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Interview: Daniel Dreisbach

Daniel Dreisbach

Dreisbach is a professor in the School of Public Affairs at American University. His areas of specialty include American constitutional law and history, First Amendment law and church-state relations. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted April 22, 2009.

The first Great Awakening: Why do you think the common man was so receptive to what these itinerant preachers were saying?

To use the term ''Great Awakening'' suggests that the people have fallen asleep, and I think there was a sense in which the American people were concerned that there was a falling away of morality, of a general propriety in life in colonial times, that they had forgotten perhaps some first principles. So when the preachers of the Great Awakening came along, I think there was a receptiveness to renew their character, their morality, to return to some first principles of the American founding.

“It's hard for me to imagine that Americans would have pursued their political independence … had they not had this common, shared experience of religious revival a generation or two earlier.”

I thought the Puritans were all well-behaved Calvinists.

Even within a few generations of the Puritans arriving in the New World, there was concern about the next generation. They weren't as interested in going to church. They weren't as interested in listening to long sermons on a Sunday afternoon. Many of them were choosing not to continue as part of the church, to maintain their membership. This was of grave concern to that older generation.

Is that one reason why [Massachusetts Governor John] Winthrop's "city on the hill" foundered, that the tightly bound ideal of church and state was struggling?

The Puritans of course were very familiar with the example of the children of Israel, and they knew that the children of Israel, their clothes were hardly dry from having crossed the Red Sea, and yet they were building idols to Baal. So this is not surprising to them. They understand the human condition. They understand the frailties of the human heart. And while it may have disheartened many of them that their children were choosing not to continue in the same paths that they had chosen, it was within their understanding of humankind and the human condition that there would be a need for renewal, a need for a great awakening.

Also, life was quite tough. Was the idea that religion could help you to succeed?

That certainly has been a key part of why religion is so important to these Americans, but I think by the time that we get to that first half of the 18th century, certainly in some parts of the colonies there's a kind of affluence. The things that drove them to God and to the safety and protection that God and the church provided was no longer quite so necessary. The fear of the Indians, the fear of hunger and starvation for some colonists was no longer a part of their lives. So that may explain in part why there is this falling asleep, for which there is a need for a great awakening.

Describe the itinerant preachers.

It is certainly true that Americans who lived on the frontier were, in some respects, very isolated. ... So when a preacher arrives, I think that there is a desire to hear what this minister has to say, especially if it's someone like a [George] Whitefield, who has come from across the Atlantic Ocean, who probably speaks in a somewhat strange accent, who is familiar with the latest news and fashions of the mother country. ...

What was it like to be a preacher? What were they like, and what did they do?

These itinerant preachers oftentimes traveled by horseback, sometimes traveling thousands and thousands of miles in a given year, going through rain and sleet and snow, traveling with woolen clothes and leather jackets that one surely must think never completely dried out. This was a hard life, preaching oftentimes two, three, four times a day. ...

But I think this is also part of the attraction that the itinerant preacher brings. This is a man who may be preaching in Vermont but may have been in Georgia earlier in the year, so there was a kind of a knitting together of the colonies by way of these itinerant preachers. There was a development of a common American identity that begins to emerge out of this revival that recall the Great Awakening.

What was the charisma, language, connection that people found with people like Whitefield?

One of the interesting things about the Great Awakening is that there is a kind of ecumenism that is a part of this Great Awakening. ... At some of these great revivals we see a coming together of various denominations, people that in a previous age would never sit down together in a religious setting, would not break bread with one another, and yet they're being brought together by a common message of revival. This, too, has the effect of a bringing together of the American people.

What is this common message of revival?

I think the true believer also has to understand the spiritual dimension of the great revival. The revivalists themselves and those who are moved by revival will point to the work of the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit being one of the persons in the Trinity. And the Holy Spirit is that which comes in and dwells within the human being and moves the person to see the work of grace, to understand the work of salvation in the life of the believer. This is a supernatural act that is hard for the rationalist to understand or appreciate. But the revivalists themselves, and those who come to a conversion experience to be born again, would point to the work of the Holy Spirit as being the prime actor in these great revivals.

Is this a peculiarly American phenomenon?

I don't think so. We have seen revivals at earlier points in history, but this is something that is so woven into the American identity -- it has a great deal to do with the shaping of the American people, the knitting together of the American people -- that it's become an indispensable part of our story as a people. ...

Let's remember that we start out with a few scattered colonies. Oftentimes there's not great communication or conversation among these colonies. There's great differences in the cultures of the colonies. Some are based around fishing. Some are based upon the growing of cotton and tobacco and things like that. There's a very different identity, religious component to these colonies.

And yet when we see the Great Awakening, there is a knitting together of the American people. There is a shared excitement about their faith, their Christianity. They develop a common language. There's a breaking down, to some extent, of the denominational divides that had separated them as a people, and this has the effect of bringing the Americans to a position where they see themselves as Americans as opposed to Virginians or Georgians or a citizen from Pennsylvania or New York or Massachusetts. ...

What effect does that shared experience have on the political and religious establishment in the colonies?

It's enormously important that Americans are beginning to see themselves as Americans and not simply as citizens of one of the colonies. And now this puts up a common front in expressing and articulating their grievances against Parliament and the king. But there are also some other things that are transpiring. There's a development of a common vocabulary, a common language, for example, that's going to be important in the struggle with Great Britain. The language of the tyranny of George III, for example, is not that far removed from the language of the tyranny of sin that the great revivalists speak. The liberty in Christ, for example, is language not that dissimilar to the kind of political liberty that these Americans are yearning for and are beginning to express their desire to achieve.

For the establishment trying to rule and guide the colonies -- Anglicanism -- what does all this mean?

I believe the great revival is somewhat threatening to the established church in the various colonies, because now, for the first time, Americans are beginning to have a rich, meaningful religious experience outside the four walls of the established church. It's breaking down those rigid rules of authority, and this, too, is going to contribute to what's going to happen in the American movement for independence. Americans come to appreciate through this religious experience that the establishment does not always hold, and they're going to challenge the establishment in a political sense when it comes to the struggle against Great Britain and colonial rule.

