African-American Religious Culture and Constitutional Questions of Religious Freedom

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Wesleyan University
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Dissertation chapter
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Arguably, many Americans consider religious liberty as a pivotal feature of the nations founding experiment and also as a signal contribution to the global democracy practices. Although various controversies surround the ideal definition of religious liberty, renowned scholars such as Anthony Gill define religious liberty as a wide umbrella concept that covers a broad array of policies that affect worshipers, spiritual institutions and the clergyThe religious liberty issue has, however, increasingly gained a lot of attention among American policymakers and the public as a whole. As a matter of fact, various scholars contend that different political interests have and continue to play a great role in regulating religions in America. Similarly, in the legal context, the United States Constitution addresses the religion issue both in the First Amendment and the Article VI prohibition on religious tests as a condition for holding public office. More specifically, the First Amendment of the Constitution prohibits the Congress from laws that prohibit the free exercise of religion or even respecting an establishment of worship. This being said, the core intent of this dissertation chapter is to discuss the vast African American religious culture and also explore the constitutional questions and concerns surrounding the issue of religious freedom.

The African American Religious Culture

Although a lot is known about the American religious freedom alongside the numerous kinds of cultural and political works it has performed, the most unsavory and least understood aspects of this history lie in the relationship between religious freedom and the formation of racism. According to Watkins (2005), the African American religious cultures originated in the crucible of American slavery, a system that did not only rapture direct connections to the religious community, culture and the African history, but also laid down the context for the emergence of transformed and new religious systems. Beginning with the trans-Atlantic slavery, which forced thousands of people into the modern day the American States, the African Americans religious culture constantly featured complicated efforts towards innovation, preservation, and agential intervention. All these efforts were rooted toward the survival of African Americans, a minority group, against different structures of racial domination. Besides, during the colonial period, the development of slavery as a race-based institution stemmed from the newly articulated enlightenment ideologies of religious freedom. The owing slave society, on the other hand, had new conceptions of religion that notably provided a convenient way to eliminate the legal means of escape. Additionally, the ability to distinguish between the religion and the race category brought about the slaves racial identity which in turn, sharply separated what was termed as religious from the civil and hence making it conceivable for slaves to be granted freedom in the former sphere.

The Foundation of Religious Liberty

Despite the numerous claims that the United States is a Christian Nation, scholars such as William Miller (1986) contend that it is due to many philosophical skirmishes and political machinations that a wall of separation originated between the state and church. According to Thomas Jefferson, this supposed wall of separation is consistently seen as commensurate with religious freedom. In his account, Jefferson pointed out that religious liberty continued to be more pronounced as this wall of separation continued to become more impenetrable. As history would have it, Americans refer to religious liberty as their first liberty since many believed that freedom of mind is both philosophically and logically before every other freedom protected under the Constitution of the United States.

Although religious beliefs are known to have played a significant role in the political life of the United States right from the Colonial to the present era, religion was perceived as the heart of some of the best and also the worst movements in the American history. This being the case, both the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries saw a massive body of writings that presented an array of arguments that were in favor of religious toleration, disestablishment, as well as liberty of conscience. The history of religious liberty in the United States points out that these contentions were mainly made by advocates of Christianity and fellow Christian thinkers, who were primarily motivated by their religious beliefs to oppose both Catholic and Protestant regimes of persecution.

However, it is believed that these Christian ideas had deeper roots since the rationale for religious toleration and freedom had its real beginning in the third and fourth centuries when earlier advocates of Christianity opposed the prevalent coercion by the state on religious uniformity based on the nature of God and that of authentic belief. Therefore, based on this context, their writings provided the first principled justification for religious toleration that went beyond political expediency. While other justifications, both theoretical and pragmatic, have been advanced to support religious freedom, the theological argument has been the dominant principled response to religious intolerance and persecution.

Thomas Jeffersons Philosophy

Thomas Jefferson is considered as one of the most complex and controversial figures in American history. His legacy spans from his great support for equality and freedom to his outspoken criticism of federal power. With regard to matters of religion, Jefferson is commonly known as a leader who defended atheism, and for this reason, different scholars contend that the primary reason why Jefferson argued for religious freedom was to purposely free the fledging United States from the scourge and backwardness of religiosity. Besides, it is thought that Jefferson despised the roots of religion and wanted nothing more than to see it crumble in the country he was among the fore-founders. Drawn from this context, Jefferson is often quoted advocating for what he deemed as a wall of separation between the Church and State. This particular quote is often cited in Jeffersons letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, a religious minority in Connecticut, who had written to him informing him that their state viewed the toleration of the Baptists not as a right, as guaranteed by the First Amendment at that time, but as a favor or a privilege. However, Jefferson wrote back in defense of the Danbury Baptists, against the state, arguing that a wall of separation between Church and State should exist, in this case, to protect this religious minority.

Similarly, in the views of Thomas Jefferson, God is a Supreme Being who wants man to be free. Therefore, religion ought to be perceived as a matter between every individual and God, and no other individual has the right to interfere. This particular view is evidently expressed in the Virginia Statue for Religious Freedom.

The Virginia Religious Freedom Act

Better known as the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, the Virginia Religious Freedom Act was authored by Thomas Jefferson and consequently adopted by the Virginia Legislature in 1786. The core intent behind this particular statute was to protect religion from the state or rather from the initial law in which they were present. In the context of religious freedom, Jefferson, with the help James Madison, had their principal intention as to make Virginia the very first U. S state to disestablish its official religion in 1786. Under this Statute, it is evident that the natural human rights are incompatible with government-supported religion. More so, the law clearly states that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever and that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion. According to Gill (1999), these two principles became the foundation upon which both the two clauses of the First Amendment, the Establishment Clause and Free Exercise Clause were based.

The Constitution and the Establishment Clause

The United States Constitution commitment to religious freedom became the culmination of hundreds of years of theological and political controversies concerning the proper relation between the government and religion. Therefore, under the United States Constitution, the religious civil liberties are guaranteed by the First Amendment of the Constitution which states. Besides, two clauses of the First Amendment concern the existing relationship between the government and religion. These two clauses are the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause. More specifically, the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment states that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion. This provision was primarily intended to prohibit the federal government from both declaring and financially supporting a national church (religion) or even overly involving itself in religion, specifically to the benefit of one religion over another. According to various scholars, owing to the fact that some government action implicating religion is permissible and unavoidable, the extent of how much the establishment Clause tolerates is just not clear.



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