Political Necessity: the root cause for separation of Church and State

       The argument that the First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of religion, was solely a product of the Age of Enlightenment  and its commitment to liberty, is an oversimplification of a complicated and provocative issue. There were many additional factors contributing to the late 18th century’s religious debate, including: a growing and diverse population, increasing criticism of the established clergy, and a legacy of Covenant Theology in which the Puritan leadership called for America to be God’s chosen “City on a Hill”. In the later 1700s, Americans found themselves facing rampant religious pluralism, with numerous sects calling for a Christian nation to be established. And after two centuries of violent conflicts in Europe between religious sects there was no assurance that those conflicts would not be exported to America if the newly formed government committed the USA to a single state-sanctioned church. But by granting every US citizen equal religious freedom, and assuring the separation of Church and State, the Founding Fathers addressed both the practical political problems of the day and their deeply held beliefs in Enlightenment philosophy.

        At the heart of the first amendment are the concepts of liberty and human rights, both clearly ideas taken from the Enlightenment. For instance, Enlightenment philosopher Thomas Hobbes writes in his work Leviathan, that the natural state of man is war against all other men and that “everyone is governed by his own reason,” so to survive men must enter into a contract together forming a political organism, the Leviathan, where there is no “rule from above” (Hobbes, 110/intro xi). Rule from above could refer to a king or an imposing government authority or even the tyranny of church rule, all of which would limit Enlightenment inspired liberty. In John Locke’s work, The Second Treatise of Government, chapter IV on Slavery, he writes that the natural state of man is freedom from rule by “any superior power on earth” including legislative authority; and that man is ruled by the “law of nature” alone (Locke, 15). The concept of natural law is prevalent in Enlightenment philosophy and was certainly adopted by Thomas Jefferson who used Enlightenment terms like the “Laws of Nature” and “Nature’s God” in his preamble to the Declaration of Independence (Bernstein, 81). If it were one hundred years earlier, any term referring to the creator would have had to have been scriptural; but Thomas Jefferson did not refer to scripture in any of it, which indicates that he was clearly born of the Enlightenment.

John Locke also suggested, as Hobbes had done, that men should join into a unanimous “social contract,” establishing a “commonwealth” through which each man would consent to be governed in so far as it protected him and did not infringe upon him (Locke, Peardon-intro, xv). Locke speaks of man’s inalienable rights to life, liberty, and property, all guided by “Rational Self-Interest” (Kerze: lecture & Enlightenment PP).  This had such an effect on Thomas Jefferson that these words of Locke’s were incorporated into the preamble for the Declaration of Independence: “…that among these rights are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” (Bernstein/Constitution, 81).

Jefferson was not alone in his admiration of Enlightenment philosophy: Ben Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Paine, and James Madison were all Enlightenment figures in America, as was George Washington who was also a Free Mason; a secret society similar to Rosicrucians (Booth, chap on Masons). Many of the Founding Father’s, like Franklin, were also Deists, who believed that God was the ultimate engineer and the universe was like a great clock that God designed and then stepped away from to let it run on its own (Kerze, lecture). However, the Enlightenment was only part of the recipe that formed America’s national identity during the 18th and at the turn of the 19th century. At the very inception of the thirteen colonies there was the Biblical GOD. And God seemed to have his own plans for America.

In 1630, just as the Puritans were about to arrive in Massachusetts, the soon to be governor, John Winthrop, delivered a sermon titled “A Model of Christian Charity.” In it Winthrop laid out God’s plan for the Puritans in the New World, charging them, in covenant with the Almighty, to create a society in New England that would achieve such a state of grace that the world would see it as a “City on a Hill”, and follow its model (Winthrop, 1). From that point on, divine providence was a gift from God to America, as long as the devout wove devotion to God’s will into everyday life; including how and by whom they were governed. Steven Waldman supports this in his book, Founding Faith, in which he describes how the Anglicans in the south and the Puritans in the north both “viewed church and state as fully entwined” and as “a Holy Commonwealth;” quoting one forefather, John Cotton who states “Theocracy, or to make the Lord God governor, is the best form of government” (Walden, 8). The Puritans may have wanted God to rule them, but as can be seen in today’s Theocracies this is tantamount to tyranny: a far cry from John Locke’s or Thomas Jefferson’s visions of a perfect state of liberty.

