The Founding Fathers and the Place of Religion in Americaby Frank Lambert
How did the United States, founded as colonies with explicitly religious aspirations, come to be the first modern state whose commitment to the separation of church and state was reflected in its constitution? Frank Lambert explains why this happened, offering in the process a synthesis of American history from the first British arrivals through Thomas Jefferson's
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How did the United States, founded as colonies with explicitly religious aspirations, come to be the first modern state whose commitment to the separation of church and state was reflected in its constitution? Frank Lambert explains why this happened, offering in the process a synthesis of American history from the first British arrivals through Thomas Jefferson's controversial presidency.
Lambert recognizes that two sets of spiritual fathers defined the place of religion in early America: what Lambert calls the Planting Fathers, who brought Old World ideas and dreams of building a "City upon a Hill," and the Founding Fathers, who determined the constitutional arrangement of religion in the new republic. While the former proselytized the "one true faith," the latter emphasized religious freedom over religious purity.
Lambert locates this shift in the mid-eighteenth century. In the wake of evangelical revival, immigration by new dissenters, and population expansion, there emerged a marketplace of religion characterized by sectarian competition, pluralism, and widened choice. During the American Revolution, dissenters found sympathetic lawmakers who favored separating church and state, and the free marketplace of religion gained legal status as the Founders began the daunting task of uniting thirteen disparate colonies. To avoid discord in an increasingly pluralistic and contentious society, the Founders left the religious arena free of government intervention save for the guarantee of free exercise for all. Religious people and groups were also free to seek political influence, ensuring that religion's place in America would always be a contested one, but never a state-regulated one.
An engaging and highly readable account of early American history, this book shows how religious freedom came to be recognized not merely as toleration of dissent but as a natural right to be enjoyed by all Americans.
Andrew R. Murphy
Derek H. Davis
"A responsible, clearly written analysis of the currently disputed mindset of the Founding Fathers regarding the role of religion in American society. Numerous quotations from the personal and professional writings of the Founding Fathers themselves bring a refreshing vitality to Lambert's work while simultaneously dispelling the absolutized assumptions of contemporary conservatives and liberals alike."Religion and Liberty
"Lambert has made a major contribution to US religious, constitutional, and political history with this superb book."Choice
"Lambert's book epitomizes the virtues of narrative history, not least in the clear and straightforward prose style that propels the narrative from Jamestown through the elections of 1800. . . . [Lambert] is especially skillful at simultaneously sketching a large portrait of historical change over time and filling in that picture with evocative vignettes and first-person accounts."Andrew R. Murphy, Christian Century
This is an excellent book that captures the progression from religious conformity to religious freedom in early America. . . . [It] provides a fine, scholarly overview of the emergency of religious freedom in the fledgling nation."Derek H. Davis, Journal of Religion
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The Founding Fathers and the Place of Religion in America
By Frank Lambert
Princeton University PressPrinceton University Press
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IntroductionIN 1639, a group of New England Puritans drafted a constitution affirming their faith in God and their intention to organize a Christian Nation. Delegates from the towns of Windsor, Hartford, and Wethersfield drew up the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut, which made clear that their government rested on divine authority and pursued godly purposes. The opening lines express the framers' trust in God and their dependence on his guidance: "Forasmuch as it hath pleased the All-mighty God by the wise disposition of his divyne providence so to Order and dispose of things, ... [and] well knowing where a people are gathered togather the word of God requires that to mayntayne the peace and vnion of such a people there should be an orderly and decent Government established according to God, to order and dispose of the affayres of the people." Moreover, the aim of the government so instituted was religious: "to mayntayne and presearue the liberty and purity of the gospell of our Lord Jesus which we now professe, as also the disciplyne of the Churches, which according to the truth of the said gospell is now practised amongst vs." Like their neighbors in Massachusetts Bay, the Connecticut Puritans determined to plant a "Christian Commonwealth," what Governor John Winthrop hopedwould become a "City upon a Hill" that would inspire believers everywhere as a model Christian Nation.
Those Puritan Fathers exemplify two of the most enduring views of colonial America: America as a haven of religious freedom, and America as a Christian Nation. First, the Puritan settlers had fled England, where Archbishop William Laud had persecuted them because they refused to subscribe to religious beliefs and practices that they deemed to be unscriptural. Now in the American wilderness, they were free to worship according to the dictates of their consciences, governed only by the rule of God's word. And, second, those Puritan Fathers organized a Christian State. They established their Congregational churches as the official religion of Connecticut, supported by tax revenues and defended by the coercive arm of government. The churches defined "heretics," and the state punished them, even to the point of executing those found guilty of "direct, express, presumptuous, or high-minded blasphemy." Moreover, citizenship in the state was directly tied to one's religious faith. The authors of the Fundamental Orders meant for only godly Christians to rule, an intention embodied in the oath of the governor, which committed the chief magistrate to govern "according to the rule of the word of God."