So a significant connection between religious revival and what took place in 1775?

It's hard for me to imagine that Americans would have pursued their political independence with the same kind of language and the same kind of design had they not had this common, shared experience of religious revival a generation or two earlier.

How does it survive that generation gap? How do we know this generation gap didn't dilute or stop it?

Whitefield actually dies in [1770], having made several missionary journeys back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean. He remains a much revered and loved figure in America, right up to the threshold of the American independence movement. So I think that he doesn't fade away, even though the Great Awakening may have burned brightest in the 1730s and '40s and perhaps the early '50s.

Some historians are also suggesting that in some parts of the country, this was a religious movement that continued unabated right through the remainder of the century and even into the next. Perhaps in some areas like the central Piedmont region of Virginia, there seems to have been something of an ongoing revival throughout the century. Obviously at times there's greater intensity than at others, but I think it's perhaps a little bit of an error to think of this revival as something that happened for a brief moment, was over and forgotten about.

How do you square that with the Enlightenment?

I think it's a little bit easy to overplay the role and influence of the Enlightenment in America in the 18th century. ... I don't think that the Enlightenment thought went too deeply into the public at large. This was, by and large, a Christian people who had an appreciation for general orthodox views of Christianity.

The kind of Enlightenment, rationalist influence that we find in America in the 18th century tended to be of a rather more moderate version than what you might have found in Europe, especially on the continent. There is, for example, in America a deep appreciation for the person of Jesus Christ, that Jesus was a great moral teacher. That wasn't always true of Enlightenment thinkers on the continent. Take someone like Jefferson, for example, who does reject, in the Enlightenment tradition, many of the basic beliefs of orthodox Christianity, and yet he believes that the teachings of Christ are the most sublime that has ever been. So there is a more moderate expression of Enlightenment thinking, and it's restricted to a fairly elite segment of the American population. ...

... What do Americans do with this Christian-religion DNA in them? Does Calvinism always lie dormant in them?

One of the things that we know about Calvinism, from its origins in Geneva right through to the American experience, is it provides a rather comprehensive worldview. It's an integrated, coherent, theological, political, cultural perspective that defines -- in many respects shapes -- many aspects of life. And this culture is transported to the American colonies.

Best estimates would suggest that by the time of American independence, probably somewhere in the neighborhood of 98 percent of Americans are Protestant Christians, and of that number maybe three-quarters, perhaps even more, are individuals who are affiliated with a reformed theological tradition, and by that I mean that branch of Protestantism most closely identified with Calvinism. Now, this is going to affect their thinking in a lot of ways. The role of Providence is a very significant part of the Calvinist worldview.

What does that mean?

They have a view that there is a superintending divine being who directs the affairs of men and nations. They have great confidence in the designs of this Providential being. Things don't happen by chance; they don't happen by accident. They happen because of Providence.

But let me give you one very specific example of how this Calvinist worldview has a tremendous effect and impact on the American political scene, and this has to do with the theory of resistance, the right to resist a tyrannical ruler. One of the great teachings of the apostle Paul is in the book of the Bible Romans 13, where it talks about the duty of citizens to be in submission to those in authority over them. This is a great barrier to those who might want to resist an unjust rule or a tyrannical ruler.

But Americans of the Calvinist tradition were able to look back to the continent. In particular, they looked to how the French Calvinists, the Huguenots, responded to the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre, where French Huguenots were slaughtered by the Roman Catholics. Emerging out of these kinds of experiences on the continent, the Calvinists began to articulate a theory of self-defense, the right to resist an unjust ruler. This was exactly the kind of argument that was used by the Puritans in resisting Charles I, leading into the great English civil wars. And the Americans of the reform tradition saw here a model for how they could resist the tyrannical rule of the English Parliament and king, and they drew on this tradition, this theological Calvinist tradition, in their own uprising against the British, starting in the 1760s and 1770s, culminating, of course, in defeating the greatest army in the world at that time. ...

This reformed Protestantism, this worldview, the right to dissent, is that why Puritans matter to this country?

I think Puritans matter for a lot of reasons, but I think that they do have a kind of a character, a resilience, a determination, a work ethic that represents the best of American values. So whether they are important as a seed or whether we simply look back to them as a model in some of these respects, I think they are very valuable and continue to be valuable to Americans in how they think about themselves. ...

Tell me about the British imposition and its effect.

Some historians have taken the view that one of the sparks to the American Revolution was the desire to impose bishops on America. These would have been Church of England bishops, Anglican bishops. Americans would have had to pay for these bishops, and this raises two fundamental objections.

Number one, not all Americans were Church of England. There were Congregationalists dominant in New England. There were growing numbers of religious dissenters, whether they be Presbyterian or Baptist, Quakers or what have you. And they objected strongly to the idea that they would be placed under the authority of these English bishops.

But number two, Americans understood that they were going to have to pay for these bishops, and they saw the imposition of the English bishops, the Anglican bishops, as a kind of ecclesiastical Stamp Act. They were going to be taxed for something that they didn't want, they didn't desire, so they resisted this. ...

Do you think the Revolution had a distinctly religious component to it?

I think it has a religious component in a variety of ways. One is that religion provided the rationale for resistance in the first place, a theological rationale. And for a Christian people, it was enormously important that they have a theological justification for this most serious act that they are about to embark on. But there are other religious components to this movement for independence. One is this resistance to the imposition of an Anglican bishop. So I think religion plays a significant role throughout the emergence of the independence movement in America.

The idea that even the top leaders -- Madison, Washington -- saw Providence as playing its part in the American Revolution and its success? ...

I think one of the most common religious themes that we find in the literature of the American founding is this idea that here is a God who intervenes in the affairs of men and nations. This, too, is a bit of a departure from the English and the continental view of the Enlightenment, the deists' perspective. We all learned in school that the deist involved the clockmaker God who wound up the clock and let it run on its own. Well, Americans were not of this variety. They believed, almost to a man, that there was a God who intervened in the affairs of men and nations, so they had great confidence that as things unfolded in this struggle with Great Britain that there was a God who was concerned, and they certainly prayed that that God would be on their side.

