The Liberty of the United States Marks the Nation as Christian

The Liberty of the United States Marks the Nation as Christian

The religious liberty granted in America marks a decided Christian advance.  At the time it was provided, our country was far ahead of the nations of the world in this respect.  The idea of religious liberty developed very slowly; but the kingdom of God comes without observation.  God was preparing for a signal advance in his kingdom in the establishment of America.  The most influential element in its settlement represented the various sects into which the church had been shattered.  The division of the church into competing and unfriendly sects has had its disadvantages; but it has not been wholly evil.  Denominationalism made an enormous contribution to the establishment of religious liberty.  Christians learned from experience that it was a practical necessity.

The Edict of Constantine, in 313 A. D., would seem to be the only ancient proclamation of any civil government providing absolute religious liberty.  This was issued in behalf of the Christians.  Throughout the ages following, persecuted minorities occasionally pled for liberty, but they were not heard.  The Reformation did not provide religious liberty, and had no thought of such.  The Lutheran Church, the Reformed Church, the English Church and the Presbyterian Church originally had no thought of liberty of conscience, or even toleration.

At the outbreak of the Revolution, the colonies were in three classes, in the matter of church organization.  One group consisted of New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia; in these colonies the English Church, without a resident episcopacy, was more or less completely established by law.  A second group consisted of Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Connecticut; here the Congregational form of church government was established by law.  The third group consisted of Rhode Island and Pennsylvania; in these there was no church established by law.

During the colonial period extensive dissent had resented the legal establishments, especially any system of taxation for their support.  The whole idea was growing increasingly unsatisfactory everywhere.  After the Revolution had been won there developed a widespread demand for the entire separation of political and ecclesiastical affairs.

One needs to be familiar, at least briefly, with the history of the church, in order to understand fully why the separation of church and state was so long delayed, and why so much difficulty was encountered in securing it.  Among the Hebrews the church and state were one; and the Old Testament which contained this record exercised a profound influence as a model in government, especially in New England.  The church and state were one in Greece and Rome, and Rome dominated the world for centuries.  The Reformation proposed no change in this regard, concerning itself solely with the kind of religion the state should foster.  When America was settled, only in Holland and in sections of Switzerland was there anything known but state churches.

By this union of church and state, the religious and political elements were identified.  Accordingly, ecclesiastical non-conformity and theological heresy seemed to be political disloyalty, to be punished, as any other crime or rebellion.  This explains why force was so long used in connection with religion; the religious and political had not been differentiated.  When Separatists appeared they broke across the universal Protestant principle; and that they suffered for it is the most natural thing in the world.

In Virginia the Baptists and Presbyterians, with the aid of such free-thinkers as Jefferson and Madison, waged an uncompromising war on the established church, and secured religious liberty to the state in 1785.  Several religious bodies, scattered here and there, made varying contribution to the liberty of conscience, but the larger influence was exerted by the Quakers and the Baptists.  The Baptists were everywhere, and they did the more active work than any other denomination.  To them belongs the chief credit.  While Virginia did much for the cause, it hardly equals New York whose constitution of 1777 provided liberty of conscience.  In this New York owed much to the Dutch, and the special charter granted them by William III.

Two chief influences gave liberty of conscience to America; humanism and the Bible.  Humanism was represented by such men as Jefferson and Madison; but all the free-thinking influence in the country could not have secured it, either in Virginia or the nation, but for the enormous assistance of the Biblical influences that were in the majority.

The Constitution of the United States, as originally adopted, contained these words: "No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States."  The first amendment to the Constitution, adopted in 1791, makes further provision in these words: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."  This amendment, together with the article of the original Constitution, quoted above, provide for religious liberty, and what is commonly called "the separation of church and state."

Contrary to much popular opinion, the Federal Constitution, as originally adopted, and its first amendment, places limitations on the power of Congress only.  Congress can make no law establishing a national religion, nor can it make any religious tests, as qualifications for holding office or positions of trust under the Federal Government; but the Constitution does not provide that the various states of the Union may not do so.  Religious affairs are left entirely to the control of the states.  Certain states had established churches when the Constitution was adopted, and continued to maintain them for some years.  Connecticut removed all restrictions to a free exercise of religion in 1820, and Massachusetts did so in 1833.  But New Hampshire today does not permit Roman Catholics to teach in her public schools.

The growth of public sentiment favorable to liberty of conscience and the separation of church and state, when the Constitution was formed, was making the state churches increasingly unpopular; no state without one dared to establish any church; while the states with such churches soon abolished them.  In the gradual development of the relations of the church to the various states of the Union, the principles of liberty of conscience have prevailed.  Many states have laws, constitutional or statutory, that govern; and where no law forbids state churches, public opinion, stronger than any law, governs.  In the American political system all church relations are voluntary and without political penalty.  The various states are expected to see that it is so.  "The obligation of American civil governments is now confirmed by a public opinion which has been gaining strength through four generations and is now generally accepted without controversy.  It is now expressed in a series of guarantees and limitations contained in the organic law of several commonwealths, in a well-developed system of statute legislation providing defining legal procedure covering many ecclesiastical relations, and in a body of notable judicial decisions rendered by the civil courts of last resort defining under ever changing circumstances what she be the relation of the church and the state."  This situation is the logical outgrowth of liberty of conscience.  The same influences that provided this, gave us also he separation of church and state, the religious predominating.

American has not only separated church and state, but it has demonstrated that those who enjoy Christianity will best sustain it with their voluntary offerings; claims for its support are based solely on its own excellence.  And we have also learned that man's opinions cannot be coerced; his professions only may be forced, and to do so is only to make him a hypocrite.

"The organized hostility to foreigners and Catholics which for a few years thrust itself upon state and national politics was a localized episode due primarily to the economic menace of masses of ignorant immigrants and to the belief that the Catholic Church was a political as well as a religious power, and before the Civil War the agitation had disappeared."

Another advance in the government of America was its guaranteed freedom of speech and the press.  In 1732 the Weekly Journal, published in New York, ventured to criticize the arbitrary acts of the governor and the assembly, in imposing illegal taxes.  This was the first time a newspaper had dared to criticize political measures.  Governor Crosby imprisoned the editor, John Peter Zenger, and prosecuted him for libel.  The editor was defended by the liberty loving and Christian lawyer, Andrew Hamilton, from Philadelphia, who was a Quaker.  In spite of great odds against him, he won a verdict of acquittal and the freedom of the press was started on its way.  This was thirty-seven years before such principle was established in England.  The first amendment to the Federal Constitution, adopted 1791, provided that Congress could pass no law "abridging the freedom of speech or of the press."

Freedom of religion protects the conscience; the freedom of speech and the press protects the mind; and freedom of the ballot, which America also enjoys, protects the suffrage.  These are all, in their deepest essence, thoroughly Christian.  In fact, our whole political system is based on the equality of all men, a Bible doctrine.  It was General Grant who said, "Hold fast to the Bible as the sheet-anchor of your liberties."  Horace Greeley bore similar testimony, when he declared that "the principles of the Bible are the groundwork of human freedom."

Simms, The Bible in America, Versions that have Played their Part in the Making of the Republic (1936), The Liberty of the United States Marks the Nation as Christian, pp. 314-318.