaimed by His Majesty’s colonial governor. The services were held in Episcopal, Dutch Reformed, Presbyterian, French Huguenot, Baptist, and Moravian churches. Even more extraordinary was the participation of Congregation Shearith Israel, representing the city’s small community of Sephardic Jews. The Jewish thanksgiving sermon was based on Zechariah 2:10, “Sing and rejoice, O daughter of Zion: for lo, I come, and I will dwell in the midst of thee, saith the Lord.” George III undoubtedly approved of the political sentiments expressed by his colonial subjects on that day, but a king in possession of more wits might well have sensed a revolution brewing in the peaceful coexistence in the New World of religious believers who had only relatively recently ceased bloodying one another in the more enlightened parts of the Old World. The public inclusion of multiple Christian sects, even if all were Protestant, manifested a religious liberalism that not only set the colonies apart from their mother country but also underscored the difference between Puritan New England and the already sinfully cosmopolitan city of New York. The addition of Jews to the mix was far more radical, since Jews in the eighteenth century were commonly listed by many orthodox Christians in a litany of detested unbelievers—“Jews, pagans, infidels, heretics, deists. . . .” As defenders of monolithic state-established churches have always known, the presence of many religions, unchecked by the inquisitor’s rack and pyre, tends to impeach the claim of any religion to absolute truth and spiritual authority. Moreover, many contemporary observers reported a widespread casualness toward formal religious observance by the beginning of the revolution. In 1780, Samuel Mather, a member of the famous family that produced the fire-breathing Puritan preachers Cotton and Increase Mather, complained that only one in six of his fellow Bostonians could be counted on to attend regular church services. This does not mean that the majority of Americans were unbelievers, but it does attest to the presence of powerful libertarian and noncomformist impulses in the new nation.
The religious pluralism of colonial America, which militated against a common cultural definition of religious heresy, also made room for freethought. As early as the 1750s, the spread of deism—often used by its detractors as a synonym for freethought and atheism—was considered a serious problem by orthodox clergymen. In 1759, the widely respected Reverend Ezra Stiles was already convinced that “Deism has got such Head in this Age of Licentious Liberty, that it would be in vain to stop it by hiding the Deistical Writings: and the only Way left to conquer & demolish it, is to come forth into the open Field and dispute it on an even Footing.” Stiles was writing a letter to express his disagreement with the president of Yale College, who had turned down a donation of a library from a Newport merchant on the already anachronistic ground that Rhode Island, having been founded by Roger Williams in response to Puritan persecutions in Massachusetts, was a schismatic state. The devout minister’s acknowledgment of the futility of censorship was itself an indication of the influence of American freethought.
Expanding literacy, especially in the northern colonies, contributed to the spread of freethought beyond an educated elite to a larger audience of literate farmers, small businessmen, craftsmen, and, in growing numbers, their wives and daughters. “In no part of the habitable globe is learning and true useful knowledge so universally disseminated as in our native country,” declared Bostonian John Gardiner in a Fourth of July oration on the eighth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. “Who hath seen a native adult that cannot write? who known a native of the age of puberty that cannot read the bible?” Even allowing for patriotic hyperbole, the connection between America’s rising literacy rate and the wider dissemination of sophisticated social, political, and religious, as well as antireligious, ideas is obvious. Literate men and women did not need ministers to tell them how, and what, to think about God. (In this respect, the Roman Catholic opposition to Bible reading in the vernacular was much more protective of the church’s interests than was the Protestant emphasis on reading the Scriptures in a language that could be understood.) Ordinary literate Americans might not have been reading Locke, Hume, Newton, Voltaire, Rousseau, and Diderot, but they did read secondhand accounts, in pamphlets and newspapers, of political and religious debates that drew on all of the Enlightenment thinkers. If large numbers of Americans had not been familiar with both the language and the philosophy of the Enlightenment, the secularist revolutionary leaders would not have used those concepts in the nation’s founding documents. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were written to be understood by literate Americans of every social background. Paine’s polemical pamphlets on behalf of independence, as well as his later antireligious arguments, were composed in the same straightforward language—a source of particular fury to clerics who could only reply with abstruse theological arguments.
