Our Founders created a secular government. The
United States Constitution contains no reference whatever to the Deity,
and the original documentís only reference to religion is in an
exclusionary rather than endorsing context. This reference is the
prohibition against religious tests as a qualification for public office
(quoted above), at a time when eleven of the thirteen states had such
tests for state officeholders.
With adoption of the Bill of Rights (the first ten
Amendments to the Constitution) came a fortification of protection for
personal liberties as well as a strengthening of state/church
separation. The new guiding words about religion form the opening of the Federal Constitutionís First
Amendment. They comprise what is now known as the amendmentís
"establishment clause" and the "free exercise
clause." Together these assertions, ratified in December 1791,
would serve to define the realms of government and religion in the newly
"united states." Together, they determined that the country
would be constituted of a free people who could not be compelled to
accept or to live by any given set of religious beliefs.
It was out of a combination of deism and reason that
recognition of the importance of a free society had emerged in America
by the time of the writing of the U.S. Constitution. The language of the
First Amendment reflects the Framerís deep concerns for
individual liberty. These concerns emanated from awareness of English
and European edicts, which often had imposed on the general populace
religious beliefs and interpretations of morality that had to be adhered
to on pain of punishment.
According to historian Henry Steele Commager, the U.S.
decision to separate church and state was "perhaps the most
important decision reached in the New World. Everywhere in the western
world of the eighteenth century, church and state were one; and
everywhere the state maintained the established church and tried to
force conformity to its dogma." 2
Everywhere? No longer!
In the United States, an exception to the rule was in the making.
Religion and government would not be one. Our forefathersí
commitments to religious freedom had found full expression in the
supreme law of the land. By way of a momentous declaration made in late
1791, our country commenced a significant journey.
Ü This section
consist of extensive excerpts from Chapter 2 of Freethought Across
the Centuries, by Gerald Larue. Amherst, NY: Humanist Press, 1996
(concentrating on pp. 11-17, with slight rearrangement of material)
These data are reported in the American Religious Identification Survey,
2001 by Barry Kosmin, Egon Mayer, and Ariela Kayser, Graduate Center,
City University of New York. For the complete study, go to:
2 Commager is quoted in Menendez, Albert
J., and Edd Doerr, The Great Quotations on Religious Freedom. Long
Beach, CA: Centerline Press, 1991, p. 21f.