Madison wrote about this?

In Federalist [Papers No.] 37, as I recall, he talks about you can't understand this without appreciating the finger of the Almighty God. George Washington spoke of this often. In fact, a third of his first inaugural address as president of the United States is devoted to religious themes, and he talks about the role of Providence in bringing the nation to this point where they have a new nation under a new Constitution.

We all remember the significance of July 4, 1776, and this idea of declaring political independence from Great Britain. But another very interesting event happened on that same day in the Second Continental Congress. The Congress formed a committee given the task to design a great seal for the United States, and to that committee was appointed John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. And they went away to deliberate on what the great seal for the United States should look like.

When they came back, they came back with a most interesting set of ideas. Benjamin Franklin suggested that the great seal should show Moses extending his hand out over the Red Sea as it parted to allow the children of Israel to escape Pharaoh's army. Thomas Jefferson suggested another theme involving the children of Israel. His idea is that it show the children of Israel in the wilderness, led by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. We read about this in the book of Exodus.

Now, this is very significant, because here we have two Americans -- we think of them as sons of the Enlightenment, but when called upon to design a great seal for the United States, what are they drawn to? They're drawn to an image of the children of Israel. They, like so many of their more pious countrymen, see themselves as following, if you will, in that example of the children of Israel, led by divine Providence, led by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, straight from the provider God himself. This is what they looked to in imagining the American identity.

[Tell us about the] Constitutional Congress.

Various representatives of the American states wanted to coordinate their response to the various burdensome acts of the British Parliament, the various taxes and the like. So they agreed to create a congress, what came to be known as a Continental Congress, and the delegates from the various states except Georgia, who did not attend, began to convene in Philadelphia in September 1774. On the first couple days, they dealt with preliminary matters like presenting the credentials of the delegates and selecting a president and a secretary for the congress. But the very first substantive act of that congress was, one of the delegates stood and made a motion that they commence with prayer, and they voted to call a local minister to come and lead the congress in prayer.

Now, there was an objection to that motion. Interestingly enough, it came from the very devout Episcopalian John Jay of New York, who said, "Well, you know, this is a very diverse body that we have here." He says: "We've got Episcopalians; we've got Presbyterians; we've got Congregationalists. There are even some Baptists in this room. There's some Quakers in this room. How could we call a minister that would be acceptable to us all? This might lead to division." This seems to be the implication of his objection. Sam Adams of Massachusetts said: "I'm not a bigot. I can certainly listen to the prayer of an Episcopalian or an Anglican minister. In fact," he says, "this might be a very good thing, a unifying thing, as we set out on this most important and arduous task." So the motion was passed to call this minister, and they went to the local Christ Church, Episcopal church there in Philadelphia. The rector was a man by the name of Jacob Duché, and he came the next morning in his clerical garb, and he led in a prayer.

What was very interesting is that on that same day, the delegates in that hall had received news -- it turned out to be false reports -- but they had received news that the British had begun bombarding Boston, so there was great alarm in that chamber. And the reading for that day from The Book of Common Prayer was Psalm 35, which talks about the Protector Lord protecting the defenseless. And the delegates seem to have been greatly moved by the coincidence, we might say, of this particular reading for that day.

The minister had a prepared prayer which he read before the delegates. It's been preserved; we know what he said. But according to reports, he then went on for about another 10 minutes in extemporaneous prayer, and there are interesting eyewitness accounts of how greatly the group was moved by this moment of religious expression. A few days later, John Adams wrote a lengthy letter to [his wife,] Abigail, describing in great details the moment, the fervor of this prayer. And significance seems to have been attached that at this moment, as they embark on a most important task, that they began their activities by calling on God for divine protection, for divine guidance in their endeavors.

Yet the Constitution has virtually no reference to God. How do you square those two conflicting ideas?

I don't see much of an inconsistency in that at all. I think it is noteworthy that unlike most public documents of the day, the United States Constitution of 1787 does not contain the usual prefatory language invoking God's name and protection.

But I think we must keep in mind that this was a federal republic, that they were bringing together in some kind of confederation or federation a group of 13 different colonies, and most of these colonies had laid out in great detail their view of God, their reliance on God, in their public documents. I think there was a fear about this new federal creature that they were about ready to create, and so there was jealous guarding of the church-state arrangements that were already articulated in state documents. ...

Explain Jefferson's view on the Constitution, or what was lacking from it.

... We do know that Jefferson was concerned, and explicitly expresses concern, that there was not greater explicit protection of religious liberty in the proposed constitution of 1787.

Why was he so agitated by this?

Jefferson by this time had already staked his reputation on being an ardent supporter of religious liberty, and I suspect, given his past practice, what he had championed in Virginia, he would have liked the national constitution to have been more explicit in saying that the federal government had no power to interfere with the religious exercise, the religious expression of the people.

Why was he such a champion for religious liberty?

I think this is part of that Enlightenment, rationalist influence, this idea of free thought. The fact that the state or some king or prelate could tell someone what they had to believe or who they had to worship, when and where and how to worship, would have been anathema to Jefferson. ...

Did he see things in his recent past that would have prompted this?

Jefferson certainly would have been aware of the fact that dissenters in his own commonwealth of Virginia had been persecuted, had suffered disabilities in the recent past. In fact, he had written a Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom, which was designed to free dissenters of those kinds of disabilities. So he was certainly familiar with that immediate history in his own neighborhood, quite literally his own neighborhood. Some of his neighbors would have been dissenting Baptists, for example, that would have felt the sting of that kind of persecution.

What was it like for a Baptist preacher to live in Virginia in the 1760s?

Virginia was arguably the most important of the colonies. It was the most centrally located geographically. It was the largest, most populous, probably the wealthiest of all the colonies.