The expansion of literacy in the late colonial era was accompanied by a growing interest in and respect for science—an important element of freethought in all countries affected by the Enlightenment. The leaders of the American Enlightenment were well aware of how inferior the American intellectual and scientific environment was to the elite established centers of learning in Europe, and they hoped to remedy this disadvantage after the achievement of independence. But those who knew Europe well were convinced that Europe’s intellectual superiority applied only to the most privileged minority and that the majority of Americans were far better informed about science than their European counterparts. From Paris in 1785, Jefferson wrote that “in science, the mass of [European] people is two centuries behind ours.” Jefferson conceded, however, that Europe’s “literati” were half a dozen years ahead of Americans, because it took that long for important new books to cross the Atlantic and be thoroughly assimilated by American intellectuals. Then as now, American scientific interest focused not on theory but on the immense practical benefits to be derived from discovering the secrets of the natural world—the subject of so many of Benjamin Franklin’s popular scientific writings. But scientific curiosity was also rooted in the more general Enlightenment passion for rationality. Respect for the laws of science—the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God, as the Declaration of Independence put it—translated into the conviction that both government and religion should and could operate in a manner consistent with those laws.
By the time of the Revolution, it was impossible to dismiss the connection between emerging concepts of political freedom and religious freethought, although the most religiously orthodox patriots certainly wished to do just that. The fundamental ethos of the Revolution was opposed to divine as well as earthly despotism. “Who would imagine,” the Revolutionary War hero Ethan Allen asked in 1784, “that the Deity conducts his providence similar to the detestable despots of the world? O horrible most horrible impeachment of Divine Goodness!” To Allen, better known today as the leader of the Green Mountain Boys and an advocate of statehood for Vermont, rejection of the all-powerful Calvinist deity went together with rejection of the divine right of kings. The Reverend Timothy Dwight, who, as president of Yale, would play a leading role in a concerted effort to reestablish religious orthodoxy in the postrevolutionary nation, described Allen’s Reason the Only Oracle of Man (1784) as “the first formal publication, in the United States, openly directed against the Christian religion.” A disorganized and stylistically clumsy writer, Allen never achieved the influence or notoriety that accompanied the dissemination of Paine’s The Age of Reason a decade later. But his book, in spite of and also because of its rough-hewn style, offers considerable insight into the revolutionary connection between political and religious freedom. Allen embodied the anticlerical strain in early American freethought; although his antagonism toward ecclesiastical hierarchies was directed chiefly at hellfire-and-damnation Calvinist ministers, his many derogatory references to “priests” and “priestcraft” also reflected the strong influence of French Enlightenment thought on the American revolutionary generation. Notions of the depravity of human reason, Allen argued, were cherished by priests because, if ordinary human beings were assumed to be perfectly capable of reasoning for themselves, the clergy would be out of work. Allen also noted that “while we are under the tyranny of Priests . . . it will ever be in their interest, to invalidate the law of nature and reason, in order to establish systems incompatible therewith.”
The link between political and religious freethought was not always so explicitly drawn, but it was always in the air. It should not therefore be surprising that, even before the end of the Revolutionary War, a radical new vision of absolute separation of church and state was set forward by freethinkers as the logical outgrowth of political independence. In 1779, Jefferson proposed a bill that would guarantee complete legal equality for citizens of all religions, and of no religion, in his home state of Virginia. Jefferson’s was the first plan in any of the thirteen states to call for complete separation of civil and religious authority, and seven years of fierce debate and political bargaining would pass before a version of his bill was enacted into law. Virginia stood alone in marshaling a legislative majority that, as Jefferson observed, “meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and infidel of every denomination.” It is impossible to overstate the importance of Virginia’s 1786 Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, for, much to the dismay of religious conservatives, it would become the template for the secularist provisions of the federal Constitution.
