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