The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution prohibits Congress from establishing a national church or state religion, a departure from European precedents. But did biblical religion influence the American founding?
Biblical religion and Judeo-Christian ethics influenced early American colonial culture in profound ways. By the time of the American Revolution, theistic language referencing a “Creator” who had endowed human beings with dignity and therefore rights had worked its way into the Declaration of Independence: “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness…” There is a backstory.
America’s origins were deeply religious and infused with faith traditions informed by the Bible. Many of the early English settlers came to America fleeing religious persecution. The original thirteen colonies, chartered by the Crown, were in fact under the rule of a Christian state with an established church. Yet within the British imperial order, the colonies had freedom to experiment with a range of church and state relationships. Some colonies like Virginia mimicked England and established the Church of England in America. Massachusetts Bay also established its Reformed and Puritan version of the Church in England. Maryland was founded as a political and religious refuge for dissenting English Catholics. Other colonies had soft establishments of sorts, affirming Christian faith without any particular preferred denominational church. Provinces like Rhode Island and Pennsylvania had the broadest ranging commitments to freedom of conscience and religious liberty that tolerated dissenters, thus demonstrating liberal models pluralism and diversity.
The Great Awakening was an inter-colony spiritual phenomenon in the 1730s and 1740s that further deepened colonist commitments to biblical belief and personal faith. As a result, an American identity took shape that was animated by a shared religious experience that transcended political boundaries and church denominational barriers. The evangelically awakened were also deeply influenced by intellectually enlightened ideals of freedom of conscience and religious tolerance advanced by the British Enlightenment. Consensus was building that freedom of religion could enhance spiritual vitality as well as support the moral, social and political order.
From William Penn’s vision of a polity cemented by brotherly love and down to the thorny business of statecraft at the Constitutional Convention in the summer of 1787, Pennsylvania and its capital city demonstrated a large, prosperous, and successful experiment in religious liberty. It was a model commonwealth where freedom of conscience fostered a vitality of religious faiths, tolerance, and pluralism, and it did so without an established church. If Pennsylvania could succeed without a state church, why not the new United States? Founders like James Madison, who were in part inspired by Pennsylvania’s success, led American constitution making with the Bill of Rights and its First Amendment which prohibited a national church and protected individual religious freedom.
In the American experience, faith would be free to guide liberty toward justice. Biblical faith animated future reform movements for the abolition of slavery, women’s rights, Native American rights, and civil rights in seeking liberty and justice for all. Philadelphia’s Liberty Bell captures this truth so beautifully. It is inscribed with a verse from the Hebrew Bible: "Proclaim Liberty Throughout All the Land Unto All the Inhabitants thereof." (Leviticus 25:10) There is a reason why this 2,080 pound bell was appropriated as a symbol of abolition. It grounds liberty in a moral universe of truth and justice. Nearly all of the founders had an appreciation for the ethical value of biblical faith as a moral foundation of American political culture. In their minds personal faith cultivated public virtue, the bedrock of a republic of liberty.
One of the most beautiful things about the United States of America is that it guarantees individuals the freedom for faith, and in doing so fosters and protects the faith that is necessary for freedom to flourish. Ethics and values derived from the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures have shaped this nation from its inception, but without being forcefully imposed on anyone.
Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.
John Adams, To the Massachusetts Militia
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