Factors Contributing to the Adoption of the So Called American “Separation of Church and State”

Factors Contributing to the Adoption of the American Religion Clauses

Settlers fleeing from religious persecution in Europe, primarily in Anglican-dominated England, established many of the American colonies.  British thought pervaded these colonies as the immigrants brought with them their religious and political ideas from England and English books and pamphlets largely provided their cultural fare.[64] But although these settlers escaped from Europe to be freed from bondage of laws which compelled them to support and attend government favored churches, some of these settlers themselves transplanted into American soil the oppressive practices they escaped from.  The charters granted by the English Crown to the individuals and companies designated to make the laws which would control the destinies of the colonials authorized them to erect religious establishments, which all, whether believers or not, were required to support or attend.[65] At one time, six of the colonies established a state religion. Other colonies, however, such as Rhode Island and Delaware tolerated a high degree of religious diversity.  Still others, which originally tolerated only a single religion, eventually extended support to several different faiths.[66]

This was the state of the American colonies when the unique American experiment of separation of church and state came about.  The birth of the experiment cannot be attributed to a single cause or event.  Rather, a number of interdependent practical and ideological factors contributed in bringing it forth.  Among these were the “English Act of Toleration of 1689, the multiplicity of sects, the lack of church affiliation on the part of most Americans, the rise of commercial intercourse, the exigencies of the Revolutionary War, the Williams-Penn tradition and the success of their experiments, the writings of Locke, the social contract theory, the Great Awakening, and the influence of European rationalism and deism.”[67] Each of these factors shall be briefly discussed.

First, the practical factors.  England’s policy of opening the gates of the American colonies to different faiths resulted in the multiplicity of sects in the colonies.  With an Erastian justification, English lords chose to forego protecting what was considered to be the true and eternal church of a particular time in order to encourage trade and commerce.  The colonies were large financial investments which would be profitable only if people would settle there.  It would be difficult to engage in trade with persons one seeks to destroy for religious belief, thus tolerance was a necessity.  This tended to distract the colonies from their preoccupations over their religion and its exclusiveness, encouraging them “to think less of the Church and more of the State and of commerce.”[68] The diversity brought about by the colonies’ open gates encouraged religious freedom and non-establishment in several ways.  First, as there were too many dissenting sects to abolish, there was no alternative but to learn to live together.  Secondly, because of the daily exposure to different religions, the passionate conviction in the exclusive rightness of one’s religion, which impels persecution for the sake of one’s religion, waned.  Finally, because of the great diversity of the sects, religious uniformity was not possible, and without such uniformity, establishment could not survive.[69]

But while there was a multiplicity of denomination, paradoxically, there was a scarcity of adherents.  Only about four percent of the entire population of the country had a church affiliation at the time the republic was founded.[70] This might be attributed to the drifting to the American colonies of the skepticism that characterized European Enlightenment.[71] Economic considerations might have also been a factor.  The individualism of the American colonist, manifested in the multiplicity of sects, also resulted in much unaffiliated religion which treated religion as a personal non-institutional matter.  The prevalence of lack of church affiliation contributed to religious liberty and disestablishment as persons who were not connected with any church were not likely to persecute others for similar independence nor accede to compulsory taxation to support a church to which they did not belong.[72]

However, for those who were affiliated to churches, the colonial policy regarding their worship generally followed the tenor of the English Act of Toleration of 1689.  In England, this Act conferred on Protestant dissenters the right to hold public services subject to registration of their ministers and places of worship.[73] Although the toleration accorded to Protestant dissenters who qualified under its terms was only a modest advance in religious freedom, it nevertheless was of some influence to the American experiment.[74] Even then, for practical considerations, concessions had to be made to other dissenting churches to ensure their cooperation in the War of Independence which thus had a unifying effect on the colonies.

