America has always been a religious nation. The “threads of America’s religious history are so intimately woven into the social and political fabric of the United States that they continue to shape public life today. ” Religious liberty in particular is an important part of the American identity, many of the earliest Europeans to settle in America, including the Puritans of New England and Catholics of Maryland came to America because they sought relief from religious persecution in their European homes.
Religious liberty might well be defined as a raison d’etre for the United States; if it were not for the religious persecution that occurred in Europe against groups like the Puritans and Quakers, the United States would have developed into a dramatically different nation. So, in order to understand the framework for religious liberty in the United States it is important to look at the writings of religious leaders like William Penn and Roger Williams who helped to shape the American colonies.
William Penn defined religious liberty, or “Liberty of Conscience, [as] not only a meer Liberty of the Mind, in believing or disbelieving this or that Principle or Doctrine, but the Exercise of our selves in a visible Way of Worship. ” Penn believed that all people should be able to express their religious conscience freely in civil society, and that any government system which sought to control the religious consciences of its people was an unjust government. Roger Williams had a similar, and perhaps even more radical definition of religious liberty.
Williams believed “men’s consciences ought in no sort to bee violated, urged, or constrained. ” Furthermore, he believed that there should be no government restrictions on one’s ability to act according to one’s conscience. He said, “No man hath power to make or give Lawes to Christians, whereby to binde their consciences. ” Essentially, Williams and Penn believed and argued that people should have the freedom within a civil society to hold beliefs and act in accordance to their religious consciences.
Williams also believed that it was not the job of government to govern men’s souls, stating “The Lawes of the Civill Magistrates government extends no further than over the body or goods, and to that which is externall: for over the soule God will not suffer any man to rule: onely he himselfe will rule there. ” Thus, for Williams there were two distinct authorities that of government and that of God; and the authority of government was to rule over men’s bodies, while that of God was to rule over their consciences.
The notions of liberty of conscience, of religious liberty coupled with emerging enlightenment ideologies such as those articulated by John Locke are what inspired the founding fathers of the United States to create a strict separation between church and state. Locke believed that “toleration of those that differ from others in matters of religion, is… agreeable to the Gospel of Jesus Christ,” and grounded his belief in the distinction between the role of the church and the role of the government in society. Thus for Locke, it is “above all things necessary to distinguish exactly the business of civil government from that of religion.
Ultimately, Locke believed that the role of the government is to care for the common good of the citizens. while the role of the church is to care for people’s souls. It is important to note here that Locke would likely not have argued for the complete separation of church and state and the disestablishment of religion. In his Letter Concerning Toleration, he was merely trying to argue that the Anglican majority ought to tolerate non-Anglican minorities in England. Locke witnessed the devastation caused by the English Civil War, which was in large part a religious conflict between Protestants and Catholics.
He thus conceived of a tolerant political system in which the civil religion, Christianity, would be compatible with religious the government pluralism. In Locke’s Reasonableness of Christianity, he argues that a civil religion is, in fact, an important component of a moral society. Locke “strongly implies that a civil religion will always be necessary because human nature is fundamentally self-interested” by stating that “atheism undermines the “Promises, Covenants, and Oaths, which are the Bonds of Humane Society. Thus, it is important to note that Locke himself did not argue for the disestablishment of religion. However, the Framers of Constitution were heavily influenced by Locke’s theory of toleration, and thus took this theory to its next logical step; if established religion results in the persecution and disenfranchisement of religious minorities, then it naturally makes sense that government would best exist separate from a civil religion. In this manner, Locke’s theory of toleration provided the philosophic framework for Thomas Jefferson’s metaphorical “wall of separation” between the church and state.
Jefferson believed that the church and the state should be wholly separate to ensure that the church not interfere in government, and that government could not interfere with the church. Jefferson believed that the “Almighty God hath created the mind free” and that as citizens, people should have the freedom to believe what they want to believe without any imposition from the government. Likewise, Jefferson also believed that people should be able to exercise their rights regardless of popular religious opinion; man’s rights were his natural rights, and no religious body could take those away from him.
It is also important to acknowledge that the Establishment Clause has not always applied explicitly to the states; at the founding states were free to maintain established religion, and several states maintained a state religion until the early nineteenth century. However, these states moved away from established religion. In 1833 Massachusetts became the last state to disestablish Christianity, although even to this day there are still some remnants of this history in state constitutions.
Despite some this early tendency to maintain a level of religious stablishment, the separation of church and state has actually been instrumental in the growth and preservation of religion and religious liberty in the United States. While it might seem counterintuitive, it is in fact the existence of church-state separation that allowed religion to flourish in the United States; by preserving pluralism and allowing people whose consciences are immensely different to live peacefully in the same nation, and “from the start the United States never had a stateestablished national religion, which has had the somewhat ironic effect of allowing religion to flourish. Religion holds a particularly important role in the lives of Americans.
According to a study released by the Pew Research center 2015, “Americans are more likely than their counterparts in economically advanced nations to deem religion very important. More than half (54%) of Americans said religion was very important in their lives, much higher than the share of people in Canada (24%), Australia (21%) and Germany (21%). Even today, the United States is a far more religious nation than its European counterparts, with the US rivaled only by developing nations in religious adherence. While it would be naive to believe that this trend is wholly a result of the separation of church and state in the US, it is certainly a correlative factor that contributes to the importance of religion in the lives of Americans. “One reason American religion has so much vitality is its pluralism.
In Europe, people who become alienated from the established church simply drift away from it, and usually from religion altogether, whereas in America people who leave one congregation often form or join a new one. ” The American case is unique; the separation of church and state has allowed religion to flourish in the United States, and a unique kind of pluralism has also flourished in the United States.
This protection of religion from the state is a product of the persecution and disenfranchisement experienced by the early Americans at the hand of established religion, an experience they wanted to prevent in this new nation. Thus, “This ideal of church-state separation and religious freedom is deeply ingrained in American culture today. ” The separation of church and state is a hallmark of the American system, and it was created to protect religion from the state just as much as it was put in place to protect the state from the influence of religion.
Thus, religious liberty and the separation of church and state are inseparable and crucial components of the American political system. Religious liberty does not mean boundless freedom for religious groups to act over and above government, or to seek to advance their religious beliefs through legislation. In fact, religious liberty in the United States is founded upon the notion that religious ideologies cannot and should not be imposed on others; and thus the separation of church and state serves as a bulwark for religious liberty.
For Christians, or any other religious group to truly have religious liberty, they must also allow for others to be able to express and live according to their consciences, even if those consciences are in conflict. This is the beauty of pluralism in the American system, as differing ideologies can exist simultaneously. Fundamentalist Christians and Buddhists, Atheists and Agnostics and Muslims can all live in relative peace and simultaneously exercise religious freedom.