Religious Liberty and Democratic Faith

by Paul Sonnack

[Dr. Paul Sonnack (d. 1992) was a much loved and respected Professor of History and Theology at Augsburg College and at Luther Seminary as well as a friend of Pietisten. In this lecture he examined the thinking of Jefferson, Madison, and others in establishing separation of church and state in the US. What he uncovers may surprise you. — Ed.]

In 1952, Harpers published a book by J. Paul Williams: What Americans Believe and How They Worship. Tucked away in the relative obscurity of the final chapter of this book is one of the most provocative contributions to the discussion of religious freedom in this country. It is provocative because Prof. Williams advocates in effect the establishment of a state religion with coercive sanctions here in America. He proposes that "governmental agencies must teach the democratic ideal as religion." At first sight this suggestion seems so utterly implausible that it is rather difficult to take it seriously. But when seen in terms of the historical development of what our founding fathers launched as an experiment (and it must be remembered that religious liberty was originally intended as an experiment), it seems natural enough that someone should come to the conclusion that the experiment has not been entirely successful.

Even though I vigorously reject Prof. Williams' proposal, I do think that it raises a most important issue. It is my purpose to indicate that it is rooted in some perplexing ambiguities in the American tradition and practice. Hence it calls attention to some of the more vexing problems of our day.

The legal basis for the practice of the separation of church and state in the United States is found in Article VI of the Constitution and in the First Amendment. The first stipulates that "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States." The second stipulates that "Congress shall make no law respecting (Continued page 3) an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…" These statements are so brief, and consequently so vague, that there is much debate as to what they actually mean when applied to specific issues. In general, however, their meaning is a problem of the historical interpretation of the motives and intentions of the founders who first declared them. To this we must first turn.

I. The Meaning of the Constitutional Provisions.

The First Amendment went into effect on November 3, 1791. By this time most of the new states had debated, formulated, and accepted new constitutions and each had faced and solved in one way or another the problem of church and state. But it was in Virginia that the debates had been most pointed and the outcome had been most clearly and decisively in favor of religious freedom.

Thus, we naturally turn first to the writings of the Virginians for an understanding of what religious freedom meant to those who wrote it into the laws. Out of the Virginia debates came two classic and definitive statements: Thomas Jefferson's "Bill for establishing Religious Freedom in Virginia" (which went into effect early in 1786); and James Madison's "Memorial and Remonstrance on the Religious Rights of Man" of 1784.

The conception of religious freedom that emerges from a careful study of these documents can be summarized under four heads:

(1) It meant that each individual was to be free to make up his own mind about religion; he was to have liberty to express his opinions freely, and to seek to persuade others to his view; he was to suffer no penalties, civil or otherwise, as a result; and he was not to be forced to contribute to the support of any ecclesiastical institution, not even to the one in which he believed.

(2) "Religion" was defined as one's "opinion" (the key word) about "the duty which we owe to our creator, and the manner of discharging it." The "right" to such an opinion was said to be an "unalienable right" because the "opinions of men" depend "only on the evidence contemplated in their own minds." Hence, they "cannot follow the dictates of other men." An "unalienable" right is of such nature that one cannot relinquish the responsibility for exercising it—not even if one wants to. "The care of every man's soul belongs to himself," said Jefferson in his Notes on Religion. "The magistrate has no power but what the people give," and they "have not given him the care of souls because they could not; they could not, because no man has the right to abandon the care of his salvation to another."

(3) A Church (an ecclesiastical institution) is, as Jefferson put it (echoing almost word for word the definition of Locke), merely "…a voluntary society of men, joining themselves together of their own accord in order for the public worshipping of God in such a manner as they judge acceptable to him and effectual to the salvation of their souls." It is voluntary because no man is by nature bound to any church. The hope of salvation is the cause of his entering into it. If he finds anything wrong in it, he should be as free to go out as he was to come in. Such a voluntary society may define and set up its own standards; it may enforce its own criteria for entrance into membership and for continued fellowship. But "its laws extend to its own members only."

