Religion in politics presumes all citizens essentially hold to the same beliefs. This premise also maintains that religious conformity assures civic virtue, and good order. However, in practice theocracies actually run counter to effective government, as invoking God in public debate stymies the free exchange of ideas. Without the “free market of ideas,” nothing advances, resulting in national decline.
The Constitution’s framers did not lightly pen any Article, Section, or Clause in their work, nor in the later Bill of Rights. James Madison, in particular, analyzed other government systems, both past and current to his time. What he and other’s found was politics combined with religion sows inevitable public conflict; damaging both political and religious institutions. Madison’s purposeful language in drafting the First Amendment signaled the United States would not make that same mistake.
This legal tradition stemmed from the lessons of Colonial New England. Puritan dissenters, such as Roger Williams, and Anne Hutchinson publicly rejected mandatory church compliance. Williams, later exiled to Rhode Island, defended his convictions writing,
Enforced uniformity confounds civil and religious liberty and denies the principles of Christianity and civility. No man shall be required to worship or maintain a worship against his will.
As the first Catholic-Presidential candidate, John F Kennedy later echoed,
. . .it is apparently necessary for me to state once again not what kind of church I believe in — for that should be important only to me — but what kind of America I believe in.
And that was the point. American citizens can freely worship, or not-that is the essence of our liberty. Law cannot dictate conscience, as our thoughts are as unique as our finger prints.
Despite the secular legacy of American law, religious prerequisites still surface in one era or another. In the earliest years of the Republic a fervor of evangelism blazed, recognized today as the Second Great Awakening. Beginning around 1800, and lasting until the Civil War, endless, exhausting revivals across the country grew routine. Loosely paralleling “The Age of Jackson,” a political leavening with evangelicalism made for an interesting amalgam, a blend of both the sacred and secular . . .individual choice.
As democracy advanced inland as swift as any camp revival, voting rights increasingly extended to the lower classes. White farmers and tradesmen were permitted, in exchange for a poll tax, to cast votes. Working class men could not only choose to follow their vision of Jesus, but back political favorites, with the same evangelical passion.
Another unexpected outcome of the Second Great Awakening came in the form of countless spinoffs. Rural isolation cultivated a veritable Golden Corral of new religions. William Miller, of upstate New York, forecast the return of Christ as imminent. He, and his followers believed Jesus would reappear sometime between 1843-1844. After the dates passed, with no rapture, the church regrouped becoming today’s Seventh Day Adventists.
Methodists dispatched “circuit riders” into America’s eastern interior. Men like Peter Cartwright, the epitome of a woodland “stump speaker,” could preach the Word of God, while beating the hell out of any heckler. Presbyterians split a couple of times before the Civil War. First, regarding whether or not untrained missionaries could lead revivals, or only seminary trained ministers. This controversy tore believers apart.
The final schism among churches came from the controversy over slavery. And that time bomb came through Biblical interpretation as well. In the North believers felt their duty was to take action against such a grave sin. Southerners, however countered that God made no mistakes. In fact, it was God himself who appointed masters, and placed the slaves beneath them. Rather a handy absolution.
Wisdom, indeed, abounded inside the chamber of Constitution Hall. Madison, Hamilton, Franklin, and other lights hoped to avoid religious mistakes from the past, and took measures avoid the danger.
Perhaps the best advice on separation came from Justice William O Douglas in the court’s ruling, Engel V Vitale, 1962.
“once government finances a religious exercise it inserts a divisive influence into our communities.”
Dictating conscience is a fools errand, and a liberated conscience is the promise of America.
Gail Chumbley is a history educator, blogger, and author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight. Both titles are available on Kindle.