Next, the ideological factors.  First, the Great Awakening in mid-18th century, an evangelical religious revival originating in New England, caused a break with formal church religion and a resistance to coercion by established churches.  This movement emphasized an emotional, personal religion that appealed directly to the individual, putting emphasis on the rights and duties of the individual conscience and its answerability exclusively to God.  Thus, although they had no quarrel with orthodox Christian theology as in fact they were fundamentalists, this group became staunch advocates of separation of church and state.[75]

Then there was the Williams-Penn tradition.  Roger Williams was the founder of the colony of Rhode Island where he established a community of Baptists, Quakers and other nonconformists.  In this colony, religious freedom was not based on practical considerations but on the concept of mutual independence of religion and government.  In 1663, Rhode Island obtained a charter from the British crown which declared that settlers have it “much on their heart to hold forth a livelie experiment that a most flourishing civil state may best be maintained . . . with full libertie in religious concernments.”[76] In Williams’ pamphlet, The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution for cause of Conscience, discussed in a Conference between Truth and Peace,[77] he articulated the philosophical basis for his argument of religious liberty.  To him, religious freedom and separation of church and state did not constitute two but only one principle.  Religious persecution is wrong because it “confounds the Civil and Religious” and because “States . . . are proved essentially Civil.  The “power of true discerning the true fear of God” is not one of the powers that the people have transferred to Civil Authority.[78] Williams’ Bloudy Tenet is considered an epochal milestone in the history of religious freedom and the separation of church and state.[79]

William Penn, proprietor of the land that became Pennsylvania, was also an ardent advocate of toleration, having been imprisoned for his religious convictions as a member of the despised Quakers.  He opposed coercion in matters of conscience because “imposition, restraint and persecution for conscience sake, highly invade the Divine prerogative.”  Aside from his idealism, proprietary interests made toleration in Pennsylvania necessary.  He attracted large numbers of settlers by promising religious toleration, thus bringing in immigrants both from the Continent and Britain.  At the end of the colonial period, Pennsylvania had the greatest variety of religious groups.  Penn was responsible in large part for the “Concessions and agreements of the Proprietors, Freeholders, and inhabitants of West Jersey, in America”, a monumental document in the history of civil liberty which provided among others, for liberty of conscience.[80] The Baptist followers of Williams and the Quakers who came after Penn continued the tradition started by the leaders of their denominations.  Aside from the Baptists and the Quakers, the Presbyterians likewise greatly contributed to the evolution of separation and freedom.[81] The Constitutional fathers who convened in Philadelphia in 1787, and Congress and the states that adopted the First Amendment in 1791 were very familiar with and strongly influenced by the successful examples of Rhode Island and Pennsylvania.[82]

Undeniably, John Locke and the social contract theory also contributed to the American experiment.  The social contract theory popularized by Locke was so widely accepted as to be deemed self-evident truth in America’s Declaration of Independence.  With the doctrine of natural rights and equality set forth in the Declaration of Independence, there was no room for religious discrimination.  It was difficult to justify inequality in religious treatment by a new nation that severed its political bonds with the English crown which violated the self-evident truth that all men are created equal.[83]

The social contract theory was applied by many religious groups in arguing against establishment, putting emphasis on religion as a natural right that is entirely personal and not within the scope of the powers of a political body.  That Locke and the social contract theory were influential in the development of religious freedom and separation is evident from the memorial presented by the Baptists to the Continental Congress in 1774, viz:

Men unite in society, according to the great Mr. Locke, with an intention in every one the better to preserve himself, his liberty and property.  The power of the society, or Legislature constituted by them, can never be supposed to extend any further than the common good, but is obliged to secure every one’s property.  To give laws, to receive obedience, to compel with the sword, belong to none but the civil magistrate; and on this ground we affirm that the magistrate’s power extends not to establishing any articles of faith or forms of worship, by force of laws; for laws are of no force without penalties.  The care of souls cannot belong to the civil magistrate, because his power consists only in outward force; but pure and saving religion consists in the inward persuasion of the mind, without which nothing can be acceptable to God.[84] (emphasis supplied)

