State and Church:
Together or Apart?

The study of American history makes it clear that those who came from Europe to what was, for Europeans, "the new world," did not come religiously unencumbered. Nor did they always bring with them a religious tolerance that would admit the validity of other faith systems.

It is possible that those whose religious history included memories of persecution under tyrannical state-endorsed religious systems entertained some interest in supporting the formation of a governing system whereby no single religion could ever ally itself with government to enforce any single dogma. If they did, however, that concern was seldom evident. And, subsequent to the American Revolution, in the exciting times of moving toward new governmental structures for the victorious colonies, there were numerous efforts to unite state and religious concerns.

In June 1785, James Madison voiced strong opposition to a bill sponsored by Patrick Henry that would have placed a tax on all Virginians for the nondiscriminatory support of religion—that is; each taxpayer might designate the church to which his tax money would go. In Henry’s bill, the taxes of the nonreligious would be used to support secular education. Madison’s broadside, titled "Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments," was published in Alexandria, Virginia, and quickly spread. He wrote (excerpted):

Religion can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence. The religion, then, of every man, must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate. In matters of religion no man’s right is abridged by the institution of civil society; and religion is wholly exempt from its cognizance.

Who does not see that the same authority that can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other religions, may establish, with the same ease, any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other sects? That the same authority that can call for each citizen to contribute three pence only of his property for the support of only one establishment, may force him to conform to any other establishment, in all cases whatsoever?

James Madison has often been called, "Father of the United States Constitution." He earned this appellation in considerable part because his strong views on the importance of separating church and state affairs carried forward into the Constitution’s Bill of Rights. To Madison, it was evident that religion and state must not be enmeshed. To do so would be a catastrophe for both.

As a consequence of the separation of state and church decision, Commager notes: "...the United States took the lead among the nations of the earth in the establishment of religious freedom. That is one reason America has never had any religious wars or religious persecutions."1 Such events as witch trials and banishment for citizens could no longer occur. A "colonial America" was no more. Now it was a new nation, with a government guaranteeing religious liberty for all. It had been decided.

Liberty of Conscience Back Next Religion-Free?


Commager is quoted in Menendez, Albert J., and Edd Doerr, The Great Quotations on Religious Freedom. Long Beach, CA: Centerline Press, 1991, p. 21f.



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