Jacob Haller (jwgh) wrote,
Jacob Haller

I am related to intelligent people

I wrote to my sister and her husband asking about what the founding fathers meant by religious freedom (this grew out of a discussion in a previous Livejournal entry), and today they responded. Yay!

My sister wrote:
OK, religion and the founding "fathers." First, I'd be careful about taking as a role model the late eighteenth century -- in addition to the "Enlightenment," you've able got slavery, a system of coverture which makes married women legal extensions of their husband, etc.
Among European Americans, Christianity was certainly the dominant religion, though you're right that there were a few Jews.

Thomas Jefferson thought, however, that the best thing that he did in his whole life was to get a freedom of religion statute passed in Virginia (it is among the accomplishments noted on his tombstone). The issue, then, was state support of religion (i.e. people pay taxes and they go right to the support of the chosen church). But, as dissenting religions grew in strength (again, Christian churches -- Baptists and Methodists are the biggies), they resented having their money sent to a church they don't agree with. Virginia did away with the whole system; if you wanted to support a church, you did it, but without the help of the state.

The inclusion of freedom of religion clause in the Bill of Rights in the federal constitution echoed the provisions in a lot of state constitutions. But some states -- like Massachusetts -- interpreted freedom of religion a little less freely (though given that Massachusetts was founded by a bunch of Taliban-like religious freaks, they had come a long way) as you could pick which church got your taxes.

Ironically, perhaps, people argue that precisely because the U.S. has the separation of church and state (and no official church or religion) has made the U.S. a much more religious place than, say, Europe. With churches competing with one another, and unable to rest on the laurels of state support, they were much more of a vital force.

So, I think that the separation of church and state provided for in the Constitution benefits everyone, religious or not.

Your random person, by the way, is right that many of the founding generation were religious bigots -- anti-Catholicism was a major force in early America, and you don't see much admiration for the religious traditions of Native Americans or Africans. I don't know that that's a justification for religious intolerance today. And, anyway, as I see it, the issue is what role will the state play in religion, not what the personal beliefs of individuals are.

I hope this helps -- maybe Joe can add some additional clarification . . .
Joe (her husband) responded:
I heartily endorse Charlotte's interpretation with one caveat:

Evangelical Protestantism was an important force in animating the movement toward Revolution among large segments of the population. It was a population that was growing increasingly christian not decreasing in its commitment to Christian thought.
UPDATE: I wrote back to my brother-in-law to ask for a little more explanation, and he responded:
Several historians offer the "christianization" paradigm of American Religious History, arguing that Christian thought and practice was increasing among American inhabitants not declining. They particularly look at the "democratization of christianty" -- or the firing of evangelical reforms in the years following the American Revolution.
This entry was updated with new information at 4:34 pm Eastern time on November 19.
Tags: history, religion

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