The idea that religion was outside the jurisdiction of civil government was acceptable to both the religionist and rationalist.  To the religionist, God or Christ did not desire that government have that jurisdiction (“render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s”; “my kingdom is not of this world”) and to the rationalist, the power to act in the realm of religion was not one of the powers conferred on government as part of the social contract.[85]

Not only the social contract theory drifted to the colonies from Europe.  Many of the leaders of the Revolutionary and post-revolutionary period were also influenced by European deism and rationalism,[86] in general, and some were apathetic if not antagonistic to formal religious worship and institutionalized religion.  Jefferson, Paine, John Adams, Washington, Franklin, Madison, among others were reckoned to be among the Unitarians or Deists.  Unitarianism and Deism contributed to the emphasis on secular interests and the relegation of historic theology to the background.[87] For these men of the enlightenment, religion should be allowed to rise and fall on its own, and the state must be protected from the clutches of the church whose entanglements has caused intolerance and corruption as witnessed throughout history.[88] Not only the leaders but also the masses embraced rationalism at the end of the eighteenth century, accounting for the popularity of Paine’s Age of Reason.[89]

Finally, the events leading to religious freedom and separation in Virginia contributed significantly to the American experiment of the First Amendment.  Virginia was the “first state in the history of the world to proclaim the decree of absolute divorce between church and state.”[90] Many factors contributed to this, among which were that half to two-thirds of the population were organized dissenting sects, the Great Awakening had won many converts, the established Anglican Church of Virginia found themselves on the losing side of the Revolution and had alienated many influential laymen with its identification with the Crown’s tyranny, and above all, present in Virginia was a group of political leaders who were devoted to liberty generally,[91] who had accepted the social contract as self-evident, and who had been greatly influenced by Deism and Unitarianism.  Among these leaders were Washington, Patrick Henry, George Mason, James Madison and above the rest, Thomas Jefferson.

The first major step towards separation in Virginia was the adoption of the following provision in the Bill of Rights of the state’s first constitution:

That religion, or the duty which we owe to our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only 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.[92] (emphasis supplied)

The adoption of the Bill of Rights signified the beginning of the end of establishment.  Baptists, Presbyterians and Lutherans flooded the first legislative assembly with petitions for abolition of establishment.  While the majority of the population were dissenters, a majority of the legislature were churchmen.  The legislature compromised and enacted a bill in 1776 abolishing the more oppressive features of establishment and granting exemptions to the dissenters, but not guaranteeing separation.  It repealed the laws punishing heresy and absence from worship and requiring the dissenters to contribute to the support of the establishment.[93] But the dissenters were not satisfied; they not only wanted abolition of support for the establishment, they opposed the compulsory support of their own religion as others.  As members of the established church would not allow that only they would pay taxes while the rest did not, the legislature enacted in 1779 a bill making permanent the establishment’s loss of its exclusive status and its power to tax its members; but those who voted for it did so in the hope that a general assessment bill would be passed. Without the latter, the establishment would not survive.  Thus, a bill was introduced in 1779 requiring every person to enroll his name with the county clerk and indicate which “society for the purpose of Religious Worship” he wished to support.  On the basis of this list, collections were to be made by the sheriff and turned over to the clergymen and teachers designated by the religious congregation.  The assessment of any person who failed to enroll in any society was to be divided proportionately among the societies.[94] The bill evoked strong opposition.

