Skip to content

Religious Liberty Today: We Need Historical Perspective

June 7, 2012

By Sister Pat McCann

John Trumbull  via Wikimedia Commons

“Declaration of Independence” by John Trumbull

Our Founding Fathers understood the need to exchange ideas, to debate and disagree, and to work toward compromise and consensus in order to attain the common good. History makes clear that the founders were not always “of one mind”. They argued heatedly at times, but worked together until they reached adequate accord to produce the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, with its Bill of Rights.

One of the fruits of the Founders’ discourse in the 1700’s was the possibility of religious liberty. Though not all were church affiliated, they respected the role of religion in society. The First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees freedom of religion:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; . . .

(Article 1)

The Constitution thus protected by law individual’s right to worship, and prohibited the establishment of a state church such as the Anglican Church which existed in England with the monarch as its head. This new reality, religious liberty, which deist Thomas Jefferson once termed “a lively experiment” created a climate of respect for religious pluralism in which most denominations flourished. The Founders did not expect religion to be absent from the public sector, but guaranteed that its influence would be persuasive rather than made coersive by the establishment of a state church.

In the period immediately following the American Revolution churches kept a fairly low public profile politically, though it was not uncommon for an educated Protestant clergyman to hold local political office or to represent his area in the federal legislature. As the country developed, no doubt other pastors, including priests and rabbis — especially those in immigrant communities — exerted a good measure of behind-the-scenes influence as well.

With the massive influx of immigrants in the 19th century and the establishment of the anti-immigrant Native American Party, the nation became more xenophobic and religious bigotry more pervasive. The late 19th/early 20th century political stereotype was that Catholics and Jews, who were especially feared as “outsiders”, gravitated more toward the then immigrant-friendly Democratic party while the white Protestant establishment identified with the Republican party. Interestingly, both groups accommodated to the interpretation of the First Amendment as providing a “wall of separation” between an established church and the state. Though there was not unanimity of understanding about what that “wall” meant in the new American experiment, there was agreement that it did not deny churches the right to use persuasive influence toward the enactment of legislation for the common good. Two centuries later, the courts still work at sorting out what the First Amendment means in practice.

By late 19th and early 20th century, churches were active around social justice issues such as abolitionism, poverty, and unionization, but remained less overtly involved in actual party politics. Figures like Baptist Pastor Walter Rauschenbusch, leader in the Protestant Social Gospel movement, and Catholic Father James A. Ryan, author of the American bishops’ 1919 pastoral letter promoting liberal programs like social security and pay equity for women, clearly had  significant political influence, but did not work from within the political party structure.

That began to change in the second half of the 20th century. Right-wing conservative political strategists saw the conservative churches as an already established structure through which to promote their preferred candidates. Courting the religious base, they contended, would deflect the vote of the supposedly “secular” liberals. Issues of theological/moral substance which invite debate were repackaged as “hot button” religious certitudes and labelled a “family values” agenda. Sadly, the Social Gospel dimension of Christianity derived from Jesus’ teaching — care for the poor, liberty for the oppressed, responsibility for one’s neighbor — dropped out of their political picture, except to be denounced as socialism. The new “wall of separation” closed out Muslims, who were considered beyond the pale of American religious culture, but allowed a very cozy working relationship to develop between the conservative Christian churches/clergy and conservative political leadership.

We find ourselves facing the election of 2012 with the U.S. religious sector almost as polarized as the political one. This threatens both religious liberty and democracy. Diminishment of dialogue among and within the faith communities, or in national political life, is tantamount to a death sentence for religious toleration, a bedrock upon which First Amendment freedoms rely. Clearly, the church does have a significant part to play in the public sector. Witness the role of the churches in the 19th century abolitionist movement; or the formative influence of faith animated leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King and the Black ministerium in the 20th century civil rights movement; or the anti-war protests led by Rev. William Sloan Coffin, Father Dan Berrigan and Quaker and Mennonite communities throughout the Vietnam period; or present day efforts to protect immigrants’ rights actively championed by the U.S. Catholic Bishops Committee on Migration. The list could go on.

Every church has the right to bring its issues to the public forum, but no church has the right by law to dominate the state by requiring adherence to its particular faith tenets. The complexity of religious liberty in practice is evident. The Constitutional guarantee does not give Mormons freedom to practice polygamy.  Quakers, Mennonites and pacifists of any creed are still obligated to pay taxes to support war. Hospitals sponsored by Jehovah’s Witnesses are required to allow blood transfusions within their facilities. Tax dollars pay for a range of things which violate some individual’s conscience as well as some churches’ beliefs: capital punishment, war, weapons research and development (e.g., military drones). The churches legitimately influence public debate and help to shape policy by raising a significant voice about moral implications of issues which beset us, but no church gets to establish policy one hundred per cent its own way.  Historically, religious influence benefits the common good in a democracy precisely because it is persuasive rather than legally coercive.

The Constitutional guarantee of religious liberty, recognizing the legal protection of religious pluralism, sustains not only the vitality of communities of faith, but is essential for the vitality of the “lively experiment” of our democracy.


Sister Pat is a former professor of Church history and interested in a wide array of social justice issues.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. ecichano permalink
    June 7, 2012 10:18 am

    Smart, articulate, refined, reasoned = typical nun! (Meant in the kindest way, with the greatest respect and affection!)

  2. June 7, 2012 10:50 am

    This is outstanding. Is it possible for us to send it to our local papers as a letter to the editor?
    I am specifically thinking of RI Catholic, but I’m sure others would benefit as well!

    • Connect with Mercy Blog permalink
      June 7, 2012 10:58 am

      Thanks, Sister Mary. We will have to check with Sister Patricia first before moving on making this post a Letter to the Editor. We’ll let you know.

  3. Theresa Saetta permalink
    June 7, 2012 5:31 pm

    Thanks, Pat. This is very clear and concrete way to understand our past as a country. So helpful for Americans today.

  4. Judy Carle permalink
    June 9, 2012 1:53 pm

    Pat, as usual you write in a clear and informed manner. Thanks, and thanks to our ILT who provided discussion on the “Fortnight on Freedom”. The opinions in Commonweal are worth reading. I am sending this to one of our California bishops who has spoken publically about the bishops acting precipitously and previous to dialog – that the lawsuits could be “imprudent and ill-advised”. We need to send our prayer their way during the Bishops’ meeting beginning June 12th.

  5. Rose Marie Tresp permalink
    June 12, 2012 3:34 pm

    Excellent and very helpful. Rose Marie

  6. Rich DeJana permalink
    June 14, 2012 11:13 pm

    Sister this is wonderful, but you are too generous to our founding fathers. The majority of the states wanted the first amendment to protect them in favoring one religion over the others. Catholics, Jews and Baptists suffered the most.

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: