Laura Jane Gifford, an instructor at George Fox University, reminds us that it was evangelicals who were some of the strongest supporters of the “separation of church and state.” She writes:
Early evangelicals were some of the most strident opponents of an established church. In most American colonies, one established church stood at the center of religious and community life, controlled the tempo of religious expression and even levied taxes for its maintenance. In New England, for example, it was the Puritan church; in many Southern states, it was the Church of England. The taxes these churches levied were a mandatory part of life for all citizens living within a colony’s boundaries. Even after the American Revolution, established churches remained part of life in several states, dissolving gradually over a series of decades.
In the 1730s, however, a wave of religious fervor struck England and the colonies. The Great Awakening was characterized by fervent preaching, emphasis on the conversion experience of being “born again” and extension of the right to preach and share religious revelation to a broader cross-section of society. Among other things, the Great Awakening dramatically diversified the denominational affiliations of American colonists, as new sects ranging from Baptists to Methodists to Presbyterians added their distinctive forms of expression to the American religious spectrum.
These newly invigorated, fervently devout evangelicals balked at paying taxes to established churches that did not share their theological positions. Indeed, in some parts of the colonies, sects such as the Baptists went so far as to refuse paying church taxes, drawing the disapprobation of colonial elites and sometimes even jail sentences.
Citizens from throughout the American colonies used the language of “freedom” and “liberty” that characterized the Revolutionary movement to anchor their own causes. Some campaigns were more successful than others, and in many cases connections were forged among disparate groups with similar aims. In the case of religious freedom, early evangelicals and Deist elites like Thomas Jefferson could find common ground. Jefferson believed God ceased to be active in the world following creation, but he did not want to see an established church hobbling the rationality of his republican experiment; evangelicals did not want to owe fealty to a national religious establishment that could compromise their deeply held beliefs. The result, of course, was the First Amendment.
Since the nation’s founding, myriad religious groups have been able to call upon the First Amendment to legitimate their freedom of expression in the face of considerable oppression. This has been true of Jews and Catholics, Muslims and Hindus — but also of denominations like the Church of the Latter-Day Saints, of which tea party guru Glenn Beck is a faithful member. Given the long and often violent history of attempts to repress the Mormon faith, it’s safe to say that without the First Amendment, Beck would not be safe to express his Mormon beliefs today.
HT: Paul Otto via Facebook
Mikewind Dale says
Yup, pretty much. I like Benjamin Hart's book Faith & Freedom: Recovering America's Christian Heritage, where you can see that Hart himself holds by an authentic colonial American Evangelical libertarianism. At one point, for example, he cites Massachusett's constitution requiring church attendance, in order to prove to his reader that early America was predominately religious, but then he turns right around and tells his reader that nevertheless, no religious Christian should support things like coerced attendance at church or coerced payment of dues as taxes.