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Study Guide: A New Eden (Episode 2)
America's experiment in religious liberty involved an unlikely political alliance between evangelical Baptists and Enlightenment figures such as Thomas Jefferson as they forged a new concept of religious freedom, first in Virginia and ultimately in the new nation, as written in the Bill of Rights. These new freedoms had a significant impact on the country as it pushed westward, creating a vibrant religious marketplace where new religions started to take root and new Protestant denominations began to overtake the old. But the definition of freedom was contested, and its meaning ignited political conflicts between Irish Catholic immigrants and the Protestant establishment in New York over the reading of the Bible in public schools.
Religious Freedom in America
Ten years after Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, the Commonwealth of Virginia's General Assembly passed his Act for Establishing Religious Freedom. The statute was resisted by Patrick Henry and other opponents who thought religious institutions would wither away without state support. In 1785, just a few months before passage of Jefferson's bill, James Madison, also a champion of religious freedom, wrote a statement on religious liberty called "Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments" in opposition to Patrick Henry's bill proposing religious taxes. Evangelical Christians flooded the Virginia Legislature with petitions opposing state support, and Madison's maneuvering helped result in the eventual passage of Jefferson's bill. Together, Madison's statement and Jefferson's bill remain a powerful argument against harm caused by government support of religion and for an "unalienable" natural right to freedom of religion. The intellectual and political leadership of both men was an important key to victory. They succeeded, however, because they also had the backing of religious dissidents, particularly Baptists -- ordinary farmers and everyday shopkeepers, tavern owners, blacksmiths and housewives who had a vision of the role of religion in society, one that would disestablish the church and, as scholar Daniel Dreisbach has observed, would "allow every religious sect and denomination to compete in the marketplace of ideas."
Established religion lingered on in the New England states into the 19th century. The famous Congregationalist minister Lyman Beecher fought hard against disestablishment in Connecticut and lamented the day in 1818 when it was finally accomplished: "It was as dark a day as ever I saw. The odium thrown upon the ministry was inconceivable. The injury done to the cause of Christ, as we then supposed, was irreparable." But eventually Beecher changed his mind. He came to recognize that the end of the church's dependence on the state made it a more vital, more forceful institution, and he wrote that it was "the best thing that ever happened to the State of Connecticut. It cut the churches loose from dependence on state support. It threw them wholly on their own resources and on God. ... They say ministers have lost their influence; the fact is, they have gained. By voluntary efforts, societies, missions, and revivals, they exert a deeper influence than ever they could by queues, and shoe-buckles, and cocked hats, and gold-headed canes."
An excerpt from James Madison's 1785 Memorial and Remonstrance:
Excerpts from Thomas Jefferson's 1786 Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom:
"... to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors is sinful and tyrannical."
"Our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions."
The Religion Clauses of the First Amendment
In 1789, James Madison introduced in Congress proposed amendments to the Constitution that would eventually become known as the Bill of Rights. The First Amendment's first 16 words, divided into two clauses, guaranteed unprecedented freedom of religion in the early United States:
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."
Madison had proposed an amendment that would apply to the states, but the final amendment applied only to the federal government. Among supporters there was strong agreement on the second clause, which became known as the Free Exercise Clause. It guaranteed an all-important principle: the right of each individual to worship freely without any interference from the government. But the first clause, the so-called Establishment Clause, was subject to different interpretations. Jefferson, Madison and others understood this clause to prohibit religious denominations, sects and institutions from interfering with the government. The state, they believed, should be completely free of religious interference. But religious dissidents understood the language as protecting the church from interference by the state, which they saw as a corrupting influence. In the words of one scholar: "They sharply distinguished the kingdom of God, identified with Christ's church, from the world in which it operated. The first was holy and pure, the other corrupt and evil." It was precisely the actions of the states that dissident groups believed infringed on their religious freedom. For more than 200 years, the Supreme Court has tried to interpret and balance the inherent tension between the two clauses—the need for government to have some freedom to make religious accommodations and to have some freedom to enforce the values respecting religious establishment.
Thomas Jefferson's "Wall of Separation"
Drawn to Thomas Jefferson's commitment to religious freedom, in 1801 the Baptist Association of Danbury, Conn., sent the new president a letter congratulating him on his election. The presidential campaign had been a bitter contest in which Jefferson was vilified as a libertine and an atheist. His most ardent critics were members of the clergy. Jefferson fulminated against the "irritable tribe of priests" and believed their real goal was to establish a national church. Once Jefferson received the letter from his Danbury supporters, he wished to reply immediately, recognizing the opportunity to neutralize the troublesome religion issue and justify his decision not to declare national days of fasting and thanksgiving. Anticipating that his reply would be widely published, Jefferson intended to use it as a way of "sowing useful truths & principles among the people, which might germinate and become rooted among their political tenets." He would try to articulate important principles, disseminate his political views and influence public opinion. After receiving suggested changes to the letter from his attorney general, Levi Lincoln, Jefferson amended his original draft, making deletions and inking out portions of the text. He sent the revised and final version to the Danbury Baptists on Jan. 1, 1802.