4) The work of these "free" churches somehow related to "order in government and obedience to the laws." Or, in the 18th-century phrase, "It contributes and must contribute to the "public welfare."

Even though these ideas were deist, thus sectarian, they were accepted by the churches as the condition of things. These views are so ingrained in the American mind that it requires some effort to realize that at the time they were considered a very daring innovation—an experiment worth trying. Often overlooked is the centrality that Jefferson and leaders like him placed on the fourth aspect of the meaning of religious liberty, viz., that the free churches must contribute to the public welfare. For Jefferson the experiment was precisely to find out whether this kind of religious freedom was compatible with "order in government and obedience to the laws." At the time it was not at all obvious that it was so because, from the time of Constantine on (for more than 1400 years), it was universally assumed that the stability of the social order and the safety of the state demanded religious solidarity of all the people in one church. Establishment was necessary.

Thus, Prof. Garrison has concluded that the declaration for religious freedom in the American Constitution constituted "on the administrative side" one of the "two most profound revolut-ions which have occurred in the entire history of the church."

What was the nature of this "revolution?" What was the real difference between Establishment and religious freedom? What was the essential nature of Jefferson's "fair experiment?"

Establishment rested upon two basic ideas or assumptions: (1) that the existence and well-being of any society depends upon a body of commonly shared beliefs regarding the nature of man, his place in the universe, and his destiny. The rules for his conduct in all affairs are based upon these beliefs. These foundational beliefs are religious. (2) The only guarantee that these necessary beliefs will be widely enough disseminated and inculcated to provide such a foundation for the society, is to put the coercive power of the state behind the institution responsible for their definition, articulation, and inculcation—at least enough coercive power to compel attendance upon the teachings and to suppress or cut off dangerous aberrations.

Religious freedom did not mean giving up the first idea or assumption, i.e., the necessity for the commonly shared basic religious beliefs. It meant only the rejection of the second assumption, viz., that the institutions responsible for their inculcation must have the coercive power of the state behind them. The essence of the revolution was, then, the rejection of coercion in favor of persuasion alone in religious matters. It was to be seen if persuasion alone was sufficient to guarantee the popular inculcation of the religious belief necessary for the public welfare.

II. Some Implications of Religious Freedom.

Looked at in this fashion, religious freedom had some very profound and far-reaching implications that perhaps were not clearly grasped at the time and, certainly, seldom are today.

First, from the viewpoint of the society and the state, the following implications were important:

(l) There will be a multiplicity of religious groups or "sects" as the rationalistic Deists called them.

(2) But each and every "sect" will inculcate in its own way the basic religious beliefs that are essential for "order in government and obedience to the laws."

(3) The limits of religious freedom are defined by the "public welfare." The 18th-century leaders who fathered the new government with its experiment in religious freedom, did not have to wrestle with any outstanding practical consequences of this view, as generations of later justices have had to, e.g., in dealing with polygamous Mormons, or with Jehovah's Witnesses, whose refusal to salute the flag was widely thought to be inimical to the public welfare.

Here, then, was the troublesome loophole in the theory. It seems a fair conclusion that (since the public welfare was to set the limits to religious freedom, and the public welfare is a matter for the state to decide) the way was left open for the state, if and when it judged that the religious sects were inadequate or derelict in the matter, to defend itself by setting up the institutions or machinery necessary to guarantee the dissemination and inculcation of the necessary beliefs. And, this seems to be the conclusion to which Prof. Williams has come.

Second, from the viewpoint of the churches or "sects" there were profound implications.

(1) The "free" churches accepted, or had forced upon them, the duty and responsibility to articulate disseminate, and inculcate the basic religious beliefs essential for the existence and well-being of the society and of doing this without any coercive power over the citizens at all, i.e., armed only with persuasive power.

(2) More subtly, they also accepted by implication the typically rationalist view that only what all the churches held and taught in common (the "essentials of every religion") was really relevant for the well-being of the society and the state.

