Scholars regularly assert that America’s Founders were deists who desired the strict separation of church and state.
Frank Lambert, for example, writes that “the significance of the Enlightenment and Deism for the birth of the American republic, and especially the relationship between church and state within it, can hardly be overstated.” Similarly, his fellow historian Richard Hughes claims “most of the American founders embraced some form of Deism, not historically orthodox Christianity.” Although many more examples could be given, I’ll close by quoting law professor Geoffrey R. Stone, who contends that “deistic beliefs played a central role in the framing of the American republic . . . . [The] founding generation viewed religion, and particularly religion’s relation to government, through an Enlightenment lens that was deeply skeptical of orthodox Christianity.”
Thomas Jefferson did not help draft or ratify the First Amendment, but one argument for favoring his views over those of a Roger Sherman or an Oliver Ellsworth when investigating the “generating history” of the Constitution’s religion clauses is that Jefferson was more important than most Founders. By that measure, investigators of that history ought not to ignore George Washington. Nor shall this series on participants in the Founding-era debates over religious liberty and church-state relations.
The Benedict Option, Rod Dreher’s much-discussed book, has largely been portrayed as a way to rethink Christian political and cultural engagement. How, exactly, the rethinking ought to play out has been debated incessantly, albeit often superficially, as only the Internet can ensure. Dreher does attempt to make clear, in any case, that Christians should focus “all the attention they have left for national politics” on expanding religious liberty. Religious liberty is naturally necessary for any religious undertaking and Dreher is right to recognize that without it no one could take his advice to focus on cultivating local politics and community. But…
Connecticut’s Roger Sherman was the only Founder to help draft and sign the Declaration and Resolves (1774), the Articles of Association (1774), the Declaration of American Independence (1776), the Articles of Confederation (1777, 1778), and the U.S. Constitution (1787). As a member of the first federal Congress, he played an influential role in drafting the First Amendment.
Yet when Supreme Court justices have turned to history to interpret the Establishment Clause, they have referenced Sherman only three times. By way of contrast, Thomas Jefferson, a man who played no role in drafting or ratifying the amendment, is referenced 112 times.
As a society becomes more secular, what happens to religious rituals, customs, and ways of life that cannot be explained or justified in secular terms? When the freedom to engage in such practices is no longer presumed to be a good because of a firm commitment to religion as a social value, little stands in the way of its becoming just one more special interest. Religious freedom is then thrown into the bin of social oddities, to be haggled over and negotiated against whatever other idiosyncratic predilections one happens to find in there..
Over at the Law and Religion Forum, we are hosting an online symposium on a very interesting article by Professor Vincent Phillip Muñoz, “Two Concepts of Religious Liberty: The Natural Rights and Moral Autonomy Approaches to the Free Exercise of Religion.” Muñoz’s basic claim is a historical one about the nature of the Founders’ constitutional commitment to religious freedom: They supported a narrow, but powerful, right of religious free exercise that protected fairly absolutely what were thought to be certain core features of religiosity—such as worship—but that did not protect the panoply of religious “interests” that might be dear to any given constituency.