When Jefferson first put forward a law to separate church and state, the Episcopal Church—the American branch having declared its independence from the Church of England—represented the official, or “established,” religion of the state of Virginia. The issue remained on the back burner until the end of the war, when both freethinkers and dissenting evangelical Protestants renewed their objections to the existence of a state church. The battle was joined in 1784 when Patrick Henry introduced a bill in the Virginia General Assembly that would have assessed taxes on all citizens for the support of “teachers of the Christian religion.” The proposal, which would have replaced the single established Episcopal Church with “multiple establishments,” was eminently reasonable, even tolerant, if you happened to believe that the state government should be in the business of supporting Christian churches. James Madison was among those who did not, and he conveyed his views to the Assembly in his “Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments.”
Madison’s eloquent “Memorial,” eventually signed by some two thousand Virginians, should be as familiar to students of American history as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. “Who does not see,” he asked in a passage that delineated his concern for personal freedom of religion, “that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other Religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other Sects? That the same authority which can force a citizen to contribute three pence only of his property for the support of any one establishment, may force him to conform to any other establishment in all cases whatsoever?” Madison’s advocacy of government freedom from religious control is equally explicit:
If Religion be not within cognizance of Civil Government, how can its legal establishment be said to be necessary to Civil Government? 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 seen the upholding of the thrones of political tyranny; in no instance have they been seen the guardians of the liberty of the people. Rulers who wish to subvert the public liberty, may have found an established clergy convenient auxiliaries. A just government, instituted to secure and perpetuate it [liberty], needs them not.
Citing the “malignant influence” of religious hatred not only on individuals but on “the health and prosperity of the state,” Madison conceded that even a law guaranteeing complete religious liberty might not be sufficient to extinguish ancient religious enmities. Nevertheless, he argued, a secular government’s evenhandedness toward all forms of belief and nonbelief would serve “sufficiently” to minimize the worst effects of religious discord on civil society and government.
In the mid-1780s, Jefferson was in Paris, serving as America’s minister to France, so it fell to Madison to lead the political battle against tax assessments for the support of Christian churches. Henry’s assessment plan had powerful support from affluent Episcopal landowners, who, though they had established an American church independent of the Church of England, were not at all averse to emulating their mother Anglican church by filling their coffers from the public trough. As the debate began, most dissenting Protestant sects, because they stood to benefit from the new tax levies, were equally enthusiastic about Henry’s plan.
Then Madison’s “Memorial” was inserted into the mix. It was a masterful piece of publicity on behalf of freedom of conscience, with an impact not unlike that of Thomas Paine’s celebrated arguments, in “Common Sense,” on behalf of independence. And although Madison was speaking from the perspective of an Enlightenment rationalist, his presentation of the pernicious possibilities for state interference with religion appealed powerfully to nonconformist Protestants, including small Quaker and Lutheran sects as well as the more numerous Baptists and Presbyterians, who had long resented the domination of the Episcopalians. Although evangelicals did not share Madison’s and Jefferson’s suspicions of religious influence on civil government—indeed, they wished to expand the scope of their own influence—they eventually became convinced that dissenting denominations could best flourish under a government that explicitly prohibited state interference with church affairs. And they were willing to renounce government money to ensure government noninterference.
The best account of this often overlooked episode in American history appears in Thomas E. Buckley’s Church and State in Revolutionary Virginia (1977). Buckley, a Jesuit priest, presents a fairminded account of the secularist as well as the religious contributions to the passage of Jefferson’s bill, underscoring the complementary and contradictory motives of both groups. For Virginia’s minority religious groups, which included evangelical Baptists, Quakers, Presbyterians, and Methodists, theological conviction went hand in hand with their desire to thwart any attempt by the Episcopal Church to retain its privileged prerevolutionary position. Evangelical faith rested on a personal, unmediated relationship between God and man, and any union between church and state was seen not only as unnecessary but as an insult to the Creator, whose claims preceded those of any civil government. The “Memorial” passages most significant to evangelicals declared that “in matters of Religion, no man’s right is abridged by the institution of Civil Society, and that Religion is wholly exempt from its cognizance. True it is, that no other rule exists, by which any question which may divide a Society can be ultimately determined, but the will of the majority; but it is also true, that the majority may trespass upon the rights of the minority.” While secularists like Jefferson and Madison were concerned mainly with limiting the influence of religious intolerance on civil government, the evangelicals cared mainly about unfettered opportunity not only to worship in their own way but to proselytize within society—a difference in motivation that would place the two groups on opposite sides in many future political battles. At the time, though, the interests of the evangelicals and the Enlightenment rationalists coincided and coalesced in a common support for separation of church and state. During the Virginia debate, each side borrowed the other’s arguments and even appropriated the other’s rhetorical devices.
