Ornamental Separator

What Is Religion?

The revolutionary transformation of freedom to worship

The ideal of religious freedom has a powerful history for Americans.

It is enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution. It has drawn immigrants to America’s shores and has allowed religious groups outside of the mainstream to flourish.

But the meaning of religious freedom — to communities, to people — has not always been the same. The era of the American Revolution, and James Madison in particular, lie at the heart of an important transformation in the idea of religion. Madison moved the discussion past an allegiance to Protestantism and framed religion as personal and nonthreatening to the government.

Many Americans connect the nation’s history of religious freedom to the days when the first English colonies were founded. Stories of the Pilgrims and their flight from a persecuting Church of England, Roger Williams’ pious pursuit of churches that would be free of state intervention in Rhode Island, and Quaker Pennsylvania’s origins as a haven for persecuted Protestants inspire Americans with their principled commitments to both faith and the rule of law.

Yet this 17th-century history can too easily overshadow the enormity of the transformation that happened in the nation’s history of religious freedom during the American Revolution. It can also obscure the task the nation’s framers had before them.

The Empire’s Religion

The newly formed states and young country were not direct heirs of those early 17th-century colonial experiments. They were the products of diverse colonial societies that had flourished under a century of protection within Britain’s Protestant empire.

That empire took shape in the decades after the 17th-century political turmoil that led Pilgrims, Puritans and Quakers to flee England. Great Britain’s political system stabilized in the 18th century, during the reigns of the later Stuart -monarchs and then of the Hanoverians George I, II and III.

During those years, British subjects across the world perceived their empire as united by their faith — by Protestantism — because they had overcome the religious conflicts of the prior century. They also saw themselves as the inter-national political and military might behind Protestantism. They believed they were the vanguard of true Christianity locked in a transcendent battle with Catholic France and Spain.

Britain’s colonial subjects were very much a part of that fight, and proudly so. During the difficult years of the Seven Years’ War, for example, Harvard students were reminded to “consider, how much the Protestant Interest, both in Europe and America, is at this Day threatened, by the Sword of its Popish Enemies; this is the Controversy in which it seems most likely that we may be bro’t to the Trial.”

British subjects across the empire celebrated their glorious victory over the “papist” (an 18th-century slur for Catholics) French, first at the Battle of Quebec and then in the larger war. In 1762, Boston minister Charles Chauncy, who would go on to be a passionate proponent of the patriot cause in the Revolution, saw “the providence of God” in “so succeeding his Britannic Majesty’s Arms as to put Canada into English hands.”

‘Good’ and ‘Bad’ Religion

It is worth noting, however, that part of that vision of a Protestant empire was the sense that religion itself could be dangerous. When religion animated the Catholic French in warfare against Protestants, it was a threat to life and limb. “Bad” religion could also seduce believers away from the true faith. Even Protestants could be swayed by their religious passions into dangerous or disruptive activities.

Because of these dangers, most American leaders assumed that religious liberty was possible only when governments protected and guaranteed public access to “good” religion.

Nearly every colonial government did just that. They provided for public worship in the form of an established church alongside laws that banned such crimes as blasphemy and religious disturbances. Colonial governments also limited religious freedom to only those groups the British Empire considered politically loyal Protestants. Even Quaker Pennsylvania, which had no official church, put limits on Catholics’ civil participation. Across the empire, a certificate from a Protestant minister was required to become naturalized. Only with those protections in place, Britons and their colonial partners believed, could true and beneficial religious liberty thrive.

That version of religious liberty, narrowly construed and restrained by laws intended to protect civic harmony, was cherished deeply by the generation that revolted against King George III. Yet it looked nothing like the freedom of religion enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution less than two decades later.

The journey from loyal British Protestants to citizens of a revolutionary state with no established religion was not simple, and it points to just how transformative the American Revolution really was.

‘Demean Themselves Peaceably’

On the legal side of the story, Britain’s former colonies, now states, undertook the intricate challenge of changing their laws to reflect their independence from Britain. In this process, they faced the challenge that many people still viewed religion as potentially dangerous to state stability and the public peace.

For this reason, some state constitutions limited religious freedom to those who behaved well, those who “demean themselves peaceably,” a phrase that long predated the Revolution. England’s King Charles II had used it in a speech to Parliament in the 1660s, and it had appeared in contexts related to religious toleration ever since.

During the Revolutionary War, John Dickinson, a member of the Continental Congress who helped write the Articles of Confederation, wanted to ensure religious liberty at the national level, but he proposed extending it only to those “living peaceably under the Civil Government.” Even those, like Dickinson, who wholeheartedly embraced the idea that a person’s religious conscience should be free, worried where its limits should be set.

Such limits were common. New Jersey’s 1776 constitution guaranteed religious freedom to all but permitted only Protestants “who shall demean themselves peaceably under the government” the right to hold office. Maryland’s 1776 constitution varied the language but strengthened the terms, explicitly excluding from protection those who “under colour of religion...disturb the good order, peace or safety of the State” or “infringe the laws of morality, or injure others, in their natural, civil, or religious rights.”