One hundred and fifty years later, George Washington took another oath, swearing to "faithfully execute the office of the President of the United States" and pledging to the best of his ability to "preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States." The constitution that he swore to uphold was the work of another group of America's progenitors, commonly known as the "Founding Fathers," who in 1787 drafted a constitution for the new nation. But unlike the work of the Puritan Fathers, the federal constitution made no reference whatever to God or divine providence, citing as its sole authority "the people of the United States." Further, its stated purposes were secular, political ends: "to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty." Instead of building a "Christian Commonwealth," the supreme law of the land established a secular state. The opening clause of its first amendment introduced the radical notion that the state had no voice concerning matters of conscience: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." In debating the language of that amendment, the first House of Representatives rejected a Senate proposal that would have made possible the establishment of the Christian religion or of some aspect of Christian orthodoxy. There would be no Church of the United States. Nor would America represent itself to the world as a Christian Republic.
Just as 1639 represents a defining moment in Americans' religious heritage, so does 1787. While the Puritan Fathers gave us the symbols of America as haven of religious freedom and America as a Christian Nation, the Founding Fathers provided enduring legacies that define the place and role of religion in American society. Their bequests were the ideas of separation of church and state and the free exercise of religion extended to people of all faiths or no faith. Their achievement can be understood only against the backdrop of the American Revolution. Clearly, they were architects of a political revolution, throwing off constitutional monarchy for a democratic republic. But they were also framers of a religious revolution, rejecting the idea of an established or official religion, which was the organizing principle informing church-state relations in the vast majority of countries, as indeed it had been in most of the American colonies. Never before had there been such a total separation of religious and political institutions. But the ban on establishment was not the Founders' only legacy in church-state matters. Regarding religion as a natural right that the governed never surrendered to government, they prohibited any interference in citizens' rights to the free exercise of religion.
These two defining moments in American history, 1639 and 1787, frame the central question of this book: How did the Puritan Fathers erecting their "City upon a Hill" transform into the Founding Fathers drawing a distinct line between church and state? The answer lies in the changing meaning of freedom in the concept of freedom of religion. To the Puritans who fled persecution, Massachusetts Bay represented the freedom to practice without interference the one true faith, which they based solely on the Bible, correctly interpreted. Thus religious freedom in the "City upon a Hill" meant freedom from error, with church and state, though separate, working together to support and protect the one true faith. Those who believed differently were free to go elsewhere and sometimes compelled to do so. The Founding Fathers had a radically different conception of religious freedom. Influenced by the Enlightenment, they had great confidence in the individual's ability to understand the world and its most fundamental laws through the exercise of his or her reason. To them, true religion was not something handed down by a church or contained in the Bible but rather was to be found through free rational inquiry. Drawing on radical Whig ideology, a body of thought whose principal concern was expanded liberties, the framers sought to secure their idea of religious freedom by barring any alliance between church and state.
The radical change in the meaning of religious freedom greatly concerned many in 1787. William Williams of Connecticut was appalled when he first read a draft of the proposed United States Constitution. The merchant and delegate to the Connecticut Ratifying Convention expected to see in the document's preface language similar to that found in the Fundamental Orders, some acknowledgment that the new republic rested on a Christian foundation and depended upon divine providence. Instead he saw no hint of the nation's religious heritage: no mention of God, no appeal to divine guidance, no pledge to build a godly society. Williams thought that the Preamble ought at least to express "a firm belief of the being and perfections of the one living and true God, the creator and supreme Governour of the world." To Williams, the period between 1639 and 1787 represented decline, at least in the important matters of personal piety and public morality. He wanted the United States Constitution to include a religious test for officeholders that would "require an explicit acknowledgment of the being of a God, his perfections and his providence." After all, the Connecticut Constitution, as well as those of most of the states, called for such a test.
Unlike Williams, James Madison applauded the new federal constitution for its contribution to religious life in the new republic. To him, it safeguarded religious freedom for all citizens by eliminating the government's voice in ecclesiastical matters. He regarded religion as a "natural right" that the governed never surrender to their governors. Further, he thought that "true" religion would triumph by its own merits if its advocates were free to pursue it without coercion. To Madison, "the separation between Religion & Govt in the Constitution of the United States" was the surest guarantee of "the sacred principle of religious liberty." History was filled with examples of unholy alliances between church and state as religious and political leaders sought to curry each other's favor for their own selfish ends. Indeed, the Puritan Fathers themselves had fled England when Charles I's strict enforcement of religious conformity violated the Puritans' liberty of conscience. While Williams was primarily worried about America as a "Christian Nation," Madison was more concerned about America as a haven of religious liberty.