The language of natural rights was liberally employed by religious bodies opposing the assessment bill. A petition from four hundred Quakers, wittily signed “your real Friends,” called the proposed bill “an Infringement of Religious and Civil Liberty Established by the [Virginia] Bill of Rights.” The petitioners noted tartly that it was not necessary for the government to make “Provisions for learned Teachers,” since all knowledge of Christianity comes directly from Christ himself. The evangelical reverence for freedom of conscience also allowed for a sense of humor. One Baptist petition was accompanied by a poem written by the Reverend David Thomas:
Tax all things; water, air, and light,
If there need be; yea, tax the night:
But let our brave heroick minds
Move freely as celestial winds.
Make vice and folly feel your rod,
But leave our consciences to God.
Most secularist petitioners, well aware of the importance of religious support to their cause, took care to include passages emphasizing their respect for religion. From Montgomery County in the western part of the state—a hotbed of freethinkers—came a petition written by John Breckinridge, a good friend of Madison’s, and signed by some three hundred landholders. Breckinridge argued, in terms that were somewhat disingenuous, that religion would be secure only when “full Scope” was given to “unbiased and unprejudiced Reason.” Only a small proportion of secularists were brave enough to acknowledge that they were as interested in freedom of conscience for deists and freethinkers as they were in freedom for conventional religious believers—though Jefferson’s original 1779 bill extended equal rights to all. One petitioner from Amelia County, in a document dated November 9, 1785, expressed his views in a fashion familiar to eighteenth-century readers—by making fun of the ardent but usually futile efforts of preachers to convince unbelievers of the error of their ways. Scoffing at the notion that government support of Christian teaching would foster conversions, he asked, “Will the Deist come to hear preaching? How then are they to be Converted? . . . The Deist many miles from church [is] laughing in his Sleeve or toping at a tavern. . . . How many Deists have the Orthodox clergy Converted lately?”
The two-year debate over the assessment bill produced petitions with more than 13,000 signatures in a state with fewer than 100,000 white men over twenty-one—the only segment of the population with a voice in political matters. Petitioners opposing religious assessments outnumbered supporters twelve to one. In the end, the secularists and dissident evangelicals easily carried the day. Madison’s “Memorial,” and the attendant publicity in newspapers throughout the state, had alerted every possible opponent of religious tax assessments. By the time Virginia lawmakers arrived in Richmond for the beginning of the 1785–86 General Assembly, the assessment bill, which once seemed certain of passage, had been relegated to the dustbin of history. Instead, Jefferson’s plan to establish complete separation of church and state was taken up by the legislature. The bill did not make it through the assembly without revisions that moderated the rhetorical force of its secular arguments, but the result, unprecedented in both American and world history, achieved exactly what Jefferson had intended—liberty for every kind of believer and unbeliever. The text of the law begins with the words “Whereas, Almighty God hath created the mind free. . . .” Jefferson’s original bill had placed a salute to reason before a bow to God: “Well aware that the opinions and belief of men depend not on their own will, but follow involuntarily the evidence proposed to their minds; that Almighty God hath created the mind free. . . .” However, the lawmakers overwhelmingly defeated a move to acknowledge Jesus Christ rather than a nonsectarian deity. The rejection of any mention of Jesus, Jefferson would recall thirty years later, proved that the law was meant to protect not only Christians, and not only religious believers, but nonbelievers as well. The statement that “Almighty God hath created the mind free” was a rhetorical flourish, not a legal requirement: the important point for secularists was that no Virginian—in contrast to the prevailing practices in other states—would have to affirm his belief in any god to run for public office or claim civic equality. Leaving out a reference to the primacy of human reason was, though not a meaningless concession, far less important than the unequivocal guarantee of freedom of thought at the heart of the statute:
Be it enacted by the General Assembly of Virginia that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.
