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Religious Liberty


RELIGIOUS LIBERTY. The United States adopted a policy of religious liberty partly because influential people, including Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, advocated it, but partly because the sheer number of competing religious groups in eighteenth-century America made the possibility of religious uniformity remote. The nation's subsequent success in upholding the principle undermined the old European idea that an established church and a political state reinforced each other and that neither could thrive alone. In place of Europeans' attribution of divine right to their monarchs, Americans developed a civil religion, granting quasi-religious status to the Constitution, the flag, and the founders, but leaving plenty of room for citizens to practice their diverse particular religions.

Colonial Period

Colonial-era origins of American religious liberty are not hard to find. Separatist Puritans journeyed to the New World to escape religious persecution and in the expectation of finding a religious haven. Roger Williams, for whom the church was a purely spiritual phenomenon, detached religion from politics in early Rhode Island to prevent its political contamination. The Catholic founders of Maryland introduced a toleration law in 1649 for Christians of all types. William Penn's colony, Pennsylvania (1681), specified religious liberty not only for its original Quaker inhabitants but for all other settlers, and early became a shelter for Mennonites, Moravians, Baptists, and other dissenters from England and Germany.

These were no more than auguries, however, and it would be easy to overstate the degree of religious liberty in colonial America. The Church of England was established in Virginia and the Carolinas while the Congregationalist Church was established in most of New England. These establishments could be intolerant, as Massachusetts showed in executing four Quakers in 1659 and in hanging Salem's suspected witches in 1692–1693. Even after the Revolution, as the possibility of an Establishment disappeared, the widespread notion that America was a Protestant nation led to bursts of intense anti-Catholicism, in politics (the Know-Nothing Party) and in riots and the burning of Catholic churches and convents. Many churches, moreover, regarded religious liberty as a necessary evil rather than a positive good and looked forward to an era in which they would have spread their own particular brand of religious truth nationwide. Catholics themselves, despite recurrent persecution, sheltered under the American umbrella of religious liberty but aspired to a condition of Catholic unity, until Dignitatis Humanae, a document of the Second Vatican Council (1962– 1965) finally recognized religious liberty as a positive good.

No denomination did more to promote religious liberty than the Baptists, whose growth in the eighteenth century spread opposition to the idea of an establishment. Flourishing among the less-well-educated population and in the colonial backcountry, some Baptists challenged the legitimacy of the coastal Anglican elite and substituted a democratic model of divinely chosen preachers for the establishment's staid, seminary-educated clergymen.

The growth of Baptist influence in the backcountry coincided with the spread of Enlightenment ideals among colonial elites. Thomas Jefferson, like many leaders in the Revolutionary generation, feared the imposition of a more rigorous establishment after 1770 and the threatened arrival of Anglican bishops. Eager to see the republic proclaimed on rational grounds, he traced the natural law to a Deist "Creator" in his draft of the Declaration of Independence but avoided doctrinal or denominational language. In 1786 he wrote the "Act for Establishing Religious Freedom." James Madison, his friend and principal drafter of the Constitution, understood that it was going to be difficult to win ratification from all the states and that the best approach to religious issues was to leave them alone completely. This approach succeeded and was codified in the First Amendment (1791), which precluded Congress from passing laws pertaining to the free exercise or the establishment of religion. Several states retained established churches but support for them weakened in an atmosphere supportive of religious liberty. The last of them, in Massachusetts, was abolished in 1833.

The constitutional separation of church and state and the promotion of religious liberty, however, did not imply a lack of interest in, or respect for, religion. An overwhelming majority of the revolutionary generation thought of themselves as Christians, and they saw no contradiction in describing America as a Christian nation or in holding Christian services in Congress.

Nineteenth Century

Early-nineteenth-century developments strengthened this belief in a Christian America but also strengthened the principle of religious liberty. The democratic revivalism of the Second Great Awakening placed a new emphasis on individual religious choice. In earlier Calvinist theology, the anxious soul had had to prepare in hope for the infusion of God's grace. In the teaching of Francis Asbury, Charles Finney, and other revivalists, by contrast, the individual was free to choose to turn towards God and to decide to embrace salvation rather than waiting on God. This change in theological emphasis gave additional support to the principle of religious liberty; the unsaved individual needed a setting in which his or her choice for God was in fact free.

As we have seen, the arrival of a large Catholic population tested the limits of American Protestants' commitment to religious freedom; anti-Catholic writers like Samuel Morse (inventor of the electric telegraph and Morse code) feared that Catholics' allegiance to the pope, whom they depicted as a foreign absolute monarch, made them incapable of true loyalty to the republic. Catholic leaders like Cardinal James Gibbons of Baltimore and Archbishop John Ireland of St. Paul reacted by emphasizing Catholics' absolute loyalty to the church in matters of religion and absolute loyalty to the republic as citizens. The arrival of a large Jewish population in the mid-and late-nineteenth century, from Germany, Russia, Poland, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, tested the principle further still.

