In an age of incivility, returning to the nation’s foundations may aid stability
Civic engagement has become unnecessarily embittered. Look no further than the mudslinging over critical race theory, a battle more focused on group politics than the serious issue of the role of racism in American history—an issue that concerns all citizens. Unfortunately, hostility is often fed by semantic games. In the area of religious freedom, people argue about whether American freedom “of” religion wars against others’ freedom “from” religion. Too often, this is simply a game intended to increase the temperature rather than to inform.
Semantics aside, Americans broadly support a separation of church and state, a policy championed by Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and their eighteenth-century evangelical supporters. That separation, both historically and today, has played a large role in American religiosity. Lyman Beecher, one of the great evangelicals of the nineteenth century, sheepishly conceded that although he had opposed it, separation was the best thing that ever happened to the American church, propelling an explosion of religion in the Second Great Awakening after religion was freed from government “endorsement.” The same is true today. While America has a vibrant religious community, in England, Germany, and Italy, where there are still vestiges of state religion, their churches are empty.
Yet Jefferson’s “separation of church and state” has become a flag conservatives often wave to denounce alleged hostility to religion, as well as actions allegedly against Christians that have little to do with church-state separation. Those on the left use Jefferson’s doctrine as a shield for actions that, likewise, fall outside its ambit.
This could be the topic of an endless stream of essays. But that begs a foundational question: Why should we care what Thomas Jefferson and James Madison said about religious freedom in the first place? While we properly credit Jefferson’s talented pen for the Declaration that we celebrate on July 4th, why should he—among scores of other “founders,” as well as millions of Americans—take precedence in discussing religious freedom?
We might pose that question more broadly. Why should we care about the founders?
In this time of great civil discord, when some encourage the view that we agree on little, there is in fact broad agreement among Americans—across the divides of class, race, ethnicity, gender, and religion—that the nation stands on a foundation of principles embraced by the founders: equality, religious freedom, democratic control, citizenship, shared responsibilities. These are, to be sure, principles that the founders often struggled to implement—like we ourselves. But they are fundamental to our national aspirations nonetheless. In a time of civil friction, having that shared foundation matters.
When seeking to understand those principles, people often talk about what “the founders” believed about a particular question. But on most specific issues that people argue about, only rarely did the founders have one view. A more appropriate question might be whether there were one or several founders whose views were particularly important to the development of an important American principle like religious freedom. When that question is asked, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison’s views can rightly be seen as foundational.
After the American Revolution, when Virginians proposed a tax to support all Christian religions, Madison effectively opposed it as violating the separation of church and state and instead pushed through Jefferson’s Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom—with the support of evangelicals who feared the corrupting influence of mixing church and state. Madison then took the lead in drafting the Constitution and the First Amendment. Even more important, for almost 100 years after Jefferson’s Statute for Religious Freedom was adopted in 1786, Americans repeatedly turned to Jefferson to define religious freedom. Newspapers reprinted Jefferson’s and Madison’s words when religious freedom was being debated. Pamphlets promoting immigration promised religious freedom in a Jeffersonian voice. State constitutional provisions on religious freedom were rewritten throughout the nineteenth century; they always moved in a Jeffersonian direction: toward broader religious freedom and a more emphatic separation of church and state, often expressly relying on Jefferson or the words of his Statute. In terms of how early Americans understood the ideal of religious freedom, no other founder came close to his degree of influence.
In 1879, in the first Supreme Court decision to address the meaning of the religious freedom clause, the Court unanimously declared that Jefferson’s Statute “define[d]” religious freedom. The Court found his letter to the Danbury Baptists (declaring a “wall of separation”) highly persuasive and affirmed that Madison’s Memorial and Remonstrance against the religious tax reflected the understanding of religious freedom that developed in America after the Revolution. The Court stood firmly on that ground for over 100 years.
Justice Alito’s lengthy opinion in the recent Fulton v. City of Philadelphia case is surprising, then. The case addressed the question of whether Catholic foster care services can be exempted from legal prohibitions on discrimination against gay families, and Alito’s opinion includes a purportedly exhaustive review of the history of early American religious freedom. But it entirely avoids Jefferson, Madison, and the Virginia Statute, even though each clearly discusses the issue of religious exemptions. Alito joins a list of justices—including Rehnquist, Thomas, and Scalia—who have sought a revisionist history of religious freedom that excludes Jefferson, Madison, and the evangelicals who made separation of church and state a cornerstone of American religious freedom.
Of course, Jefferson would be the first to concede that we should not be bound by what he said. After all, he dismissively referred to the “sanctimonious reverence” given to parchment documents while insisting that each generation must govern itself. Yet history is important, and if we hope to understand American religious freedom, we must come to grips with what Jefferson, Madison, and their evangelical supporters said about the separation of church and state—and why they were so committed to that idea.
John Ragosta is a fellow at Virginia Humanities and author of, among other works, Religious Freedom: Jefferson’s Legacy, America’s Creed.