In 1784, another bill, entitled “Bill Establishing a Provision for Teachers of the Christian Religion” was introduced requiring all persons “to pay a moderate tax or contribution annually for the support of the Christian religion, or of some Christian church, denomination or communion of Christians, or for some form of Christian worship.”[95] This likewise aroused the same opposition to the 1779 bill.  The most telling blow against the 1784 bill was the monumental “Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments” written by Madison and widely distributed before the reconvening of legislature in the fall of 1785.[96] It stressed natural rights, the government’s lack of jurisdiction over the domain of religion, and the social contract as the ideological basis of separation while also citing practical considerations such as loss of population through migration.  He wrote, viz:

Because we hold it for a ‘fundamental and undeniable truth,’ that religion, or the duty which we owe to our creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence.  The religion, then, 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.  This right is, in its nature, an unalienable right.  It is unalienable, because the opinions of men, depending only on the evidence contemplated in their own minds, cannot follow the dictates of other men; it is unalienable, also, because what is here a right towards men, is a duty towards the creator.  It is the duty of every man to render the creator such homage, and such only as he believes to be acceptable to him; this duty is precedent, both in order of time and degree of obligation, to the claims of civil society.  Before any man can be considered as a member of civil society, he must be considered as a subject of the governor of the universe; and if a member of civil society, who enters into any subordinate association, must always do it with a reservation of his duty to the general authority, much more must every man who becomes a member of any particular civil society do it with the saving his allegiance to the universal sovereign.[97] (emphases supplied)

Madison articulated in the Memorial the widely held beliefs in 1785 as indicated by the great number of signatures appended to the Memorial.  The assessment bill was speedily defeated.

Taking advantage of the situation, Madison called up a much earlier 1779 bill of Jefferson which had not been voted on, the “Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom”, and it was finally passed in January 1786.  It provided, viz:

Well aware that Almighty God hath created the mind free; that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burdens, or by civil incapacitations, tend not only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and are a departure from the plan of the Holy Author of our religion, who being Lord both of body and mind, yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as was in his Almighty power to do;

xxx                                                                          xxx                                                                   xxx

Be it therefore enacted by the General Assembly.  That no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested or burdened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or beliefs, but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge or affect their civil capacities.[98] (emphases supplied)

This statute forbade any kind of taxation in support of religion and effectually ended any thought of a general or particular establishment in Virginia.[99] But the passage of this law was obtained not only because of the influence of the great leaders in Virginia but also because of substantial popular support coming mainly from the two great dissenting sects, namely the Presbyterians and the Baptists.  The former were never established in Virginia and an underprivileged minority of the population.  This made them anxious to pull down the existing state church as they realized that it was impossible for them to be elevated to that privileged position.  Apart from these expediential considerations, however, many of the Presbyterians were sincere advocates of separation[100]grounded on rational, secular arguments and to the language of natural religion.[101] Influenced by Roger Williams, the Baptists, on the other hand, assumed that religion was essentially a matter of concern of the individual and his God, i.e., subjective, spiritual and supernatural, having no relation with the social order.[102] To them, the Holy Ghost was sufficient to maintain and direct the Church without governmental assistance and state-supported religion was contrary ti the spirit of the Gospel.[103] Thus, separation was necessary.[104] Jefferson’s religious freedom statute was amilestone in the history of religious freedom.  The United States Supreme Court has not just once acknowledged that the provisions of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution had the same objectives and intended to afford the same protection against government interference with religious liberty as the Virginia Statute of Religious Liberty.

Even in the absence of the religion clauses, the principle that government had no power to legislate in the area of religion by restricting its free exercise or establishing it was implicit in the Constitution of 1787.  This could be deduced from the prohibition of any religious test for federal office in Article VI of the Constitution and the assumed lack of power of Congress to act on any subject not expressly mentioned in the Constitution.[105] However, omission of an express guaranty of religious freedom and other natural rights nearly prevented the ratification of the Constitution.[106] In the ratifying conventions of almost every state, some objection was expressed to the absence of a restriction on the Federal Government as regards legislation on religion.[107]Thus, in 1791, this restriction was made explicit with the adoption of the religion clauses in the First Amendment as they are worded to this day, with the first part usually referred to as the Establishment Clause and the second part, the Free Exercise Clause, viz:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.


About Erineus

Born on December 28, 1965, Surallah, South Cotabato, Southern Mindanao, Philippines.
This entry was posted in Church and State, Constitutional Law, Constitutional Rights, History, Religious Freedom and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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