Twentieth Century

Despite widespread Protestant suspicion of Catholics and Jews, however, and frequent polemics, permanent divisions along religious lines never disfigured the republic; neither did any religious group suffer legislatively enforced persecution. Jewish success and upward social mobility in America, along with widespread revulsion against the Nazi Holocaust, contributed to the rapid decline of American anti-Semitism after 1945. By European standards it had never been intense. The idea of America as a "Judeo-Christian" nation replaced, for many observers, the older claim that America was a Christian nation. The American confrontation with the officially atheist Soviet Union during the Cold War stimulated the spread of "Judeo-Christian" rhetoric. When Congress added the words "under God" to the pledge of allegiance in the 1950s, it was in recognition that America was on the side of religion and that America's religious liberty stood in sharp contrast to Soviet anti-religious persecution. The God in question, however, was not attached to any particular church.

The Immigration and Naturalization Reform Act of 1965 led, in the later decades of the twentieth century, to a new wave of immigration and a further diversification of the American religious landscape. Large numbers of Hindus and Buddhists entered America for the first time, and the Islamic population grew rapidly, partly through immigration and partly through the adherence of African Americans to the Nation of Islam. Here again, the principle of religious liberty operated to ensure that these groups were free to worship as they wished, that their religious organizations were insulated from the state, and that they, like all other religious groups, enjoyed tax exemption. Court cases, such as Sherbert v. Verner (1963), adjudicated nettlesome issues to accommodate students' and employees' religious needs and observation of holy days. Recurrent frictions, especially when neighbors' religions were dissimilar, were offset by a widespread belief in religious civility.

There have been occasions throughout American history when the right to religious liberty appeared to threaten other rights, or when activities undertaken in the name of religion violated social or legal convention. In such cases, the limits of the liberty were tested. In the nineteenth century, for example, the Oneida Community's practice of "complex marriage" and the Mormons' practice of polygamy brought down persecution on their heads. Neighbors of the Oneida Community were horrified by complex marriage, regarding it as no better than sexual promiscuity. Their pressure, along with declining fervor in the community's second generation, prompted John Humphrey Noyes, the founder, to emigrate and the community to dissolve. Early Mormon communities in Missouri and Illinois faced recurrent attacks with the connivance of the local authorities, which culminated in the murder of their leader Joseph Smith.

In the 1970s Americans wrestled with the issue of "brain washing" by cults. The counterculture of that decade gave rise to numerous religious organizations whose members lived in communes, often handing over their belongings to charismatic leaders. Were these cults—Jesus Freaks, Rajneeshis, Hare Krishnas, Moonies, and others—abusing the principle of religious liberty or were their unusual ways of life signs of its flexibility and continuing vitality? In the most notorious of these groups, the People's Temple, parents of young members claimed that their children had been brain washed into parting with their property and were, in effect, prisoners rather than devotees. People's Temple leader Jim Jones, denying these allegations, led his community out of the United States to Guyana (just as Brigham Young had led his people out of the United States and into what was then Mexican territory 130 years before). When Congressman Leo Ryan of California went to Guyana to investigate parents' claims in 1978, Jones told his security guards to assassinate Ryan at the Jonestown airstrip, then ordered the entire community (about 900 people) to commit suicide by drinking poisoned Kool-Aid. All but a handful, who escaped into the jungle, followed his suicide order. The ensuing scandal led some states to consider anticult legislation but found themselves unable to define the difference between denomination, sect, cult, and church. The principle of religious liberty prevailed against legislative intrusion, even though the principle was clearly liable to abuse in extreme cases.


Butler, Jon. A wash in a Sea of Faith: Christianizing the American People. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1990.

Eastland, Terry, ed. Religious Liberty in the Supreme Court: The Cases That Define the Debate over Church and State. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdman's, 1995.

Hanson, Charles P. Necessary Virtue: The Pragmatic Origins of Religious Liberty in New England. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1998.

Hatch, Nathan O. The Democratization of American Christianity. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1989.

Hunter, James Davison, and Os Guinness, eds. Articles of Faith, Articles of Peace: The Religious Liberty Clauses and the American Public Philosophy. Washington D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1990.

Lee, Francis Graham, ed. All Imaginable Liberty: The Religious Liberty Clauses of the First Amendment. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1995.

Patrick N.Allitt

See alsoDiscrimination: Religion ; andvol. 9:An Act Concerning Religion .

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religion, freedom of

freedom of religion: see Constitution of the United States.

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Freedom of Religion


FREEDOM OF RELIGION. SeeFirst Amendment .

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