The United States First Amendment and Religious Freedom

Written by Liam Blackshaw, Edited by Nathaniel Robinson.

In an 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists of Connecticut, Thomas Jefferson spoke of a ‘wall of separation between church and State’, which guaranteed the religious freedom of the Baptists despite their minority status compared with the Congregationalists. This wall was guaranteed by the First Amendment of the Constitution which declared that their legislature could ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof’. The First Amendment, of which Jefferson’s Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom was a chief intellectual antecedent, represents the starkest example of the attempt to insulate religion from politics during America’s germinal years, and contains within it the essential wisdom that a religiously neutral state is the chief guarantor of religious freedom. In a time when many on the American Christian right are calling for America to return to its religious heritage the First Amendment remains an unequivocal reminder of the humanistic roots of American jurisprudence, the key architects of which lived undoubtedly as sceptical intellectuals as opposed to pious Christians, and should serve to bolster the resolute Jeffersonian ‘wall’ against the threat of modern religious fanaticism.

The First Amendment has a strong grounding in Enlightenment philosophy, with the works of Locke, Hume, Shaftesbury and Voltaire exerting a strong intellectual influence over the Founding Fathers. The philosophical position of many of the Founders was not outright atheism, but was rather an indeterminable form of deism based on reason, with Thomas Paine’s assertion that he believed in ‘one God, and no more’ who did not ever ‘communicate anything to man, by…speech,…language, or…vision’ pithily summarizing the ideology. Despite their own philosophical ambivalence, the Founders were almost uniform in their vehement denunciation of organized religion, with John Adams speaking of a ‘germ of religion in human nature so strong that whenever an order of men can persuade the people by flattery or terror that they have salvation at their disposal, there can be no end to fraud, violence, or usurpation’. This contention that established religion pertained to violence and dogma, within the intellectual context of rationalism so pervasive throughout the work of America’s Founders, provided a fertile intellectual foundation from which ideas of secularism could flourish. This view crystallized during the embryonic years of the nation between the drafting of the First Amendment and the Treaty of Tripoli in 1797, the latter incontrovertibly declaring that ‘the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion’.

Whilst the First Amendment undoubtedly serves as a barricade to keep the perceived ill effects of religion distinct from the arena of politics, its second clause guarantees the religious freedom of every United States citizen, declaring that Congress shall not ‘prohibit[ing] the free exercise thereof’. Thomas Jefferson, in the same letter to the Danbury Baptists, declared that religion was ‘a matter which lies solely between Man & his God’, and in the aforementioned Virginia Statute maintained that ‘all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of Religion’. This secular attitude assuaged the fear of each Christian denomination, that of persecution by the other factions, and also ensured that no tithes were paid to any group due to their intrinsically disagreeable nature, with Jefferson again remarking after the 1800 election that many religious groups were content with ‘an Atheist or Deist…rather than an establishment of Presbyterianism’. Despite the right to individual religious freedom, many of the Founding Fathers bowed to the demands of religious sentiment, such as James Madison who capitulated to public requests for a national day of prayer during the war of 1812, despite recording his reservations in his own private papers. Whilst in theory the ‘wall of separation’ erected by the First Amendment is unwaveringly concrete, the demands of political reality suggests it is somewhat more permeable in practice, although it still remains a reliable safeguard against state-led incursions on individual religious freedom.

The First Amendment bequeathed a legacy of secular thought to posterity in the United States, and forms a key part of the American legal framework, and as a result has been the subject of multiple legal controversies since its ratification. Many of these have involved the Supreme Court, notably in Reynolds v. United States (1878) which examined the history of religious liberty within the United States, and enshrined the concept of Jefferson’s wall within national jurisprudence and guaranteed religious freedom as a constitutional right. Other important examples include Everson v. Board of Education (1947), which held that the ‘wall must be kept high and impregnable’, and more recently in McCreary County v. ACLU of Kentucky (2005), which caused contention due to the display of large and visible copies of the Ten Commandments in state courthouses. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor summarized the Court’s ruling: ‘the First Amendment expresses our Nation’s fundamental commitment to religious liberty by means of two provisions–one protecting the free exercise of religion, the other barring establishment of religion…Free people are entitled to free and diverse thoughts, which government ought neither to constrain nor to direct.’ Whilst the Court has not always held the separation entailed by the First Amendment to be absolute, its pervasive presence throughout American legal history is a testament to its importance within both constitutional debate and the political psyche of the United States at large.

The First Amendment stands as a guarantor of a secular polity and individual religious freedom, and along with its protection of free speech, a free press, the right to assemble and for a redress of grievances, exists as the intellectual foundation of Western, humanistic political thought. In the words of the late writer Christopher Hitchens, the First Amendment protects the ‘essential liberties, without which all other freedoms are either impossible to imagine or impossible to put into practice’, namely due to its protection of, and protection from, religious practice.