Modern technology has offered intriguing insights into the difference between Jefferson's original draft and his final version. In 1998, the U.S. Congress asked the FBI to use the latest technology to electronically uncover the inked-out words in the original. The changes show that Jefferson had carefully edited the letter to take into account political considerations. He also subtly shifted the meaning of the First Amendment. Both the first draft and the final version invoked a phrase that would reverberate through American history: the "wall of separation between church and state." But the original version had included the word "eternal," rendering the famous phrase "an eternal wall of separation between church and state." Nevertheless, "wall of separation," while not eternal, appeared to erect an impermeable boundary between religion and the federal government.
There was another change. Jefferson decided to use the word "church" rather than the broader term "religion." In so doing, he put the emphasis on the separation of political and ecclesiastical institutions. This would have appealed to religious dissenters who, like Jefferson, were ardently opposed to established churches but believed religion had an important role to play in public life.
Jefferson's wall metaphor was ignored and largely forgotten for nearly 150 years, until it was rediscovered in 1947. In Everson v. Board of Education, Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black invoked the wall of separation, claiming that it must be kept "high and impregnable." Since its resurrection, the wall has fueled ongoing debate over the relation between church and state, with opposing sides claiming to represent Jefferson's true intent. Strict separationists argue that the wall champions a secular order, while opponents believe the phrase has been unjustly used to exclude religion from public life. As one scholar has observed, "No phrase in American letters has more profoundly influenced discourse and policy on church-state relations than Jefferson's wall of separation."
Examine the draft and final text of Jefferson's letter here.
The American Sermon and Religious Liberty
It has been said that sermons represent the earliest genre of American literature and constitute a very American idiom. The shift from Puritan to evangelical preaching sparked an inward turn toward personal, emotional religion in America. One of the most visible symbols of that change was the traveling preacher George Whitefield, featured in the first episode of the series. Many other eloquent American preachers followed him, and their sermons, often extemporaneous, exemplified the power of Protestant revivalism and the importance of the sermon as an expression of religious liberty in American discourse. It was often in sermons that early religious leaders worked out their understanding of both political and religious freedom and what it meant to be an American. This episode mentions a number of American preachers and highlights their role in American history, among them Virginia Baptist Jeremiah Moore; African Americans Sojourner Truth, Richard Allen and Jarena Lee; and the man known as the father of modern revivalism, Charles Grandison Finney. The influence of the sermon in America has been enormous, and as the episode demonstrates, the cause of religious liberty had important roots in the story of a preacher.
Catholic and American
"The interplay between Catholic and American remains poorly understood," historian John McGreevy has written. This episode explores the bitter conflict between Protestants and Catholics over public education in 19th-century New York, especially the role of Archbishop John Hughes, who forcefully engaged with issues of church and state in response to widespread anti-Catholicism. Could Catholics be good Americans? The U.S. Constitution, Hughes believed, gave them the right to be both, and he demanded religious liberty for Catholic immigrants. The public schools, he said, violated the rights of Catholic children by forcing them to read from a Protestant version of the Bible and also from anti-Catholic Protestant tracts and textbooks. The Irish-born Hughes once described his feelings about religious liberty this way:
"I am an American by choice, not by chance. ... I was born under the scourge of Protestant persecution, of which my fathers in common with our Catholic countrymen have been the victim for ages. I know the value of that civil and religious liberty which our happy government secures for all."
During the public schools controversy, historian Stephen Marini observes, Hughes "is making an American constitutional religious liberty case" to challenge the Protestant majority. Hughes addressed the treatment of religious minorities in America this way in one of his speeches:
"Our adversaries accuse us of acting with interested motives in this matter. They say that we want a portion of the school fund for sectarian purposes, to apply it to the support and advancement of our religion. This we deny now, as we have done heretofore. ... There is no such thing as a predominant religion, and the small minority is entitled to the same protection as the greatest majority. No denomination, whether numerous or not, can impose its religious views on a minority at the common expense of that minority and itself."
The story of Archbishop Hughes demonstrates that religious liberty does not come easily. Harvard law professor Noah Feldman has written that "generation after generation, fresh infusions of religious diversity into American life have brought with them original ideas about church and state -- new answers to the challenge of preserving the unity of the sovereign people in the face of their flourishing spiritual variety and often conflicting religious needs." While public schools have historically been places where Americans educated the next generation for citizenship, they have also been the setting for confrontations over different understandings of the meaning of "sectarian" and "conflicting religious needs." The experience of 19th-century New York Catholics exemplifies just how hard it has been and continues to be to put religious freedom into practice for the whole nation and to break through the barriers that would limit the full human right of religious liberty.
