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The Politics of Religion

  • State conventions to ratify the Constitution included special instructions regarding freedom of religion
  • But these suggestions varied widely by state; there was no clear pattern
  • 9 of 13 American colonies in 1750 had officially established churches
  • All colonies tolerated existence of religious dissenters, but many discriminated against them in certain civil rights

So does that mean that the Bill of Rights was a philosophically empty document for the framers? More specifically, what exactly did the freedom of religion mean to Madison and the other authors of the Bill of Rights?

It can be argued that there was little more than politics driving this wrestling match over a bill of rights. For Madison, this was largely the case, and his Anti-Federalist opponents were just as political in their motivations. Their real concerns had to do with Congress's power to tax and regulate commerce, not any threat it might pose to rights of speech and religion. But to a certain extent, the feelings of these political leaders about the matter were unimportant. Madison had always said that the ratifying conventions were the true source of the Constitution's meaning. As the people were the source of authority for the new government, it was the meaning that they attached to its various parts that was most significant.

But if we look to the ratifying conventions that debated the Constitution, it is hard to decipher a clear and common set of understandings about the freedom of religion. New Hampshire, North Carolina, and New York were the most explicit in their recommendations; these states urged guarantees that "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." But other states offered more limited or vague proposals. For example, Pennsylvania did not call for amendments but did adopt a resolution urging that the "rights of conscience shall be held inviolable." New Hampshire wanted to deny Congress the power to make laws "touching religion" or infringing upon the "the rights of Conscience."11 And clouding the picture even further, Massachusetts and South Carolina called for other amendments, but said nothing about religion at all.

Since the ratifying conventions don’t reveal a clear, uniform objective surrounding this question of religious rights, we are forced to dig deeper if we are to reconstruct the period’s understandings about religion and government.

To do this, we need to back up even further, to the years just before the American Revolution. By that time, a sort of equilibrium had been reached in the colonies on the role of religion. Nine of America’s thirteen colonies had established churches, of varying strengths, supported by tax dollars. In New York, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Georgia, and Maryland, this official church was the Church of England, or Anglican Church. In Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Connecticut, the Congregational Church was the established church. Underlying these institutions was a broader, all-but-unquestioned belief that the government had certain responsibilities to support religion. In earlier centuries, this sense of responsibility had been linked to a belief in a single, universal church and the existence of only one true religion that could lead humankind to eternal life. Government possessed a holy responsibility to assist the church in completing its mission of redeeming the human race. But by the mid-eighteenth century, this sense of spiritual responsibility had been replaced by a more pragmatic belief that religion was good for society—it turned people into better citizens and therefore should be supported as a matter of civic common sense.

But there was also a widespread belief that toleration of religious dissenters was a practical necessity. The older idea that social peace could only be maintained by eliminating religious diversity had given way to a newer belief that social peace was best achieved by tolerating religious differences. Therefore, in every state, dissenting churches were allowed to exist. In some states, certain restrictions were applied to these churches and their members. For example, dissenting churches had to register their meeting houses and hold services with their doors open, church members had to pay taxes to support the established church to which they did not belong, and dissenters were barred from public office. But even with these restrictions, most dissenters were relatively pleased with the state of things. Their objective was to worship freely as they saw fit, and they had attained this.

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