Study Guide

Church and State - From Religious Tolerance to Religious Equality

From Religious Tolerance to Religious Equality

  • During American Revolution, broad ideas of liberty spread to religion
  • Many Americans began to oppose established religion entirely
  • Still, most Americans believed that religion was of central importance to well-ordered society
  • At the time the First Amendment was ratified, there was no consensus understanding of "religious freedom" in America
  • Idea of "wall of separation" between church and state developed after passage of First Amendment
  • First Amendment restrictions on religion originally applied only to federal government, not to the states

During the American Revolution, a new idea grew among the dissenting sects: their acceptance of religious toleration gave way to a demand for religious equality. In particular, they objected to the taxes they were forced to pay to support the established church in their colonies. This now seemed a violation of the liberty of conscience that, in the past, they had defined more narrowly. Liberty—rather, "full" liberty—now meant the freedom not only to worship unmolested, but also the right to be excused from paying taxes that supported a church with which they did not agree.

In the years immediately following the Revolution, policymakers in several states tried to work out a new formula that would maintain religious peace. Believing that social order depended on government support for religion, but also that social peace depended on maintaining a policy of toleration and conciliation toward dissenting sects, lawmakers introduced a new concept: general assessments. These were taxes collected by the state to be distributed to different churches identified by individual taxpayers. Virginia introduced the idea in 1776, but never turned it into actual law. Georgia, however, did pass a general assessment law in 1785, and several other states played with the idea during these years, as well.

But this new approach to religious taxation was not received well. Dissenting sects objected to these as the opening wedge in an attempt to create or strengthen an official church. The Revolutionary philosophy that had encouraged Americans to be suspicious of government actions and vigilant on behalf of their freedoms, created an unreceptive environment for this piece of experimentation.

As the Constitutional Convention convened, therefore, the meaning of religious freedom was in flux. An older belief in toleration was being challenged by a new belief in religious equality; an older acceptance among dissenters of various restrictions, so long as they could attend the churches of their choice, was giving way to a growing unwillingness to accept the inconveniences—and taxes—that they encountered as dissenters from the established church. But a certain part of the old consensus remained. Virtually everyone agreed that religion was good for society—that it inspired good citizenship and good behavior. And consequently, virtually everyone agreed that government had some responsibility to support religion. Even the dissenting sects that opposed religious taxes believed that Sabbath laws should be enforced and that religion should be taught in school; they accepted without question the role of government to enforce laws aimed at ensuring moral behavior and they grew positively apoplectic at the suggestion that non-Protestants should be allowed to hold office. Some of the denominations most fearful of an official church being established, in fact, were just as upset by the Constitution's explicit rejection of test oaths. Baptists, in particular, warned that without requiring office holders to swear to a set of Christian basics, America’s government would be inundated by "pagans, deists, and Mahometans."blank">judicial precedent to flesh out the meaning of the First Amendment left so vague by the founders. Some believe that the Court has done a decent job; others claim that it has deferred more to Jefferson than the intent of the amendments actual founders. If the latter is true, it would be hard to blame them. In contrast to Jefferson’s clarity, Madison, the ratifying conventions, and the general beliefs of the time provide a confusing and divergent roadmap. And perhaps that is exactly what the founders really intended.

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