America has always been a land of religious liberty, a refuge for religious outcasts looking for a haven to freely practice their faith, right?
Not really. Most of the religious refugees that fled to America were looking for freedom for their particular beliefs, not for those of others. They often tried to exclude other religious groups—sometimes through laws, sometimes through violence. (The famous Massachusetts Puritan minister Cotton Mather, for example, reacted to the 1682 arrival in his colony of a ship full of "the heretics and malignants called Quakers"—a different group of English religious dissenters—by proposing to sell them all into slavery in Barbados. The Quakers wisely decided to move on to Pennsylvania.) Also, almost every colony established an official church and forced all residents, whether members of the established church or not, to support it with taxes.
Okay, but we sorted all this out with the ratification of the First Amendment, eliminating established churches and guaranteeing that everyone could worship without interference, right?
Not really. The First Amendment placed restrictions only on the federal government; state governments remained free to establish churches, collect taxes, and regulate religious practices much as they had in the past.
Okay, but the men who drafted the First Amendment were true visionaries, idealists who realized that eventually their commitment to the principle of religious freedom would take root and become a critical part of our nation’s character, right?
Again: not really. Most of the Founding Fathers, like James Madison, thought that the Bill of Rights was unnecessary and that drafting these amendments was a waste of Congress’s time.
Well, then, why was the First Amendment added to the Constitution at all? What did the religious freedom clauses really mean to the Founders? What did the First Amendment actually do? When and how did it become such a large part of our national identity? And what exactly does it mean today?