And though we will know that this Assembly, elected by the people for the ordinary purposes of legislation only, have no power to restrain the acts of succeeding Assemblies, constituted with powers equal to our own, and that therefore to declare this act irrevocable would be of no effect in law; yet we are free to declare, and do declare, that the rights hereby asserted are of the natural rights of mankind, and that if any act shall be hereafter passed to repeal the present, or to narrow its operation, such act will be infringement of natural right.
The significance of Virginia’s religious freedom act was recognized immediately in Europe. News of the law was received with great enthusiasm—not by the governments of the Old World, with their entrenched state-established religions, but by individuals who wished to promote liberty of conscience in their own countries. The Virginia law, translated into French and Italian as soon as the text made it across the Atlantic in 1786, was disseminated throughout most of the courts of Europe, and, as Jefferson wrote Madison, “has been the best evidence of the falsehood of those reports which stated us to be in anarchy.” Expressing his pride in Virginia’s leadership, Jefferson observed that “it is comfortable to see the standard of reason at length erected, after so many ages, during which the human mind has been held in vassalage by kings, priests, and nobles, and it is honorable for us, to have produced the first legislature who had the courage to declare, that the reason of man may be trusted with the formation of his own opinions.”
In America, where the great debate over the federal Constitution was just beginning, Virginia’s law was hailed by secularists as a model for the new national government and denounced by those who favored the semi-theocratic systems still prevailing in most states. As the Constitutional Convention opened in 1787, with George Washington as its president, legally entrenched privileges for Protestant Christianity were the rule rather than the exception in most states. The convention could have modeled the federal Constitution after the Massachusetts constitution of 1780, which extended equal protection of the laws, and the right to hold office, only to Christians. And not all Christians: Catholics were permitted to hold public office only if they took a special oath renouncing papal authority “in any matter, civil, ecclesiastical or spiritual.” Even that restriction was not enough for the most committed descendants of the Puritans; sixty-three Massachusetts towns registered official objections to the use of “Christian” rather than “Protestant,” bearing out a prediction by Adams that “a change in the solar system might be expected as soon as a change in the ecclesiastical system of Massachusetts.” State religious restrictions were grounded not only in old prejudices but in the relative political strength of various religious constituencies. The 1777 New York State constitution, for example, extended political equality to Jews—who, though few in number, had considerable economic influence in New York City—but not to Catholics (who were not allowed to hold public office until 1806). Maryland, the home state of Charles Carroll, the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence, guaranteed full civil rights to Protestants and Catholics but not to Jews, freethinkers, and deists. The possibility of equal rights for non-Christians had never even occurred to Carroll. In his old age, he wrote, “When I signed the Declaration of Independence, I had in view not only our independence of England, but the toleration of all sects professing the Christian religion, and communicating to them all equal rights.” In Delaware, officeholders were required to take an oath affirming belief in the Trinity, and in South Carolina, Protestantism was specifically recognized as the state-established religion.
But the framers of the Constitution chose Virginia, not the other states, with their crazy quilts of obeisance to a more restrictive religious past, as the model for the new nation. The Constitution is a secularist document because of what it says and what it does not say. The first of the explicit secularist provisions is article 6, section 3, which states that federal elective and appointed officials “shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” No religious test. This provision, much less familiar to the public today than the First Amendment, was especially meaningful and especially sweeping in view of the fact that the necessity of religious tests and religious oaths for officeholders had been taken for granted by nearly all the governments of the American states (not to mention those of the rest of the world) at the time the Constitution was written. The addition of the word affirmation is significant, because it meant that the framers did not intend to compel officeholders to take a religious oath on the Bible. The intent could not have been clearer to those who wanted only religious men—specifically, Protestant believers—to hold office. As a North Carolina minister put it during his state’s debate on ratification of the Constitution, the abolition of religious tests for officeholders amounted to “an invitation for Jews and pagans of every kind to come among us.”
