Freedom, Duty, and Diversity of Religion in America’s Founding

by vaughn_admin  //  

June 14, 2016

Join us as we begin a series of posts focusing on the prioritization of religious freedom in American law and culture. This week our discussion focuses on the American founding and was initiated with Thomas Kidd’s post “The American Founding: Understanding the Connection between Religious and Civil Liberties.”

By: Matthew J. Frank

Thomas Kidd has succinctly and thoughtfully restated the importance of religious liberty for America’s revolutionary founders. Even young Alexander Hamilton, just nineteen and a student at King’s College (now Columbia), “got it.” A government that threatened its people’s consciences could not be trusted in charge of their property rights, their freedom of speech and press, or any other liberties vital to a free people. I really am grateful to Professor Kidd for reminding me of Hamilton’s essay; let’s look at something else Hamilton says in his exhortation to his readers to resist British tyranny:

“Your lives, your property, your religion are all at stake. I do my duty. I warn you of your danger. If you should still be so mad, as to bring destruction upon yourselves; if you should still neglect what you owe to God and man, you cannot plead ignorance in your excuse. Your consciences will reproach you for your folly, and your children’s children will curse you.”

This language of the reproaches of conscience, of what one owes to God as well as man, is very typical of the revolutionary rhetoric of both political and religious leaders in America’s founding. As I pointed out in my first contribution to Cornerstone, religious liberty alone among our freedoms was understood by the founding generation to spring from a duty. While other rights—to speak, to publish, to acquire property—flowed from a natural freedom we enjoy as creatures made equal by our Creator, religious freedom was rooted firmly in a recognition of all that we owe to a power greater than ourselves. As the ground of our being as rational, free, and equal persons, God is not just our divine Creator but our divine Creditor. All that we are and have, we owe to Him, and the conscientious debtor will reproach himself if he does not struggle to maintain his freedom to pay that great debt by appropriate worship, in all its dimensions of moral living. And recognizing that others must pay the same debt, according to the best lights their own understanding affords them, we owe it to our fellow men to defend their religious liberty too.

This spirit of the mutual defense of religious liberty, across the lines of faiths and denominations, was well expressed by John Witherspoon in 1776: 

“I do not wish you to oppose any body’s religion, but every body’s wickedness. Perhaps there are few surer marks of the reality of religion, than when a man feels himself more joined in spirit to a true holy person of a different denomination, than to an irregular liver of his own.”

Inter-religious strife is not the most important reason to be for religious freedom, nor is it in any reasonable sense the proper fruit of that freedom, as Witherspoon recognized. Both of these errors—notwithstanding the fact that they are not fully compatible with each other—are characteristic of today’s hyper-secular “separationists.” Upset by the kind of “full faith” prayers uttered by guest chaplains in the town board meetings of Greece, New York—recently vindicated against an establishment clause claim by the Supreme Court—our secular censors would either denude the public square entirely of religious discourse in the name of “neutrality,” or insist on prayers to a “generic God” in whom no one believes, or else monitor who is praying and what is being said in public prayers to ensure an artificial “diversity” standard is being satisfied.

But none of these three alternatives is consistent with the principle of religious freedom for which our revolutionary ancestors fought so hard. They did not struggle for a freedom merely to privatize our religion and worship quietly, unmolested. They understood that the call of conscience is to live our religions in full, and to defend our fellow citizens’ freedom to do likewise. And they did not think it amiss to thank God, out loud and in public settings, for this precious liberty.

Matthew J. Franck is director of the William E. and Carol G. Simon Center on Religion and the Constitution at the Witherspoon Institute and a visiting lecturer in Politics at Princeton University. 

This piece was originally authored on May 20, 2014 for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.