The First Amendment
The story of our long struggle for religious freedom.
By Daniel Sheridan
ON THIS DAY, May 27, 1668, three colonists are expelled from Massachusetts for being Baptists. But this is just one battle in our long struggle for religious liberty. Here’s the story:
The Protestant reformation wasn’t a complete reformation in that it didn’t provide freedom of thought or freedom of religion, but it was a good first step. Today we are free to go or not go to church, free to believe what we want, free to say and write what we want on religious matters, and we aren’t forced by the government to tithe to certain churches or ministers. One of the story lines in American History is how we advanced from religious tyranny to religious freedom.
During the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries there was no country on earth, as far as I can tell, where people enjoyed complete religious liberty. It was unheard of in those days. Most thought that to suggest such a thing would plunge the world into evil and chaos. They believed the only way to maintain order was by enforced religion.
The first American colonists didn’t think much differently. Religion was enforced by the state. From the days of Roger Williams forward religious persecutions were common place, one sect verses another sect, the sect with the power of the sword behind it being the victor. Note that very carefully, the sword, not truth, prevailed.
Each colony had its own official religion. That means each colony recognized a particular Christian denomination as the official state religion supported by tax-payer dollars. Each sect feared that one particular denomination, one they didn’t like, would be crowned the “national” religion. The Quakers didn’t want the Puritans running the nation, and certainly the Puritans didn’t want the Quakers running things either, etc… This fear and mistrust eventually led to liberty.
This brings us to the Bill of Rights. Inspired by that mistrust and fear, the Bill of Rights declared that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” That means that the national government can’t make a law setting up a particular denomination as an official national faith. The amendment also goes on to say that Congress shall make no law “prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” This means the national government is to have a hands-off policy when it comes to religion, period. The people are free to worship and assemble to worship as they please.
It’s important to understand the historical background regarding the freedom of assembling to worship. “The Church of England,” according to Clarence Carson, “was established by law for all who lived in England.” This meant, according to English Historian Christopher Hill, that everyone “had to attend services in his parish church every Sunday, and was liable to legal penalties if he did not. He had to pay tithes…to a clergyman whom he had no say in choosing, and whom he might heartily disapprove. He was liable to the jurisdiction of church courts, which punished him not only for ‘heresy,’ nonattendance at church, or sexual immorality, but also for working on Sundays or saints’ days, for non-payment of tithes…” The church also banned books and controlled education.
Even so, there were people who went against the state-established Church and they met in homes to study privately. The rulers, however, were quick to put a forceful stop to that activity, and in some cases severely punishing those attending these meetings. The people in England couldn’t assemble to worship according to their convictions; they were required to submit to the state-established Church – or else!
The First Amendment of the United States Constitution was the first step toward total religious freedom everywhere. The Constitution, however, didn’t forbid the states from establishing religion as at that time the states already had established religions in place. This freedom atmosphere, however, caught on in the states as well. For instance, listen to what Patrick Henry wrote in the Virginia Declaration of Rights, on June 12, 1776:
“That religion, or the duty which we owe to our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed ONLY BY REASON AND CONVICTION, not by force or violence; and therefore all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience; and that it is the mutual duty of all to practice Christian forbearance, love, and charity towards each other.”
Great words! George Washington declared that Government is force, legal force. Henry, recognizing this, declares in the Virginia Declaration of Rights that religion must be a matter of conscience and conviction, not government force.
The Freedom Revolution in religious matters marched on, and just a few years later Virginia disestablished the Anglican Church. Soon after that Thomas Jefferson created a bill for total religious freedom which many people didn’t like it. But despite the objections, James Madison saw to it that the bill was passed in 1786. Thomas Jefferson put this event among the top three accomplishments of his life. Jefferson helped oust both political and religious tyrants! Not bad for a life’s work.
The Virginia Religious Statute reads this way:
“Whereas Almighty God hath created the mind free; that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burthens, or by civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and are a departure from the plan of the Holy author of our religion, who being Lord both of body and mind, yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either…that the impious presumption of legislators and rulers, civil as well as ecclesiastical, who being themselves fallible and uninspired men, have assumed dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible, and as such endeavoring to impose them on others…”
Jefferson went on to say that truth doesn’t need the power of government behind it, and that truth is great and will prevail if left to herself. Truth, believed Jefferson, has nothing to fear from conflict. The power of government force will only hinder free debate and perpetuate the very errors those in favor of Government established religion pretend to prevent – error becoming legalized and enforced by the sword!
The Founders knew that a state church, one financed by tax dollars, would become corrupt, because it doesn’t answer to the people. As a result, it would become an arm of the state and give religious significance to every act of government, even if the acts are unjust. This has been the historical course of Government imposed religion since the days of Ancient Sumer and Egypt.
Freedom of religion means freedom to voice your opinions without fear of punishment. The First Amendment was intended to give people a free voice in speaking up against a power hungry state. In Colonial America many ministers gave Election Sermons which would point out moral issues facing the day. If the state controls these ministers, they couldn’t be a voice against state corruption. After all, you don’t bite the hand that feeds you!
The results of the First Amendment are wonderful. We are free to use our God given brains to learn and come to our convictions without fear of punishment. This freedom is only hated by religious tyrants.
Let’s breathe the fresh air of freedom together!