It is hard to escape the conclusion that the religious groups also accepted by implication the responsibility to teach that the peculiar views or tenets or doctrines that divided them one from another and gave each its only reason for separate and independent existence, were either irrelevant for the general welfare of the whole, or, at most, possessed only a kind of instrumental value for it. Is it any wonder that a sense of irrelevance has haunted many religious leaders in America ever since?

The Deists were quite clear on this point. Benjamin Franklin speaks in one place of rejecting the minister whose sermons seemed aimed "rather to make us Presbyterians than good citizens."

All the spectacular success of the free churches in America in effecting numerical growth and geographical expansion, insofar as it has been successful in making men peculiarly Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, Lutheran, or what not, has taken place under a Damoclean sword, viz., the haunting suspicion that some how relevance to the general welfare has not kept pace with this success. Hence, the continuous tension in America between the claims of the religion of the public welfare and denominational religion for supreme allegiance.

In pointing to these implications of religious freedom from the views of the state and of the churches, we point to the Trojan horse in the comfortable citadel of denominationalism under such freedom.

III. One Example: Public Education.

Perhaps control over education of the public was the most striking power the churches surrendered under religious freedom. Tradition-ally, education was conceived as an essential aspect of the work of an established church as part of its proper function of disseminating and inculcating the necessary foundational religious beliefs.

Ideally, under religious freedom as conceived by the Deists, the free churches might, and probably should, continue to possess such control, since, dividing the population among themselves, each in its own way, would inculcate the basic beliefs (the "essentials of every religion") common to all and necessary for the general welfare.

But for many and complex reasons this proved impracticable in the United States. For one thing, the task was too immense to be supported by voluntary churches that claimed as members only 20% of the total population. And so, somewhat by default, the state took over this traditional part of the work of the church.

If we now ask, why the rise of education for all sponsored by the state? It was precisely to make possible and to guarantee the dissemination and inculcation among the citizens of the basic beliefs essential to the existence and well-being of the democratic society.

Who can deny that these beliefs are religious? This was clearly recognized by early leaders such as Horace Mann who frankly stood for "nonsectarian" religious teaching in the public schools. But it was soon discovered that there could be no "nonsectarian" religious teaching in America precisely because religion had been poured into "sectarian" molds and hardened in "sectarian" forms.

Thus, Horace Mann's brand of religion seemed to many evangelicaProtestants to be suspiciously "Unitarian." And what passed for "nonsectarian" religious teaching in other circles seemed to many Unitarians, Roman Catholics, and others, to be evangelical Pro-testantism. Even the Bible was largely ruled out, for it could not be read in the public schools except in "sectarian" English translation.

Here are the roots of the dilemma posed by the acceptance of the practice of separation of church and state on the one hand and the general acceptance of education sponsored by the state on the other. Here is the nub of the matter—the necessity that is all too often completely overlooked or glossed over—that the state in its public education is, and always has been, (Continued next page) teaching religion. It does so because the well-being of the nation and the state demands this foundation of shared beliefs.

In other words, the state sponsored school in the United States took over one of the basic responsibilities traditionally assumed by an established church. In this sense, the school system of the United States is its established church.

But the situation in America is such that none of the many religious sects can admit, without jeopardizing its existence, that the religion taught in the schools is "true" in the sense that it can legitimately claim supreme allegiance. This serves to accentuate the dichotomy between the religion of the nation inculcated by the state through the public schools and the religion of the denominations taught in the free churches.

In this context one can understand why the religion of many Americans is democracy—why their real faith is the "democratic faith." It is the religion of the public schools. This prepares one to understand the appeal, and indeed the plausibility of Prof. Williams' proposal that "governmental agencies must teach the democratic ideal as religion." This is essentially an appeal for a State Church in America.

Religious leaders, as well as others in the United States, may well rise in indignation at this bold proposal. But they ought also soberly to recognize the historical roots of his thinking. And, they ought to thank him for thus putting this position clearly and concisely.

Paul Sonnack (1920-1992) was a much loved teacher of history and theology at Augsburg College and Luther Seminary.

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