1. Discuss the historical interpretations of the founding fathers and their views on religion and religious liberty.
2. Document the evolution of historical interpretation of these men and their views from the founding fathers to modern day.
3. Discuss how have historical interpretations changed over time?
The Founding Fathers’ opinion on religious liberty
Religious liberty, or freedom of religion, forms the pillar of American history – the very foundation on which the Founding Fathers founded the Constitution. Right to freedom of religion is central to the democracy of the United States; that is precisely why the First Amendment was included as part of the Constitution. The Founding Fathers, which included James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin and others, were strong proponents of religious liberty – the only weapon to combat the oppression and religious conflict that America had seen in the bygone era.
Recognizing religion to be a unique entity on its own, the Founding Fathers took adequate measures to separate religion from all other institutions; the Church was expected to function independently of the government, so as to eradicate bias and prejudice. To propagate freedom of religion amongst the citizens, regulations and policies were imposed to ensure that the integrity of all faiths was maintained. James Madison, one of the Founding Fathers, once insisted on the importance of freeing the Church from the autonomy of the government. He opined that the purpose of the First Amendment was to ensure that diverse religions could flourish in America without fear of discrimination or oppression. America was to be established as a democratic nation; it was thus necessary to draw an all encompassing law on religious liberty. The Founding Fathers demonstrated deep religious values in writing the Constitution. They openly referred to Biblical passages and relied heavily on the Ten Commandments.
As a matter of fact, the Founding Fathers associated the concept of civil liberty with religious freedom as well. According to them, religious freedom could not be ascertained without civil protection. However, religious and civil liberty, to the layman, was somewhat ubiquitous, which have led to the birth of several misconceptions and myths. Yet, one common belief prevailed – that loss of civil liberty would lead to loss of religious liberty as well. Consequently, the First Amendment did not just grant the citizens the right to freedom of religion, but also civil liberties essential for maintaining the former.
Interpretation of the Founding Fathers’ views on religion and religious liberty
For long, it was assumed that the United States had been established as a Christian nation. However, the First Amendment does not refer to God, Jesus or even Christianity for that matter. To understand the Founding Fathers’ stance on religion and religious liberty, it is important to study their own personal beliefs as well. These were mighty leaders, who stood up for freedom of expression and every individual’s right to practice the religion of his choice. If they made a choice to leave out the above mentioned references, it was not without reason. History books and folk tales state that America was an exclusively Christian nation, but there is no actual historical evidence to support the claim. In addition, the Founding Fathers’ views were refuted on the basis that they did not explicitly state that the government and church were to function as distinct entities. However, it must be understood that America was never meant to be a nation standing on the foundations of one particular faith or religion.
A study of available documents from the period, including the speeches and statements made by the succeeding presidents show that the government of the United States was certainly meant to function separately from the Church. The Founding Fathers had years of European history at their disposal; they were perfectly aware of the way Christian governments had snatched away civil and religious liberties from the citizens, forcing them to surrender to supremacy of the Church. A recent interpretation of the Constitution suggests that the Founding Fathers implied freedom from all religion; however, such a claim is outrageous and must be negated. The Founding Fathers were not against religion, nor were they in favor of silencing any expression of religious sentiments. There is no doubt about the fact that religious freedom and the principles of the gospel formed the core of the Constitution, and indirectly that of the United States.
To understand the interpretations of the Founding Fathers’ views on religious liberty, one must take into consideration Thomas Paine’s statement; he was of the opinion that after America gained independence, the British monarchy lost its hold on the American subjects, who had been suppressed for so long. American liberty was soon followed by freedom of religion and civil liberty. A religious skeptic, Paine wanted to emphasize more on democratic principles of rationality and nature. Thomas Jefferson was of the opinion that an individual should have the liberty to follow whatever religion or faith he pleased, since that was a personal choice and not something that concerned the general public.
Evolution of such interpretations and modern day claims
The startling increase in the rate of religious discrimination and violence in the twenty first century demands a study of how the Founding Fathers’ principles of religious freedom are viewed today. Granting the right to practice any religious faith of their choice allowed numerous religions to flourish and grow in the United States. What made the First Amendment remarkable was the fact that the Founding Fathers laid down the principles by taking into account the welfare of their citizens, which was deemed more significant than establishing the superiority of Christianity. Religious tolerance is encouraged, and discrimination on grounds of religious faith is strictly prohibited according to the Constitution. In this aspect, one must remember Thomas Jefferson, who can rightly be called the father of religious liberty in Virginia, his hometown, and America as a whole.
The Founding Fathers nurtured a deep contempt for any kind of “priestcraft”, and the portrayal of religious institutions as sole bearers of power. However, there is a new interpretation of Jefferson and the other Founding Fathers’ views show that while they challenged the conventional notions of Christianity early on in their career, most of them continued to enjoy the company of clergymen in their lives as statesmen. They harbored a benign vision that Christianity could be considered the predominant religion of America, as long as it did not seek to oppress other forms of religious faith. Yet, it must be mentioned that the American Constitution never explicitly states that Christianity should be the law of the land. Similarly, no citizen of the United States can be compelled or forced to support the religion. As a matter of fact, America has always been a diverse nation – with different religions thriving under the same roof.
At the same time, one must also remember the negative consequences of wrongful interpretations of the First Amendment. Assumptions that the Founding Fathers wanted to establish America as a Christian republic are one of the root causes of religious intolerance and hate crimes in the United States. While the Constitution allows freedom of religion, historic reality shows that this fundamental human right has frequently been violated. In the modern day, it can be said in conclusion that America is certainly a Christian nation, because the Bible and its interpretations helped shape the Constitution, and consequently the nation itself.
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Beliles, Mark, and Jerry Newcombe. Doubting Thomas: The Religious Life and Legacy of Thomas Jefferson. Morgan James Publishing, 2014.
Fraser, James W. Between church and state: Religion and public education in a multicultural America. JHU Press, 2016.
Green, Steven K. Inventing a Christian America: The myth of the religious founding. Oxford University Press, 2015.
Hemeyer, Julia Corbett, Michael Corbett, and J. Matthew Wilson. Politics and religion in the United States. Routledge, 2014.
Juergensmeyer, Mark. Terror in the mind of God: The global rise of religious violence. Vol. 13. (Univ of California Press, 2017).
Konvitz, Milton. Fundamental liberties of a free people: religion, speech, press, assembly. Routledge, 2018.
Laycock, Douglas. "Religious liberty and the culture wars." (U. Ill. L. Rev. 2014), 839.
Mack, Burton L. Myth and the Christian nation: A social theory of religion. Routledge, 2014.
Ragosta, John. Religious Freedom: Jefferson’s Legacy, America's Creed. University of Virginia Press, 2013.
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