The debate over the secular provisions of the Constitution did not break down along predictable lines. Federalists—those who supported a more powerful central government—were, on the whole, more favorably disposed toward established churches (and established institutions of all kinds) than those, like Jefferson, who feared expansion of federal power even though they recognized the need for a national Constitution. Yet some of the most influential Federalists, including Adams and Washington, fully shared Jefferson’s views on the separation of religious and civil affairs even though they did not share his profound suspicion of all government power. The constitution’s prohibition of religious tests offered the opportunity to accomplish at the national level what could not, as Adams noted, be accomplished in the near future against the forces of religious orthodoxy in many states. At the Constitutional Convention, many southern delegates in the Jeffersonian camp were from states whose politics, like Virginia’s, were strongly influenced by a combination of Enlightenment rationalism and dissident evangelical Protestantism. These delegates were virtually unanimous in their support of the ban on religious tests for public offices.
The second explicit secularist constitutional provision is of course the First Amendment to the Bill of Rights, ratified in 1791, with its declaration that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” The First Amendment’s “establishment clause,” as it is called by legal scholars, is often cited by religious conservatives as evidence that the founders wished only to protect religion from government—not government from religion. It is true that the entire Bill of Rights was written to prevent the government from infringing on individual liberties, of which freedom of religion, speech, and the press were first among equals; the establishment clause is no exception. But the First Amendment’s prohibition against government interference with religious liberty cannot be detached from the body of the Constitution, with its prohibition against religious tests for public office. Furthermore, the framers of the Bill of Rights hoped that the First Amendment would encourage other states to follow Virginia’s example and establish complete separation between religious and civil authority. Thus Madison proposed in 1791 that the Bill of Rights specifically prohibit states from passing any law interfering with freedom of conscience. He did not succeed in persuading Congress to go along with what would then have been an unprecedented and unacceptable expansion of federal power; the states would remain free to pass their own laws regarding relations between church and state. (The Fourteenth Amendment, passed in 1868 to extend civil rights to newly freed slaves, provides that no state shall deprive its citizens of “equal protection of the laws.” Not until the 1930s was the equal protection clause invoked in an effort to force states to honor federal constitutional guarantees of religious liberty and separation of church and state—finally achieving what Madison had proposed 140 years earlier.)
Without downgrading the importance of either the establishment clause or the constitutional ban on religious tests for officeholders, one can make a strong case that the omission of one word—God—played an even more important role in the construction of a secularist foundation for the new government. The Constitution’s silence on the deity broke not only with culturally and historically distant precedents but with proximate and recent American precedents—most notably the 1781 Articles of Confederation, which acknowledged the beneficence of “the Great Governor of the World.” With its refusal to invoke any form of divine sanction, even the vague deistic “Providence,” the Constitution went even farther than Virginia’s religious freedom act in separating religion from government. Perhaps surprisingly, the omission of God was not a major source of controversy at the Constitutional Convention. In the first place, delegates from the more religiously conservative states, like Massachusetts, knew that whatever the federal Constitution said, most public policies toward religion would be crafted at the state level. Furthermore, the most serious obstacles to a federal union were slavery and the fear of less populous states that their interests would be disregarded by a government weighted in favor of larger, more heavily populated, and more prosperous states. Preoccupied with hammering out an apportionment formula declaring a slave the equivalent of three-fifths of a free man, the delegates had little time to concern themselves with power emanating from the celestial regions. God, unlike enslaved humans, was not a deal breaker.
But the secularism of the Constitution did produce substantial controversy during the ratification debates conducted by state conventions. The framers were denounced by religious traditionalists both for the Constitution’s ban on religious tests for public office and for its failure to acknowledge God as the ultimate governmental authority. The opposition to article 6 frequently took an anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic tone. At the Massachusetts convention, one speaker warned that unless the chief executive was required to take a religious oath, “a Turk, a Jew, a Roman Catholic, and what is worse than all, a Universalist, may be President of the United States.” In the New York Daily Advertiser, a writer noted that since the president was designated commander in chief of the armed forces, “should he thereafter be a Jew our dear posterity may be ordered to rebuild Jerusalem.”
