The title of this post may seem odd considering it’s my 2nd post for the Blog Against Theocracy blogswarm and the topic is a piece of the 1st Amendment . However, every time I look up from my main PC monitor I see a reproduction of the Bill of Rights which says:
“Article the third…… Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
I just couldn’t resist using the original designation as the title of this post. The last post showed the long history of the concept of absolute freedom of religion and conscience as espoused by Roger Williams and others in the 17th century. While many people believe that the freedom of religion the founders of the USA meant was freedom to choose a form of Christianity this is clearly not true of Roger Williams and his followers. Their definition of freedom of religion clearly means total freedom including non-belief and is clearly seen in this part of Williams 1644 book The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution .
Sixthly, it is the will and command of God that (since the coming of his Son the Lord Jesus) a permission of the most paganish, Jewish, Turkish, or antichristian consciences and worships, be granted to all men in all nations and countries; and they are only to be fought against with that sword which is only (in soul matters) able to conquer, to wit, the sword of God’s Spirit, the Word of God.
So by the time of the founding of this country there is already a long history of citizens who are determined to avoid an American theocracy. At the start of the American Revolution the Virginia Convention of Delegates adopted George Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Rights containing this clause on freedom of religion.
XVI That religion, or the duty which we owe to our Creator and the manner of discharging it, can be directed 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.
During the ratification process of the US Constitution the question of guaranteed freedom of religion was debated heavily. Many of the colonies were slow to ratify and beginning with New Hampshire they started adding freedom of religion clauses to their ratification documents as desired amendments.
New Hampshire June 21, 1788 – “Congress shall make no Laws touching Religion, or to infringe the rights of Conscience”.
Virginia June 26, 1788 – “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 have an equal, natural and unalienable right to the free exercise of religion according to the dictates of conscience, and that no particular religious sect or society ought to be favored or established by Law in preference to others.”
New York July 26, 1788 – “That the People have an equal, natural and unalienable right, freely and peaceably to Exercise their Religion according to the dictates of Conscience, and that no Religious Sect or Society ought to be favored or established by Law in preference of others.”
North Carolina November 21, 1789 – same as Virginia.
Rhode Island May 29, 1790 – same as Virginia.
All my research over the past week has reinforced my beliefs in the meaning of the First Amendments’ religion clauses. There needs to be absolute freedom for all US citizens to believe in any religion they want or to not believe in any religion at all. Citizens must also tolerate the beliefs of all other citizens and the government should neither help nor hinder any particular beliefs. CFI has published an excellent position paper titled, “THE TRUE MEANING OF THE ESTABLISHMENT CLAUSE“(PDF), which I highly recommend. It provides a good deal of information on the opinions of Jefferson and Madison which is why I didn’t write about those influential founding fathers.
For reference and further reading:
First Freedom First
Exploring First Amendment Law
Illinois First Amendment Center
The U.S. Constitution Online
Wikipedia – United States Constitution
Wikipedia – United States Bill of Rights
Tags: blog against theocracy