There were some interesting geographical divides in Virginia. You had the more established elites along the coastal areas, what we call the Tidewater. Many of the religious dissenters who have come of late to Virginia have moved more toward the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, out toward the Shenandoah Valley. This is closer to where Jefferson lives.

Jefferson, of course, is from Albemarle County. He built his home at Monticello, right outside Charlottesville. This would have been an area that had attracted many of these religious dissenters. Historians have told us that that particular county was a very religiously diverse area in the colony, and I think this must have informed Jefferson's thinking on the role of religion in public life. He understood the dangers of religious tension and conflict, and he must have understood the value of coming up with a workable policy of toleration so Baptist and Anglican and Presbyterian and later the Methodist could live side by side and flourish in the soil of central Virginia.

What had attracted Baptists and other denominations to this part of Virginia?

They want to live free, and they want to move beyond the reach of the established church. They want to move where there are less defined authorities in a civil sense, and the farther West they move, the more that's the case. So I think that's one of the great motivations. Of course that's where the land is. That's where the available land for exploitation lies. So they're moving to cheap land, that kind of thing.

But there is a really rapid shift in religious demographics in central Virginia. Remember, Virginia starts out as a Church of England colony, and the Church of England dominates. But Jefferson writes in his own lifetime that he sees the Baptists and religious dissenters becoming the majority in Virginia. He may have overstated the case, but in any case it's very significant that this is a state that is changing, and changing quickly, in terms of religious demographics.

But there wasn't freedom, was there? What did a Baptist preacher face?

The Church of England had a firm grip on life in Virginia. There were laws that required you to attend religious services, and these would have been religious services in the Church of England. There were severe fines and even imprisonment if you did not abide by these laws, so this impacted the ordinary citizen. There were laws requiring you to tithe your money to support of the established church.

For a Baptist minister or a minister really from any dissenting sect, you had to be licensed by the state, and this is particularly troublesome for the Baptists, because this would have been an affront to their view of conscience. This would be violating their direct relationship with God as they saw it, so they objected to this requirement of licensure.

There would be requirements that marriages be performed only by ministers from a licensed church. Meetinghouses had to be approved and were regulated. So there were all kinds of restrictions and regulations imposed upon religious dissenters.

What do you mean by a direct relationship with God?

The Baptists believed -- and this is not unusual in the Protestant tradition -- that there was a direct relationship between God and man. Clearly they had thrown off the necessity for an intercessor by way of a priest or a church between God and man. And they believed that as a believer, they had to respond as God through the Holy Spirit spoke directly to their conscience.

... Tell me about George Mason.

George Mason is an interesting character. He comes from a very prosperous plantation-owning family in northern Virginia, what we call the Northern Neck. That's a piece of land between the Rappahannock and the James River. His father was killed when he was 10 years old in a freak boating accident crossing the Potomac River, and he suddenly becomes the man of the family. This also denies him an opportunity to receive a more formal education, but he's trained at home. His uncle is one of the most successful lawyers, with one of the largest libraries, in Virginia. By all accounts, he read deeply and long in his uncle's library, so he's a very well-, self-educated man. He's not trained as a lawyer, but he's also very knowledgeable in the law, and when Virginians decide to declare their independence from Great Britain, they look to George Mason as a man to guide them and help them in reconstituting a new society.

How did he do?

The Fifth Virginia Convention met in Williamsburg in the spring and early summer of 1776. On May 15, the Virginia Convention sent instructions to the delegates at the Continental Congress to press for independence. So in a sense, Virginia was declaring its independence before the Continental Congress.

But this created a political crisis, a political question: If we're severing our links with England, what is the rule of law? What is the authority, politically speaking, in Virginia?

So perhaps drawing on Lockean ideas, they decide what they need to do first is to draft a clear declaration of rights, followed by a plan of government, or what we might call a constitution. And on both of those counts, the Virginia Convention looks to George Mason to lead them.

It is George Mason who provides the first draft of what came to be known as the Virginia Declaration of Rights, which is debated in late May and early June. It's adopted by the Virginia Convention on June 12, 1776. This is a declaration of rights that's going to be a model throughout the colonies as they become independent states. Some have said it's a model for declaration[s] of rights around the world, perhaps even the United Nations' Declaration of Human Rights. But it includes in its provisions an important measure protecting the right of religious exercise. ...

Tell me where Jefferson and Madison are.

Jefferson does not play a significant part in these debates because he is in Philadelphia as a Virginia delegate at the Continental Congress. This is the congress that drafts and adopts the Declaration of Independence.

James Madison is an interesting [figure] in all this as well, because he is a brand-new delegate to the Virginia Convention. This is his first significant job having completed college, so he's a relatively young, untested actor in Virginia politics. But he has some important things to contribute to this debate on religious liberty in Virginia.

What does Madison make of the draft?

The last article in the Virginia Declaration of Rights, which eventually becomes Article 16, comes first from the pen of George Mason. And Mason uses the most liberal, enlightened language of the day, which is the language of religious toleration. He wants all Virginians to enjoy religious toleration.

But there was James Madison, this young, untested delegate in the Virginia Convention, and historians tell us that in his very first public act of what was to be a very distinguished career in politics, he objected to Mason's language of toleration. He says, "This is not what we're objecting to." He says: "Religion is an inalienable, a natural right. It's beyond the reach of civil magistrates. Toleration implies that there's some human authority -- perhaps a state, perhaps an established church -- that in its benevolence grants you the right to practice your religion. But if it can grant you that right, it can just as easily take that right away from you."

So Madison says not toleration; rather, we should be arguing for religious liberty, the full and free exercise of religion. And he's very successful in persuading his fellow delegates to adopt this language of religious liberty and abandoning this Old World idea -- liberal though it may have been at the time -- but this Old World idea of religious toleration. And this, I believe, is the most significant moment in American history for religious liberty.

How did he persuade the delegates?