As the population of America grew the Protestant sects transformed, giving rise to new sects. In Catherine Albanese’s book America, Religion and Religions, she describes how the Puritan’s restructured themselves as the Congregationalists, the Presbyterians and the Baptists; explaining that they were all considered the “old dissent” of England and had a great deal of “unity in diversity, and denominationalism” thus becoming “the framework of American Protestantism” (Albanese, 110). To everyone but the Native Americans and the slaves, America was the land of opportunity, where communities of new religious zealots found room to prosper, like those already mentioned as well as Anabaptists, Quakers, and Mennonites. Circuit riders combed the countryside seeking converts while radical preachers like George Whitefield wailed like a rock star to eager crowds, with 25,000 congregants in the Boston Commons alone (Kerze, lecture). Americans’ often embraced what was new [the New Lights], turning their back on the old establishment [the Old Lights], lapping up ideas like being “born again,” adult baptism, and speaking in tongues while writhing on the ground. Soon, Methodists, like Whitefield, were the most abundant new sect on this side of the Atlantic. People labled America “a Christian Nation” and some were calling for a Protestant-Republic, but which religious sect would rule, and so, would they rule fairly because they hadn’t in the past.

Theocracy and religious oppression had already reared its ugly head in at least one American colony; the result of the dominant religious sect stripping the minority faith of its rights and property. The persecution took place in Maryland, which was founded by Catholics, with a charter from the king, as a colony especially for Catholics. The Catholic leadership of Maryland passed the “Act of Toleration,” a law that guaranteed religious liberty to all who settled there. Soon after that the Anglicans began to move in. Then, when enough Protestants had settled in Maryland to become the majority, they overturned the Act of Toleration, outlawed Catholicism, and refused the Catholics their right to vote; and it stayed that way until the revolution (Albanese pg 75). Similar nasty results occurred in other colonies that had one sect as dominant, even among the Protestants themselves, like when the Puritans of New England “forbade the Anglicans to settle in their midst” (Lambert, 18). In 1755 the city of New York (formerly New Amsterdam) was the most religiously diverse settlement in the colonies, with Jews, Catholics, Arminians, converted slaves, and numerous Protestant sects filling the streets and houses of worship. One can only imagine what a Puritan or Anglican style religious purge would have done to it. But the city was able to maintain its practice of toleration in the face of many hardships and it remains one of the most diverse cities in America to this day.

However, prior to the revolutionary war, devout Christians did not all sit quietly as the American colony’s leaderships grew more secular. In the mid 1700s, Reverend Samuel Sherwood proclaimed that God was “the supreme ruler of all things,” and that America “seemed to be reserved in providence as a fixed and settled habitation for God’s church,” calling America “the New Israel” (Lambert, 14). The Deists were likewise accused by Jonathan Edwards of “wholly casting off the Christian religion and of denying [it] in favor of humanist notions” (Lambert, 26). And yet many of the forefathers themselves were Deists, believing that man, not God, was ultimately responsible to form a more perfect government.

Not long after Edwards’ and Sherwood’s complaints, these forefathers were making the laws and writing the Constitution for the new nation. They would have had to face catastrophic problems if they declared America a Protestant-Republic, to be governed by Christians with a single state sanctioned church. The most conclusive solution was to remove the issue of religion from the government completely; and that’s just what the framers did. When the Constitution was completed in 1787 there was “no hint of Protestant America” in it; and the Congress was granted “no powers regarding religion,” due in part to fears of “sectarian strife and church state oppression” (Lambert, 15).

Many Americans were appalled at the lack of acknowledgement of the nation’s divine providence in the Constitution, or any recognition of the hand of God in the making of the United States. According to Bernstein in his commentary on the Constitution, the document was supported by the Federalists as well as most of the wealthy in America and the city dwellers, whereas it was opposed by the Anti-Federalists, the farmers, and the poor (Bernstein, 18). Seeing as the poor and the farmers constituted the majority of those most drawn-in by the “born-again” revivals, one might conclude that the pros and cons followed religious lines as well as economic. However the Enlightenment ideals of human rights, including the right to worship or not to worship, continued to develop as Thomas Jefferson helped write the freedom of religion clauses into the “Declaration of Rights” for Virginia; and James Madison began working on a Bill of Rights to amend the Constitution. Both of these documents further guaranteed the rights of man, either to follow their own religion in their own way, or not follow one at all.