But the omission of God elicited the most inflamed rhetoric. The Reverend John M. Mason, a fiery New York Federalist who did not share John Adams’s views, declared the absence of God in the Constitution “an omission which no pretext whatever can palliate.” If American citizens should prove as irreligious as the Constitution, the Reverend Mr. Mason warned, “we will have every reason to tremble, lest the Governor of the universe, who will not be treated with indignity by a people more than by individuals, overturn from its foundations the fabric we have been rearing, and crush us to atoms in the wreck.” In Boston, one opponent of ratification predicted that the United States would suffer the fate foretold by the prophet Samuel for King Saul—“because thou hast rejected the word of the Lord, he has also rejected thee (I Samuel 15:23).” Another correspondent argued in the Massachusetts Gazette of March 7, 1788, that “it is more difficult to build an elegant house without tools to work with, than it is to establish a durable government without the publick protection of religion.”
Support for the secularism of the Constitution came from the by-then familiar coalition of Enlightenment rationalists and dissident Protestants. The stance of evangelical Protestants, who feared that any government endorsement of religion might lead to government control of religion, was most forcefully advocated in Massachusetts by the Reverend Isaac Backus, a prominent Baptist minister who shared the views of his fellow evangelicals in Virginia. “Nothing is more evident,” he emphasized, “than that religion is ever a matter between God and individuals; and therefore, no man or men can impose any religious test without invading the essential prerogatives of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Reaching the same conclusion from an entirely different perspective, an Enlightenment rationalist who signed himelf “Elihu” praised the founders for their refusal to “dazzle even the superstitious, by a hint about grace or ghostly knowledge.” The authors of the Constitution, Elihu asserted, “come to us in the plain language of common sense, and propose to our understanding a system of government, as the invention of mere human wisdom; no deity comes down to dictate it, not even a God in a dream to propose any part of it.”
Although there were numerous attempts by state ratifying conventions to amend the Constitution, and subvert the intent of the preamble, by declaring that governmental power was derived from God or Jesus Christ, the proposed religious amendments were defeated. In the end, the economic necessity for a federal union trumped all other concerns. And as Jefferson and Madison had hoped, the Constitution influenced many states, if not all, to reconsider the religious restrictions in their own constitutions. The proper relationship between church and state, like the even more volatile issue of slavery, proved a recurrent source of contention as the frontier moved westward and new states were admitted to the union. Virginia’s religious freedom act remained an influential model as the various states—some much more rapidly than others—expanded their definitions of religious liberty. Nowhere was the influence of Jefferson greater than in Kentucky, which in 1792 became the fifteenth state to enter the union. As in Virginia, evangelicals and secularists combined to form a majority in favor of religious liberty and separation of church and state. Between 1789 and 1792, South Carolina and Georgia also followed the Virginia model and removed all religious barriers from their constitutions. Delaware abandoned its requirement that officeholders take an oath attesting to their belief in the Trinity, and Pennsylvania changed its constitution to allow Jews (but not atheists) to hold office. The new Pennsylvania oath of office required that a man swear to his belief both in God and in an afterlife involving rewards and punishments. The other eight of the original thirteen states took decades longer to arrive at anything approaching complete separation of church and state. When Connecticut finally disestablished the Congregationalist Church in 1818, Jefferson, in a letter to Adams, could not contain his joy at the news that “this den of the priesthood is at last broken up, and that a protestant popedom is no longer to disgrace the American history and character.” Adams and Jefferson shared the hope that Connecticut’s religious liberalization would influence Massachusetts to follow suit. Before Connecticut’s action, Jefferson had considered both states “the last retreat of Monkish darkness, bigotry, and abhorrence of those advances of the mind which had carried the other states a century ahead of them. They still seemed to be exactly where their forefathers were . . . and to consider, as dangerous heresies, all innovations good or bad.” However, Jefferson’s and Adams’s hopes for greater liberalization in the New England states would not be realized in their lifetimes. Massachusetts would not strike all religious restrictions from its laws until 1833—seven years after Adams’s death—and Connecticut would withhold equal rights from Jews for another ten years after that.