I may have to bust a bubble here, because he may not have done it on his own. The evidence is that he worked through some of the more mature, well-established members of the convention. Madison himself, we're told, had a quiet voice, a diffident personality. ... A common strategy that he used often in his political career is that he would take an idea to a more forceful member of a body and ask them to make the motion or to make the suggestion for a certain kind of language. And there certainly is tradition that that's what Madison did in this case, that he took an idea which he had written down, which he had articulated, this idea of religious liberty, and perhaps worked through other members of the convention.

And they were persuaded? This was radical stuff, wasn't it?

The idea of rights is in the air -- not only rights, but inalienable rights. So I think that this was an audience that was receptive to a reframing of the debate from one of toleration to the idea of religion and the exercise of religion as a fundamental, inalienable right, far beyond the reach of civil magistrates.

What was the reaction from the dissenters, the Baptists and so on?

The dissenters could not be happier. They see this as a breaking down of the stranglehold that the established church had long had in Virginia. ... And they began to inundate the Virginia Legislature with petitions and letters, asking for those kinds of laws under the old regime of religious establishment to be lifted and to be thrown away forever.

But the elites in Virginia, those who dominated the Legislature, were not quite ready to move so quickly or so radically. So this is really the opening salvo in what is going to be a decades-long debate. I oftentimes think of it in terms of bookends. At one end we have Article 16 of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, which speaks about the full and free exercise of religion. But we see its legislative culmination 10 years later in 1786, when the Virginia Legislature, in January of that year, adopts the Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom, which was written by Thomas Jefferson.

Why did it take so long for Jefferson to succeed in getting that bill passed?

Jefferson was not only a member of the Continental Congress, he was also a member of the Virginia Convention, and when he left Philadelphia and the work of the congress, he came to Williamsburg.

One of his first acts once he arrived back at that legislative deliberation was to introduce a bill for a complete revision of the laws of Virginia. Jefferson, like so many of his colleagues in other colonies, understood that having thrown off the political rule of Great Britain, this raised a fundamental legal question. ... Virginia had been under the English common law. This is a system of law rooted in precedent. And the question they grappled with is, did we sever that connection with common law and with the body of precedent? In any case, we need to revisit, re-examine our laws to remove all vestiges of monarchical rule and to place our legal system on a true republican foundation.

So Jefferson introduced a bill for the revisal of the laws of Virginia. The law was adopted, and he was appointed the chair of a committee of five that was given the task of going through every law in Virginia with an eye toward replacing old English monarchical rules with republican rules. And this is the preoccupation of Jefferson's life for the next several years, at least until he becomes governor at the end of the decade.

By all accounts, Jefferson, as part of that process, probably sometime in early January, maybe a little bit later in the year 1777, wrote the first draft of what came to be known as a Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom. This was Bill No. 82 in this revised code.

The entire code was submitted to the Legislature in 1779; at that point his bill was introduced for the first time. There was also a competing bill for a general assessment, which is a taxation of the public to support the churches. And so these were viewed as competing views. The Legislature was not able or willing to sort of adopt one or the other at this point, so both bills died in the Virginia Legislature in 1779.

At this point the turmoil of the war takes over, and it's the preoccupation of the people of Virginia as well as their Legislature to fight and win this war with the British. It's not until the worst of the hostilities are over, 1784, that once again the Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom is readduced into the Virginia Legislature. And it begins its process toward its adoption and its signing into law in January 1786.

One, the fully agreed principle that people should have free exercise of religion; two, Jefferson wants to ensure the state can have no proprietary rights over religion. Jefferson was pushing further than Madison's idea?

I think by the mid-18th century, an interesting debate begins to emerge in the American colonies and most especially in Virginia, and that is, how is the best way to promote a vibrant religious culture that is going to influence for good the broader political society?

On the one hand, you have those who are supporters of the established church. They say the only way to promote religion in society, to the effect of promoting a virtuous civil polity, is by having an established church. If you disestablish, the church is going to wither away, and religion is going to lose its influence on the broader society.

But there's a new view that begins to emerge, and it's a view that is promoted by an interesting coalition. It is a coalition of religious dissenters and those followers of the Enlightenment. It brought together those persecuted Baptists in central Virginia with people like Jefferson and Mason.

And their idea, which is radical at the time, is, you disestablish the church; you allow every religious sect and credo and denomination to compete in the marketplace of ideas. That competition will bring out the best. Truth will prevail in this competition of ideas. Ministers are not going to grow fat and lazy, relying on a check from the state. Rather, they're going to become diligent. They're going to meet the needs of their congregants. They are going to excel in their industry. They're going to reach out to their neighbor. And it's through this competition of religious sects and denominations that the purest and the most efficacious faith and church will prevail in Virginia.

It's in this context of a debate of what is the best way to promote religion that we see the movement toward disestablishment and the champion of true religious liberty, a religious liberty that can flourish when the state doesn't tell you who and when and where and how you worship God.

What is this need for a vibrant religious society? Why is it specific to America?

The important feature of this American experiment in government is that this is going to be a system of self-government, and the great challenge that the founders confronted is, how do you promote order and discipline once you remove the tyrant who uses the whip and the rod to compel people in an orderly fashion? Clearly, for a free, self-governing people, the rod and the whip are unacceptable.

And it's on this point, I believe, that the American founders looked to the role of religion -- not necessarily a state religion, not an established religion, but the role of religion and morality informed by religious values to provide an internal moral compass that would prompt the citizen to behave in an orderly, disciplined fashion.

This is an idea that is replete in the political literature of the American founding. It is said over and over and over again. And no one says it more famously or succinctly than George Washington in his famous farewell address of September 1796. He says, "Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports."

Now, he's not saying anything new or radical. He's simply restating what has been said over and over again in this American pursuit of a system of self-government. As if to emphasize the point, it's interesting to note what he goes on to say in the very next sentence. Having said religion and morality are indispensable supports, he says, "In vain would that man claim the tribute to patriotism who should labor to subvert these great [pillars] of human happiness." That's startling language. That's stunning language. I read that to say that if you're laboring to undermine this public role of religion, then you can't call yourself a patriot. This is coming perilously close to calling that person a traitor to their country.