"People can encounter God and experience God for themselves -- in fact not only can but must," says Baptist pastor James Slatton, describing the views of Baptists in 18th-century Virginia. Discuss the shift from Puritanism to evangelicalism in American Protestantism. What changed?
The intellectual Thomas Jefferson and the evangelical Baptists of Virginia set aside their differences and together defend a belief they shared: the right to worship freely. Why does Jefferson argue for religious liberty? Why do the Baptists? What are the similarities and differences in their views?
What does the First Amendment say about religion? How do its words contribute to sustaining American religion? What do you think Thomas Jefferson's famous phrase "wall of separation between church and state" means?
Religion professor Stephen Prothero says Baptists "were seen as a significant threat" in colonial Virginia. Why? How did they test religious tolerance in America?
Several of the historians in this episode stress the themes of religious choice, a competitive religious atmosphere, and the rise of the religious marketplace of ideas in early 19th-century America. Do you see similar religious circumstances in America today? Describe the current American religious marketplace.
Cynthia Lynn Lyerly notes that one of the consequences of expanding religious choices in America was opening them up to include "none of the above." Discuss how freedom of religion allowed ordinary people to take charge of their own religious destinies and the extent of the diversity that resulted.
Revivals and camp meetings followed the expanding American frontier. They were democratic, egalitarian and traditional in their appeal. How did they reshape religion in America? One effect of the revivals was a heightened sense of the "religion of the heart." Another was an interest in individual moral reform and the improvement of social ills -- the creation of a "New Eden." How and why do you think evangelical revivals contributed increased attention to social reform as well as individual piety?
Methodists were key to Protestant expansion in America. What were the characteristics that contributed to this expansion and to the varieties of Protestantism that flourished after 1800?
One impact of Protestant expansion was opposition to Catholicism and suspicion of the Roman Catholic Church. How would you describe the tensions between Protestants and Catholics in 19th-century New York City? How did Archbishop John Hughes appeal to the principle of religious freedom "to see," as he said, "that the religious rights of my flock should not be filched away from them"?
How did Catholic immigrants "expand the idea of what it meant to be an American"? Why did Protestants think, as religion professor Stephen Prothero says, that "Catholicism threatens the whole American project"?
Historian Richard Shaw says the essence of Archbishop Hughes' argument was that "this country will live up to what it claims to be." Religion professor Stephen Prothero echoes this idea when he observes at the end of the episode that despite examples in our history of the denial of religious liberty, the America story "is always working on us." Do you agree? What examples or evidence can you cite that this might be so?
What insights do the stories about religious liberty in this episode offer for understanding religion in America today?
The Founding Fathers and the Place of Religion in America by Frank Lambert
Religion and Political Culture in Jefferson's Virginia edited by Garrett Ward Sheldon and Daniel L. Dreisbach
The Sacred Rights of Conscience: Selected Readings on Religious Liberty and Church-State Relations in the American Founding edited by Daniel L. Dreisbach and Mark David Hall
Liberty of Conscience: In Defense of America's Tradition of Religious Equality by Martha C. Nussbaum
The Godless Constitution by Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore
The Rise of Evangelicalism by Mark A. Noll
The Democratization of American Christianity by Nathan O. Hatch
The Making of Evangelicalism: From Revivalism to Politics and Beyond by Randall Balmer
Blessed Assurance: A History of Evangelicalism in America by Randall Balmer
Methodism and the Southern Mind by Cynthia Lynn Lyerly
God of Liberty by Thomas S. Kidd
Voices from the Heart: Four Centuries of American Piety edited by Roger Lundin and Mark A. Noll
American Sermons: The Pilgrims to Martin Luther King Jr. edited by Michael Warner
Cane Ridge: America's Pentecost by Paul K. Conkin
Revivalism and Social Reform: American Protestantism on the Eve of the Civil War by Timothy L. Smith
Catholicism and American Freedom: A History by John T. McGreevy
Dagger John: The Unquiet Life and Times of Archbishop John Hughes of New York by Richard Shaw
Anti-Catholicism in America: The Last Acceptable Prejudice by Mark Massa
American Catholic History: A Documentary Reader edited by Mark Massa
The American Catholic Experience by Jay P. Dolan
Catholics in New York: Society, Culture, and Politics 1808-1946 edited by Terry Golway
We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition by John Courtney Murray
Divided by God: America's Church-State Problem -- And What We Should Do About It by Noah Feldman
The Bill of Rights
National Humanities Center, Divining America: Religion in American History: "The Separation of Church and State from the American Revolution to the Early Republic"
Thomas Jefferson and His Bible
Library of Congress: Religion and the Founding of the American Republic
Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty
First Amendment Center
Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals
PBS: School: The Story of American Public Education
Published October 11, 2010