Although the pace of change in customary religious arrangements seemed glacial to those members of the revolutionary generation most committed to Enlightenment values, what is striking from a twenty-first-century perspective is the speed with which many Americans came to support a freedom of thought and religious practice that overturned millennia of religious authoritarianism. Even when legal barriers to full civic equality remained, as they did for Jews in most states, the first eight years of the American republic were characterized by a de facto expansion of liberty for nonbelievers as well as for dissident religious believers, for non-Christians and Christians alike. As President Washington noted in his extraordinary 1790 letter to the Jewish community of Newport, Rhode Island, this liberty was seen by representatives of the American Enlightenment not as a grudging concession or even as a generous gift from the American government but as a right. “All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunity of citizenship,” Washington wrote. “It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens. . . . May the children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants, while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.”
It is a remarkable demonstration of the framers’ faith in their secularist constitution that Washington could speak with such assurance only a year after ratification—and a year before the Bill of Rights was adopted. The president’s encouraging and egalitarian response to the Jews of Newport also offers powerful evidence against the religious right’s contention that the founders intended to establish a Christian nation. The absurdity of the claim that the framers somehow overlooked, or misunderstood, the political and religious implications of leaving God out of the nation’s founding document is borne out not only by Washington’s matter-of-fact assumption of the distinction between religious affiliation and citizenship but by the intensity and clarity of the public debate that preceded ratification of the Constitution. The founders knew exactly what they were doing, and so did their fellow citizens on both sides of the issue. Conservative clergymen like Mason denounced the godlessness of the Constitution precisely because they understood that it did indeed pose an obstacle not only to government interference with religion but to religious interference with government. The assertion that America was founded as a Christian nation would have some validity if—if only, in the view of some right-wing extremists—the nation had remained a group of loosely linked states, forever free to continue the theocratic arrangements of the past. The religiously correct are forced to explain away the Constitution’s omission of God by portraying the framers as so godly that any mention of the Supreme Being in the Constitution would have been as superfluous as acknowledging the sky overhead. In this tortured and anachronistic argument, the mere mention of a divinity—as in “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God”—proves that Jefferson and the other signers of the Declaration of Independence were not only believers in religious liberty but Believers with a capital B. The image of the founders as devoutly religious men is an integral and necessary element of modern religious correctness: if rationalism and humanism permeated the character and thought of the iconic revolutionary figures, it becomes much more difficult to construct a modern scenario in which secularism is portrayed as un-American.
What is undeniable is that the seeds of America’s continuing discord over whether this is a secularist or a religious nation were planted during the period when the legal foundation for the world’s first secular government was laid. The fruitful but philosophically uneasy alliance between Enlightenment rationalists and evangelical Christians ensured continuing controversy over the proper degree and precise meaning of separation between church and state. In the late eighteenth century, evangelicals were still a minority—albeit an influential one—among Americans of faith, and they recognized that any laws favoring an established church would impede their own ability to gain converts and impress their values on the larger society. Many evangelicals did cherish a deep and sincere belief that any government involvement with religion was an insult to God and to the supremacy of individual conscience. But they were also acting out of realpolitik, biding their time until their growing numbers would translate into greater political influence and the ability to convince legislators that particular religious views—theirs—ought to be enshrined in general law. They soon joined more conservative religious forces in backing state laws like those compelling Sabbath observance. Nor did the evangelicals agree with the Enlightenment rationalists on the fundamental importance of secular public education—a debate, still in its infancy at the end of the revolutionary century, that has never ended.
In 1791, with the Constitution and the Bill of Rights in place, America’s revolutionary secularists looked forward to a future in which the spread of literacy, knowledge, and individual liberty would prove more powerful than reactionary, long-entrenched political and religious institutions. They did not anticipate the tenacity of religious orthodoxy, or what would today be called religious fundamentalism, in American life. What they had accomplished was the establishment of a government that respected, and in many ways mirrored, the balance between Enlightenment rationalism and religion in the larger society. Americans lived no longer in an age of faith but in an age of faiths and an age of reason.