Now, again, he's not saying anything radical or new here. This is an idea that is said repeatedly in the literature of the American founding, so the role of religion is essential to this experiment in self-government. It's that thing which provides the internal moral compass that is going to prompt people to behave in an orderly way so that the whole system doesn't break down into chaos.

Does Jefferson have that same view?

I think it's worth noting that there are those who believe religion is important for this purpose out of a genuine spiritual sense that religion changes the heart; it improves one's relationship with God.

I think it's also true that there were those -- perhaps we might call them skeptics -- who think religion is important, but perhaps for more strictly utilitarian purposes; it is a convenient replacement for the whip and the rod. Maybe they themselves don't need religion because they are sufficiently well educated or sufficiently self-disciplined that they don't need religion, but yet they understand, in a large republic where you have many citizens that have not had the benefits or the education or refinement that they've had, that religion becomes important. And again, it's for utilitarian purposes for this group of individuals, not the fact that religion genuinely changes the heart.

So Jefferson sits comfortably within that?

He's a little hard to read, but I think you can find, in the [Notes] on the State of Virginia, for example, he gives some hints that yes, he does view religion as being important for this purpose. But I would be more inclined to say he's viewing it for its utilitarian value rather than its genuinely spiritual value.

... Jefferson appeared to have a greater affinity to Baptists than to Anglicans.

Jefferson had a distrust of religious sects or denominations that were rigidly hierarchical. That would include the Church of England, the Anglican Church with its bishops and even its archbishops. That would have included the church of Rome with the pope and its cardinals and bishops and so on.

By contrast, Jefferson seems to have had a great affinity for the Baptists, and I think a great deal of that affinity comes from their form of church governance, that Baptists were much more democratic. The congregation by majority vote would choose to call a minister or to fire a minister, to build a new building, those kinds of things. So I think he was very attracted to the more egalitarian aspects of Baptist culture and Baptist governance.

People seem surprised that the marital bed of the 1791 First Amendment had Jefferson on one side, sharing it with the Baptists.

... What Jefferson and the Baptists, and I would say Madison, had in common was a distrust of this marriage between the civil state on the one hand and the church on the other. Both of them had an interest in disestablishment. The Baptists wanted to be free from the regulations and the burdens of the established church. Jefferson thought that by disestablishment we would be creating a marketplace for ideas where truth could prevail in that marketplace. So they had a common objective, but that doesn't mean that they shared certain doctrinal beliefs.

Did Jefferson need the Baptists for getting the First Amendment through?

... I think those who shared the views of Jefferson and Madison needed the weight of the numbers represented by not just the Baptists but other dissenting sects. Baptists were an important part of that group, but let's not forget that there are Presbyterian groups. By the end of the century, the Methodists are beginning to flourish in central Virginia, so there's a need for these various groups apart from the established church to truly agitate, to capture the attention of legislatures with the need to push forward with this non-establishment policy, with this idea of religious liberty.

Jefferson had one try at disestablishment in Virginia. He describes it as his "severest contest." Why?

This is a phrase that comes out of his autobiography, and what he's writing about is this momentum that is created in Virginia in 1776-1777. With the passage of Article 16 of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, Jefferson wants to push hard, at that moment in 1776, to fully and formally disestablish the Anglican Church. This is the "severest contest" of his life. ...

So the severest contest is because he was up against a peer group that was just too difficult? What significantly had changed?

... What's achieved in these legislative struggles of late 1776 is that the dissenters are relieved of their obligation to pay a tax in support of the established church. Also there is a temporary suspension given to members of the established church so that they don't have to pay in support of their own church. Now, it's hoped that they will do that voluntarily.

But what we enter into is a period of several years here where the established church in Virginia is not receiving its tax support, so to speak, so this is a time of crisis for the church. It is moving into a period of greatly weakened financial position, but it's also, I think, a beginning of an instructive lesson for Virginians, and that is the power of voluntary support. Through these changes, dissenters are being taught the importance to give their voluntary support to the church that most moves them, that most speaks to their needs. And I think this is a lesson that is not lost on those in the established church.

Together, this is beginning to weaken the position of the established church in Virginia, weaken it to the position that by the time we get to 1784-1785, we see a new round of battles over a tax or general assessment, and Jefferson's bill for religious freedom. We've gone now for almost seven to eight years without tax support for the established church in any significant way, and those supporters of the old established church say, ''We're in a serious crisis here. Our church lands are falling apart,'' quite literally. We're talking about the physical plants of the church, roofs falling in, ministers going without pay. And when they go without pay, they're moving on to other things. So there's a sense in which, with the decline of the established church, that there's a bit of a crisis here in the religious fabric of Virginia life.

So the old supporters of an established church say, "What we need is a new tax." And those supporters of Jefferson, Mason, Madison, those who were dissenters, said, "No, what we need to do is to fully and formally disestablish, put all religious sects on an equal footing, and let them compete in the marketplace of ideas." And "truth," Jefferson says, "will prevail in that marketplace." ...

What do you think is the point of the First Amendment?

... I think the first thing to note about the First Amendment is that it is reassuring. It is reassuring the American people that this new creation that we call the national government or the federal government is not going to interfere with the rights and liberties of the American people. This is very important because Americans, they've just thrown off the shackles of an enormously powerful, central, remote government, and they are skeptical and worried about replacing that old government with a new, remote, central authority. So it's important to reassure them that the federal government is not going to tell them when, where, how they can practice their religion, who will be their God, those kinds of things.

But there's a second important aspect to the First Amendment, and that is a reaffirmation of the principle of federalism. Federalism, of course, is the system of government, system of politics, separates the powers of a central authority from regional governments. And it reaffirms that to the extent that any aspect of civil government has jurisdiction as it pertains to religion, that that's going to take place at the state and local level.

Let's not forget at the time that the Bill of Rights was adopted, there were still established churches in some of the states. And those established churches were going to continue well into the 19th century. So the First Amendment ... reaffirms those powers that state and local governments have, which is that they can maintain the church-state policies, the positions on religious liberty articulated in their own constitutions and laws.

