The Foundation of Religious Liberty - Paper Example

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Middlebury College
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Dissertation chapter
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The foundation of religious liberty in the United States is deeply rooted on the fact that as a nation, the United States is built on convictions and ideals, which, with time, have become democratic first principles. 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 clergy.

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 fledgling 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. At the heart of Jeffersons belief is the belief that God is a Supreme Being who has created the human mind free and has also manifested an inherently supreme will that the mind shall always remain free.

Besides his different arguments about religion, as a son of the Enlightenment, Jefferson believed that it was only through reason that human beings can come to understand Gods truth and for this reason, their minds ought to be free. Similarly, Jeffersons philosophy contends that 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 is a statement that entails both the principle of separation of church and state as well as the freedom of conscience. Authored by Thomas Jefferson and consequently adopted by the Virginia Legislature in 1786, this Statute is considered as the First Amendment protections for religious freedom. 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 of James Madison, had their principal intention as to make Virginia the very first U. S state to disestablish its official religion in 1786.

This Statute consists of three paragraphs, and its content is rooted in Thomas Jeffersons philosophy. In his book Jefferson's Religion, Stephen J. Vicchio contends that the primary reason why this Statute was passed in Virginia was because the Dissenting sects, such as the Methodists, Baptists, and Presbyterians in Virginia State, had actively petitioned, over the preceding decade, for religious liberty with their central claim as the separation of Church and state. 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 one should be compelled to support or follow any religion and that every person is free to profess, and by argument to 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 relationship between the government and religion. This being the case, the guiding principles that support the ideal definition of religious liberty are particularly outlined in Article VI of the United States Constitution, and in the opening words of the First Amendment of the Constitution. According to scholars, the religious liberty provisions in the U.S Constitution serve as the ground rules by which people across different religious divides live together as citizens of one Nation.

Besides, there are two clauses of the First Amendment that concern the existing relationship between the government and religion. These 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, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.This provision was primarily intended to forbid the federal government from both declaring and financially supporting a religion or even overly associating with a religion, specifically in favour of one religion over the other. 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. However, up to the modern day today, the presence of the establishment clause in the Constitution ensures that either religious belief or non-belief remain voluntary and remarkably free from government coercion.


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Waltman, Jerold. "Separation of Powers and Federalism in the Rehnquist Court." Congress, the Supreme Court, and Religious Liberty, 2013, 65-78. doi:10.1057/9781137300645_5.

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