The same questions that Williams and Madison raised in the late eighteenth century continue to interest Americans today, sometimes expressed with great passion. During the last two decades of the twentieth century and continuing into the twenty-first, Americans have engaged in a culture war that informs much of the country's political discourse in the new millennium. On one side of the debate are those who insist that America has been since its conception a "Christian Nation," and that somewhere along the way, as such it has lost its bearings. They blame "liberals" for not only turning their backs on the country's religious heritage but openly attacking those who embrace "traditional" Christian values. To support their claims, these conservatives often conflate the planters-such as the New England Puritans and the Chesapeake Anglicans-and the Founders into one set of forefathers who came to America to plant "true" Christianity and to practice it in freedom. Further, they insist that the Founders never intended a separation of church and state, arguing that at most the First Amendment aimed at preventing Congress from favoring any single sect. In searching the historical record, these partisans seek or invent a "usable past" that supports their positions. For example, in asserting that early America was a Christian Nation, they gloss over the fact that many Americans, especially Native Americans and African Americans, were non-Christians, and they fail to recognize the deep-seated differences among Christians, so deep that in some instances one sect questioned whether another was Christian at all.
Partisans on the other side of the culture war also consult the nation's Founders for a "usable past" of their own. They, too, tend to conflate the two sets of progenitors by making both the Founding and the Planting Fathers impassioned champions of a religious freedom that extended liberty of conscience to all. They often conceive of religion as strictly a private matter between individuals and God; in their view, the fight for religious freedom has always been that of individuals insisting on practicing their faith as they deem they should. These liberals in the culture war forget that many of the champions of religious liberty and separation of church and state during the late eighteenth century were fighting for the right to express their beliefs publicly. None were more insistent on keeping government out of religion than were the Baptists, whose experience in England and in the colonies had been that of persecution by states favoring an established church. Yet Baptist leaders Isaac Backus and John Leland fought for the right to a form of public worship that many of the rational Founders would later roundly criticize. Thus at the center of the culture war remains the question of how to reconcile the notion of America as a Christian Nation with that of America as a haven of religious freedom where the beliefs of a diverse and pluralistic population are respected.
Each side of the cultural debate finds ample scholarly support for its position. Much of the work produced by legal scholars and constitutional historians focuses on the First Amendment and the Founders' "original intent" concerning the dividing line between church and state. Those who subscribe to Thomas Jefferson's metaphor of a wall separating church and state adopt a separationist perspective, while those who endorse the view that the Founders never intended such a division subscribe to an accommodationist interpretation. Separationists accept Justice Hugo Black's logic in Everson v. Board of Education (1947). His understanding of the establishment clause gave no voice whatever to any state or federal government in religious matters. "Neither a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church," he wrote, adding that "neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another." Historians, social scientists, and lawyers have weighed in on the separationist side. In this model, Jefferson is the Founder of choice, and the Virginia struggle for religious liberty is normative. Moreover, religious freedom is interpreted as "the absence of government constraint upon individuals in matters of religion." That is, the individual, rather than society, is the focus, reflecting a radical Protestant as well as Enlightenment perspective.
Accommodationists oppose such a restrictive reading of church-state relations and charge separationists with assigning the federal government an antireligious position. They believe that the Founders recognized the importance of religion in society and intended for the government to support religious instruction and practice as long as it favored no particular sect. Rather than interpreting the establishment clause as aimed toward protecting individual religious liberty, accommodationists argue that the Founders wished to protect "the various religious practices of the states, including preferential establishments in some of them." Further, instead of regarding government's position negatively, as the absence of interference with free exercise, they view it as a positive role in promoting the blessings of religion. Chief Justice William Rehnquist provided the legal basis for the accommodationist interpretation in Wallace v. Jaffree (1985): "Nothing in the Establishment Clause requires government to be strictly neutral between religion and irreligion, nor does that Clause prohibit Congress or the States from pursuing legitimate secular ends through non-discriminatory sectarian means."
The separationist and accommodationist interpretations provide clear, powerful analytical categories for partisans debating church-state relations in the twenty-first century. However, as tools for investigating the Founders' deliberations and actions, they suffer from a presentist perspective that fails to consider adequately the historical context of late-eighteenth-century America. Indeed, they tell us more about the present debate than they do about the founding era. Each reads a consensus back into the deliberations over framing and ratifying the Constitution that obscures the highly contingent terms in which the Founders searched for a way to define the place of religion in the new republic. Separationists portray the Founders as embracing a radical Enlightenment philosophy that viewed religion solely as an issue of individual freedom with no consideration for religion's value in providing society with a moral ground. Accommodationists depict the Founders as agreeing on a broad, catholic view of Christianity, one that all Americans could support, thereby glossing over the bitter differences that separated Protestants from Catholics and divided Protestants into countless sects. Both view the issue as one involving only a few men, the Founders, paying little heed to the constituents who sometimes dictated that the lawmakers adopt positions counter to their personal preferences. And, too often, each side presents the other in caricature, with separationists seeing accommodationists as opposed to religious freedom, and accommodationists viewing separationists as opposed to religion. Both are teleological in that they depict a straight line running from their particular version of the Founders' views to those of their own advocates.
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Meet the Author
Frank Lambert is Professor of History at Purdue University. He is the author of "Pedlar in Divinity" and "Inventing the "Great Awakening"" (both Princeton).
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