Jefferson is prepared to allow states to do the very thing that he believed was antithetical to how America's civil society should run? How does he square that?

I think there's a couple responses to that. One is, let's not forget that this is a generation that viewed the principle of federalism as an important protector of rights. Federalism is a concept of separation of powers. It was a way of diffusing, limiting the power of government. So they saw inherent good for the protection of rights and liberties in the very notion of federalism, and Jefferson wants to defend that.

Beyond that, I think Jefferson has a certain optimism that the other colonies, former colonies, are going to look at Virginia and they're going to see the model of Virginia, the liberty as it flourishes in Virginia. And I think he thinks it's inevitable that these other states are going to want to follow the model of Virginia and to disestablish, to allow the broadest, richest expression of religious liberty. ...

So he was optimistic when it came to matters of religion?

I think he was a man who was very confident in the rightness of his positions, and he thought others would see it the same way that he did inevitably.

What's he doing picking away at the Bible, taking bits out, reworking it?

Jefferson himself embarked on two rather significant Bible projects, ... first in about 1803-1804, and a second exercise late in life, 1819-1820, long after he'd left the White House, where he essentially cut up the Gospel accounts in the New Testament to extract these great moral teachings that he believed Jesus had to offer.

Now, there's a variety of ways that we can interpret this. One, we could say this is Jefferson's Enlightenment Bible He's cutting out those portions of the Bible that involve miracles, transcendent claims, the deity of Jesus as the Son of God, those kinds of things, because this did not accord, one could argue, with his Enlightenment, rationalist religion.

Others have suggested that perhaps there were less ambitious goals in mind. It's worth noting that his first Bible was prepared right on the threshold of the Louisiana Purchase, and in fact, in his own hand he writes out that he sees this as an instruction book on morals and ethics for the Indians who live in those territories. So in one sense, that's how we might interpret this. On another, we could say this is an expression of Jefferson's rationalist religion.

Meanwhile, America goes bananas for religion in a way that he didn't predict. How could he get it so wrong?

He stands among many others who have been wrong in their predictions about the demise of traditional religion, especially in the 20th century. The claims are that modernity and secularism would sort of dominate and religion would sort of wither away. So he stands in good company on that account.

Again, I think Jefferson himself is a follower of a kind of Enlightenment religion, a rationalist religion. ... And he simply did not appreciate the depth of the American embrace of orthodox Christianity and didn't foresee this second awakening, what we oftentimes call the Second Great Awakening, that would grip his own homeland, beginning in territories not very far from his own home there in central Virginia, and would dominate the American cultural life for the next generation or two.

... Do you think the level of insecurity in America at that time played a part in it?

I'm not sure "insecurity" is the right word, but you've come out of a moment of great turmoil, uncertainty. We forget the uncertainty of the 1790s, the Shays' Rebellion, those kinds of things. There was a kind of a rumbling taking place: Is this republic going to work? This is a new experiment. So I think one plausible interpretation is that the uncertainty of the times prompts a kind of a returning to the principles of faith.

... 1791 had produced the most extraordinary moment in America's religious history, and yet in only 30, 40 years, you find huge numbers of people being prejudiced against because of their faith. The liberty of Catholics was being infringed in the 1830s and '40s. ... Catholics are run out of town, beaten or killed. So did the First Amendment really work?

I think we expect more of the First Amendment than what it was designed to accomplish. I would suggest that the First Amendment did not offer anything significantly new, radically new in our way of thinking. It simply made explicit that which was already implicit in the constitutional design. And the fundamental feature of that design, of course, was this kind of federalism. ...

I think what's going on with the riots and the Catholics in Philadelphia and things like that [is] just the phenomenal shift in demographics. Up to this point, if you're 98 percent in the majority, it's easy to tolerate 1 or 2 percent here or there who are a little bit different. But in some communities, with the arrival of the Irish in the wake of the potato famine, things like that, there is a profound change in demographics. ... We're talking about significant numbers that can actually change the fabric of the culture, or so it's perceived. And it's very easy, in the wake of this shift in demographics, to bring out the old prejudices, the old canards about the pope and all the sinister aspects of Catholicism that had been part of the religious wars and struggles of previous centuries. ...

What was Jefferson up against [in the battle to disestablish religion in Virginia] that made it so tough?

... Jefferson is being severely challenged here. His integrity is being challenged as a person of faith, so to speak. This is a pretty nasty battle. The established church doesn't want to give up its hold that easily, and it had some very powerful surrogates in the Virginia Convention. These are people who challenged Jefferson, challenged whether he was in fact an infidel or, even worse, an atheist. Now, this is going to become a recurring theme in Jefferson's life. There were those who said that the author of the Virginia Statute for Establishing Religious Freedom surely was an atheist or an infidel. The man who ran for president in 1800 was going to be challenged as an atheist and an infidel. ...

The 1800 election: "Bury your Bibles." Was this religious intolerance?

The election of 1800 was one of the most bitterly contested elections in American history, and religion emerged as one of the key issues in that campaign.

Jefferson's religion, or perhaps we should say the alleged lack thereof, had become a question that had been raised. The supporters of the Federalist candidate, John Adams, had said that Jefferson was an atheist or an infidel and that he was unfit to hold high office.

Now, the evidence given in support of these charges was his authorship for the Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom, some rather unorthodox things that he had said in his Notes on the State of Virginia, a book that he had written in the 1780s, including a line where he said, "It doesn't matter to me whether someone believes in 20 gods or no gods. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my bones," he says. And this of course is very much outside the mainstream of orthodox thinking.

But also Jefferson's friendship with some of the leaders who emerge in the French Revolution -- and of course in the time period between Jefferson serving as the American ambassador to France and the election of 1800, the revolution in France had turned very nasty; it turned very bloody. There was a de-Christianizing movement that had arisen in France, where mobs would go into churches and tear down crosses, that kind of thing.