The same language also appeared in South Carolina’s 1778 constitution and in Virginia’s proposed 1779 “Bill concerning Religion.” Most influentially, the phrase recurred in the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780, which, after laying out the terms of tax support for “public worship of God” and for “the support and maintenance of public Protestant teachers of piety, religion and morality,” guaranteed equal protection to “every denomination of Christians, demeaning themselves peaceably.” As state leaders came to extend religious liberty, they presumed such freedoms were useful only insofar as they did not threaten the public peace.

While cautious state legislators worked to dismantle one system of religious liberty and replace it with another, those who advocated for religious freedom in ideological terms had a different job to do. They needed to distance the idea of religion from worries about public disorder and violence. They needed to believe that religious diversity — even disagreement — was compatible with a stable republic.

This ideological transformation was slower than its legal counterpart. It had roots in John Locke’s 17th-century writings, and it had been furthered during following decades by many thinkers who questioned connections between religion and the state. Among them were ministers on both sides of the Atlantic who theorized that if people’s reason was unrestricted by the state, they would naturally arrive at the conclusion that Protestant Christianity was superior — but even these thinkers tended to balk at the kind of unrestricted religious liberty that would ultimately take shape in the First Amendment. Yet these lofty discussions were often quite distanced from the nitty-gritty business of governing.

In Virginia, however, the two transformations came together. Although Thomas Jefferson is most closely associated with the state’s Statute on Religious Freedom, because he drafted the first version of it in 1779, the bill’s passage seven years later was the work of his friend James Madison. Madison was deeply steeped in the thinking of the Enlightenment, but he also had strong Protestant leanings and a thorough education from Princeton’s evangelical Presbyterian John Witherspoon. While Jefferson was in Paris, Madison guided Virginia’s process of religious disestablishment through the state General Assembly, and he also articulated most clearly the new version of religious freedom that would come to be cherished by many Americans.

Religion as a Wide Category

Madison’s pathbreaking 1785 document, known as the “Memorial and Remonstrance,” argued that religion did not need the protection of the state and that when government meddled with religious institutions, that intermingling tended to harm both civil harmony and the goals of religion.

The words he used are worth considering closely. First, he discussed religion in ways that moved it away from the competition among Protestant denominations that was then being waged in Virginia.

Instead, he referred to “Christianity” and compared it to “all other Religions” and “all other Sects.” The astute rhetorical move suggested that religion was a wide category, distant from local competitions among churches for resources or even from the dangers Protestants imagined emanating from the Papacy. At the same time, he avoided listing religious terms that might have conjured unknown outsiders, like the then-common terms “Pagan,” “Hindoo” and “Mahometan.”

Thus, as he asked his readers to think about the breadth of what might be considered religion, Madison also described something that was reassuringly familiar to Protestant readers. He drew on traditions that described religion as individual conscience — an idea deeply rooted in Protestant history — but he did not frame that conscience within institutions, such as denominations, societies or churches.

These concrete places and groups would seem naturally to fall under the purview of the state, so by avoiding them, Madison encouraged his reader to think primarily of personal, individual belief. That this idea of religion implicitly discounted traditions — most notably the Catholic Church, for which insti-tutional religion was central — made -Madison’s depiction all the more -comfortable for Protestant Americans. His depiction also allowed them to imagine the ideal they were embracing as universal.

In this way, Madison sketched a version of religion that was not dangerous but was instead a positive influence on the stability of the state. He quoted the Virginia Declaration of Rights, which described “religion” as “the duty which we owe to our Creator, and the manner of discharging it.” Later, he argued that if religion was used as “an engine of Civil policy,” it was essentially “an unhallowed perversion of the means of salvation.” Finally, he discussed how the “Christian Religion” required no human laws and that it was at its best in its “primitive State.”

A Nonthreatening View

Madison helped Americans find a version of religion that was both important and safe, too crucial to restrict and yet too personal and private to be a threat to the state. This version appears in the 1786 Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. It depicts religion — described as “opinion” — as offering no basis for civil regulation because it could not cause public harm. Because religion could not disrupt the peace, there was no reason to regulate it. In the Virginia Statute’s phrasing, “it is time enough for the rightful purposes of civil government” if “its officers...interfere when principles break out into overt acts against peace and good order.”

Neither Madison’s “Memorial and Remonstrance” nor the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom that Madison helped pass contained a clause reserving religious freedom to those who demeaned themselves peaceably. Following Virginia’s lead, these statements faded from use in subsequent years in favor of bolder statements of religious freedom.

Madison’s words, though, were not necessarily responsible for the legal process of disestablishment that continued to unfold in the following decades. In many ways, state legislators continued to muddle through with local accommodations, and the history of entanglements between government and religion certainly did not end in the founding era. Equally important is the fact that one crucial way religion had been dangerous to the social stability in the eyes of political leaders — its use by enslaved people to claim freedom — had been eliminated by statute before the Revolutionary era.

Yet, despite these caveats, as decades passed, Madison’s words resonated more and more for Americans who needed to reconcile their deep religious lives with living in a nation where religious diversity was an ever-growing fact of life. With the blessing of the “Father of the Constitution,” Protestant Americans came to trust that religion was not a threat to the state but rather a basis for stability. It is the sense of religion that Dwight D. -Eisenhower expressed in 1952 after his election as president: “In other words, our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.”

Katherine Carté is an associate professor of history at Southern Methodist University and the author of Religion and the American Revolution: An Imperial History, published by the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture and the University of North Carolina Press in 2021.

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