In Madison’s paper, “Memorial and Remonstrance,” he proclaims that religion “can be directed only by reason and conviction and not by force,” and “it is the duty of every man to render the Creator such homage… as [only] he believes to be acceptable to him” (Sheldon, 33). Madison was a man of faith himself but he was also a product of the Enlightenment and a Federalist. He debated long and hard during ratification sessions with the Anti-Federalist, Patrick Henry, who was a staunch advocate of a National Church (Sheldon, 74). And this type of acrimony, using religion and accusation of atheism would only get worse as the presidential election of 1800 between Thomas Jefferson and the incumbent, John Adams came around. But as far as the religious question went, there was still one more Enlightenment philosopher to incorporate into the mix, for America to become the first western nation to have complete freedom of religion and separation of church and state.

Adam Smith, the Scottish economist published The Wealth of Nations in 1776, asserting that unrestricted freedom in the marketplace, driven solely by supply and demand, would lead to the most effective and prosperous state of trade (adamsmith.org). America was a nation of commerce and trade, filled with marketplaces and untapped resources. And so, when the Bill of Rights was revealed and the First Amendment to the Constitution came to light, guaranteeing freedom of religion to all; it was the phrase “religious marketplace” that was used when describing how a church could survive and prosper with no support from the state. According to Smith, if a product was produced that no one wanted to buy then that product would fall by the wayside. The same was deemed true for the church. If a religious sect had no followers and no appeal, then it too would wither on the vine, making room for a more viable religious sect to take its place. And thus, America was a free market nation, from its ports to its shops to its churches. And for those Americans who still believed that the United States was ultimately the descendant of John Winthrop’s, City on a Hill, then maybe it is not devotion to God that sets the country up as an example for the world, but it is its devotion to humanity and to becoming an ever more enlightened nation that must become the beacon for all mankind to see.


Adam Smith Institute; Introduction page; adamsmith.org; London; 3/20/12; WEBSITE; http://www.adamsmith.org/adam-smith

Albanese, Catherine L; America Religions and Religion; 3rd Edition; Wadsworth Publishing Company/ITP; BelmontCA; 1999; Text

Bernstein, R B (introduction by); Constitution of the United States, The, with the Declaration of Independence, and the Articles of Confederation; Fall River Press; New York; 2002; Reproductions of Historic Documents

Booth, Mark; the Secret History of the World; the Overlook Press; New York; 2008, Text

God in America; Frontline: American Experience; episodes one: A New Adam and episode two: A New Eden; PBS; 2010; Video

Hobbes, Thomas; Leviathan: Parts One and Two: introduction by Herbert W Schneider; Macmillian Publishing Company; New York; originally published in 1651, 26th printing 1986, Text

Kerze, Prof. Michael; Religion in America class; Los AngelesValleyCollege; 1/6/12 – 3/14/12; Lecture Notes

Kerze, Prof. Michael; Presentation: From Copernicus to the Great Awakening; Feb. 2012, MPP

Lambert, Frank; Religion in American Politics, PrincetonUniversity Press; 2008; Text

Locke, John; The Second Treatise of Government: introduction by Thomas P Peardon; The Liberal Arts Press; New York; reprinted, 1952, 1954; Text

Nussbaum, Martha; Liberty of Conscience: In Defense of America’s Tradition of Religious Equality; Basic Books/Perseus Books Group; New York; 2008; Text

Sheldon, Garrett Ward; The Political Philosophy of James Madison; John Hopkins University Press,; Baltimore & London; 1954, reprinted 2001; text

Waldman, Steven; Founding Faith: How Our Founding Father’s Forged a Radical New Approach to Religious Liberty; Random House Trade Paperback Edition; New York; 2009; Text

Winthrop, Governor John; Sermon: A Model of Christian Charity: delivered aboard the Arabella; 1630; Handout/Transcript


1 Comment

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