So when Jefferson's political opponents in 1800 said that he was an infidel or perhaps an atheist, this resonated with a Bible-believing people, especially in New England. So we receive these eyewitness accounts of housewives, having heard that Jefferson was elected president, in their gardens burying the family Bible because they fully expect this new infidel administration into Washington to confiscate the Holy Scriptures and to burn them. This is not that far-fetched if in fact Jefferson would usher in a revolution much like the revolution in France had turned out. ...

[What was behind the ban on religious tests for office?]

... There is a forgotten religion clause in the unamended Constitution of 1787. And in Article VI, Clause 3, there is a prohibition on religious tests for federal officeholders. This is a rather significant departure from the Old World practices, where oftentimes a public officer was required to take a religious test.

Now, there have been those in our own time who have viewed the religious test ban as the cornerstone of the secular state and in some respects a precursor to the First Amendment, which was not added to the Constitution till 1791.

I see the religious test ban a little bit differently, because I think this also reaffirms this idea of federalism. I would argue that the religious test ban was written into the Constitution not out of a general denunciation of religious tests, but rather it was written into the Constitution to support and defend religious tests, albeit the religious tests that were already in place at the state and local levels. The great fear in 1787 was that this new federal newcomer would sort of come crashing onto the scene and supplant the various policies and practices at the state level. ...

[How did the idea of man's fallen nature influence the Founders?]

One way in which reform theology -- that is to say, the theology of John Calvin as it's manifest in various denominations dominant in America in the 18th century -- is through this idea that man was a fallen creature. This takes us back to the Garden of Eden, what we read about in Genesis 3, that man fell and has a fallen nature. This very idea is going to have a profound influence on the design of the American system of government. This suggests that man can't be trusted with absolute power; that where an individual is given power, that power must be checked. And this becomes one of the defining features of our Constitution, with concepts like separation of powers, checks and balances, federalism, rule of law, these kinds of ideas.

Now, there are political theorists will tell us that there have been other traditions that argue about man's weakness, his weak character, his fallen nature perhaps. But clearly it is this idea, born of the Reformation, especially those teachings of Calvin, that inform this generation of Americans.

... Does it have resonance today?

I think it does. Americans tend to be people distrustful of government, are we not? And we still have great faith and confidence in things like checks and balances. Why? Because we're a little bit distrustful of our fellow citizen who is elevated to positions of political power. ...

"Wall of separation": Why did Jefferson write that letter to the [Danbury Baptist Association] and explain stuff to them?

Let's recall that in a day before televised news conferences, the president had a limited number of ways in which he could communicate with the American people. Oftentimes there were newspapers that were affiliated with political parties; they became the mouthpiece of a political leader. But one of the primary ways that a president had of communicating with a broad constituency was by writing letters to various community groups, civic groups. And when a president wrote a letter to a small group in New England or anywhere else in the country, they had a high degree of confidence that that letter would be printed and reprinted in newspapers all across the country.

Jefferson wanted to use this letter as an opportunity to explain why he, as president, had declined to issue Thanksgiving Day proclamations. This had become a very big and controversial issue in the early days of his administration. It was an issue that had been used by his opponents to reaffirm their allegation that he was an infidel or perhaps an atheist, because they would ask the president to set aside a day for religious observance, he would decline, and they would say, "There's your evidence that he's an infidel, because who but an infidel president would refuse to thank God or have a day of prayer, fasting and thanksgiving?" So Jefferson wanted to diffuse this very sensitive issue that was hampering him in the early days of his administration. He wants to explain why he, as president, does not issue such religious observances.

I think that what we read in this "wall of separation" statement is not a broad principle that church and state must always be separate. Rather he's reaffirming the principle of federalism. He's explaining why he, as president, cannot issue such proclamations, and yet he, as the governor of Virginia, had issued days for prayer, fasting and thanksgiving.

And again, I would say that this is the lens through which you must look at whatever the Constitution has to say about religion. It is fundamentally about the separation of powers between what the national government can do and what state and local authorities can do. And the wall of separation is really, in my opinion, an affirmation of the principle of federalism.

Now, this is a metaphor that was picked up much later in American history. It was mentioned by the Supreme Court in an 1879 decision, but it's really not until the mid-20th century, in an important Establishment Clause case in 1947, a case called Everson v. Board of Education, that the Supreme Court picked up Jefferson's metaphor and virtually elevates it to the status of constitutional law. So today it's very hard to have a conversation about church and state without invoking this "wall of separation" metaphor. It's come to define the way in which many Americans, including scholars and jurists, talk about, think about the prudential and constitutional relationship between church and state. ...

For white Protestant males, it wasn't much of a wall, was it? For blacks, Catholics, Mormons, it must have felt much more like a wall.

I certainly think that we have seen a transition in our understanding, interpretation and application of the wall of separation or, more broadly, this idea of separation of church and state. It certainly means something very different if you live in a culture, in a society that presumes a Protestant cultural hegemony, and you move into the future, as we have done, to a society that is much less Protestant and is much more secular in nature.

We have a kind of religious diversity unimagined by the Founders. ... So there has emerged a kind of a secular construction, a secular interpretation of separation of church and state, which is significantly different than a strictly Protestant conception of what separation of church and state means.

I think this is why so many very pious Protestant Christians today denounce the wall of separation, because they see it not as something that protects the exercise of one's religious expression, but something that is used to exclude them from public life. It's an instrument used to deny them the ability to contribute as citizens to public debates if their debates are informed by religious ideals.

Do you think they're right to feel that?

There are certainly examples in our society today where this wall of separation has been used -- and, I think one could argue, misused -- to exclude faith-based ideas and faith-based arguments in the broader secular culture. ...

Isn't that the problem? The moment it becomes a faith-based idea, secularists and people who don't believe the same thing feel that God or religion has skipped over that wall.

I don't think that there's any objection to allowing the faith-based ideas or arguments to be expressed. I think that the state cannot adopt policies that are not defensible on legitimate secular grounds. So there's two parts to this. I think all arguments should be open in that marketplace, but the state is limited in the kinds of policies that it can adopt. ...


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Published October 11, 2010

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