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God in America | Article

People and Ideas: Early America's Formation

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James Madison. Courtesy: Library of Congress

James Madison

Born into a prosperous slave-owning family in Virginia in 1751, James Madison was baptized in the Anglican Church.

Madison was outraged to discover that a number of Baptist ministers had been thrown into a Virginia jail for preaching without licenses. He committed himself to fighting for liberty of conscience, which he equated with religious liberty.

Madison became a delegate to the Virginia Convention, which gathered in May 1776 to declare independence from Great Britain and to write a Constitution for Virginia. Madison objected to the use of the phrase "fullest toleration," because he believed that toleration of religious dissidents was more limited than a guarantee of full and complete religious freedom. Madison urged the Legislature to amend the declaration to recognize "free exercise" of religion rather than toleration. He lost the battle for disestablishment, but his suggested phrase, "all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion," eventually became part of Virginia's Constitution.

When the Founding Fathers met in Philadelphia in 1787, Madison served as the architect of the Constitution. Following Virginia, the Constitution gave the federal government no authority over religion, creating a free marketplace for religion.

The original draft of the Constitution did not contain any written guarantee of religious liberty; Madison thought it was unnecessary and unwise. But Jefferson disagreed, and he encouraged Madison to change his mind. Unwilling to let the anti-Federalists undo the Constitution and eager to get himself elected to Congress, Madison supported an amendment.

Madison's talent for negotiation helped to secure the passage of the Bill of Rights, including the guarantees of religious liberty contained in the First Amendment.

Thomas Jefferson

Keenly attuned to the intellectual currents of the day, Jefferson eagerly embraced the Enlightenment with its emphasis on reason over revelation and absorbed the tenets of Whig political theory that stressed the dangers of concentrated power and the importance of restraints on government.

Convinced that the state had no business coercing religious conformity, Jefferson made defense of liberty the hallmark of his career. In 1776, he wrote the Declaration of Independence. The following year, he introduced a Bill Concerning Religious Freedom to the Virginia Legislature. In 1787, he urged his friend and colleague James Madison to amend the Constitution to include a written guarantee of religious liberty.

Jefferson's campaign to end state support of religion fueled doubts about his personal religious beliefs. These doubts, which had swirled around him for years, emerged as a critical issue in the bitter presidential campaign of 1800. His Federalist opponents vilified him as an atheist and libertine. Jefferson fumed at the harassment coming from what he referred to as an "irritable tribe of priests" and even compared his persecution at the hands of the New England clergy to the crucifixion of Christ.

Jefferson won the election, beating his friend and rival John Adams. On New Year's Day 1802, he welcomed to the White House the dissident Baptist preacher John Leland. That same day, Jefferson replied to a letter sent by Baptists in Danbury, Conn., who chafed under the authority of the established Congregational Church. In his reply Jefferson invoked the famous metaphor of a "wall of separation" between church and state.

Like other Founding Fathers, Jefferson was considered a Deist, subscribing to the liberal religious strand of Deism that values reason over revelation and rejects traditional Christian doctrines, including the Virgin Birth, original sin and the resurrection of Jesus. While he rejected orthodoxy, Jefferson was nevertheless a religious man.

Influenced by the British Unitarian Joseph Priestley, Jefferson set his prodigious intellect and energy on the historical figure at the center of the Christian faith: Jesus of Nazareth. Jefferson became convinced that Jesus' message had been obscured and corrupted by the apostle Paul, the Gospel writers and Protestant reformers. While president, Jefferson took a razor to the Bible, cutting out portions of the Gospels that involved miracles and retaining his parables and ethical teachings. The resulting volume, The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth, affirmed his conviction that Jesus was not divine, but "a Teacher of Common Sense," primarily concerned with morality and ethical conduct.

Years later, Jefferson drew from the New Testaments in Greek, Latin, French and English to create The Life and Morals of Jesus, commonly known as the "Jefferson Bible." For Jefferson, it was the moral message of Jesus, not claims of his birth, death and resurrection, that lay at the center of the Christian faith.

God and the Constitution

In 1787, 55 delegates to the Constitutional Convention gathered in the city of Philadelphia to debate the foundational document for the newly formed United States. Despite individual differences, these men professed a belief in God as the Creator of the universe and believed that religion encouraged a moral citizenry, which they deemed essential to the success of the new republic. Yet they were keenly aware that European history demonstrated the power of religion to spawn sectarian strife and violence.

By time of the convention, the Founding Fathers and "ordinary" Americans subscribed to the idea of religious liberty. This was not an abstract principle but a vital, living concept influenced by multiple sources, including Whig political theory that rejected the concentration of political power; the experience of religious dissenters, British and American, who resisted the authority of established churches; and the religious revival known as the Great Awakening that stressed individual experience over orthodoxy. The concept of religious liberty was coupled with a corollary principle: The state must have no power to establish a church or to impose religious conformity.

With James Madison's guidance, the First Congress approved the First Amendment to the Constitution that begins: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." The amendment applied only to the federal government, not to the states.

Wall of Separation

The "wall of separation" is the famous and contentious metaphor invoked by President Thomas Jefferson in his reply to a letter from the Baptists of Danbury, Conn, who were a minority in a state dominated by the Congregational Church. In their letter, the Baptists sought to congratulate the president on his electoral victory, chastise his critics and celebrate his commitment to religious liberty.

Jefferson saw an opportunity to achieve three goals: to articulate important principles and influence public opinion; to justify his refusal to declare national days of fasting and thanksgiving; and to reassure his political supporters and his opponents that he was a friend, not a foe, of religion.

The final letter, sent to the Baptists on Jan. 1, 1802, quoted the language of the First Amendment and included the famous metaphor:

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should "make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.

Jefferson's metaphor lay largely ignored until 1947, when Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black invoked the phrase in Everson v. Board of Education and argued that the "wall of separation" must be kept "high and impregnable." Since then, no phrase has exerted a more profound influence on debates about the proper relation between church and state in America.

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