via Independent Journal Review
by Kyle Becker
The United States was founded in Freedom; and on the basis of the rights of all citizens to maintain freedom of conscience, in accordance with the Natural Rights of Man and Divine authority, it has ever been guided.
It may very well be that Christianity is under attack by the secular left in the United States, but that does not justify an attempt to replace American Civil Society with a Christian society. That is for the individual members of society to choose according to their freedom of conscience and under conditions of liberty.
The seminal document that all Americans should be fully aware of when considering the argument that America was founded as a “Christian nation,” rather than a nation that allows religion to remain solely within the sphere of Civil Society, is that of Constitutional framer James Madison.
The historical backdrop is the General Assembly of Virginia having received a bill “establishing a provision for Teachers of Religion” on December 3rd, 1784. Its preamble said:
Whereas the general diffusion of Christian knowledge hath a natural tendency to correct the morals of men, restrain their vices, and preserve the peace of society, which cannot be effected without a competent provision for learned teachers, who may be thereby enabled to devote their time and attention to the duty of instructing such citizens as from their circumstances and want of education cannot otherwise attain such knowledge; and it is judged such provision may be made by the Legislature, without counteracting the liberal principle heretofore adopted and intended to be preserved, by abolishing all distinctions of preeminence amongst the different societies or communities of Christians…
The author of the bill was the esteemed Patrick Henry, who wrote it partially in response to the repeal of the “tithe law” of 1776 removing state salaries for clergy in Virginia. Henry argued that the decay of morality, as precursored by the withering of religion, had led to many a civilization’s downfall.
James Madison debated Patrick Henry on the floor of the Virginia Assembly, and the result is a remarkable framing of religious liberty, as justified by Divine authority. Although the text is weighty and is often passed over for its lack of poignant phraseology, it is a landmark text:
Because we hold it for a fundamental and undeniable truth, “that religion or the duty which we owe to our Creator and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence.” The Religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate. This right is in its nature an unalienable right.
It is unalienable, because the opinions of men, depending only on the evidence contemplated by their own minds cannot follow the dictates of other men: It is unalienable also, because what is here a right towards men, is a duty towards the Creator. It is the duty of every man to render to the Creator such homage and such only as he believes to be acceptable to him.
This duty is precedent, both in order of time and in degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society. Before any man can be considered as a member of Civil Society, he must be considered as a subject of the Governour of the Universe: And if a member of Civil Society, do it with a saving of his allegiance to the Universal Sovereign.
We maintain therefore that in matters of Religion, no man’s right is abridged by the institution of Civil Society and that Religion is wholly exempt from its cognizance. True it is, that no other rule exists, by which any question which may divide a Society, can be ultimately determined, but the will of the majority; but it is also true that the majority may trespass on the rights of the minority. […]
Indeed, insistence upon a religious dogma for American society as a whole is tantamount to undoing the very reasoning that many of the first settlers fled to the New World to begin with; and that was religious freedom. The circumstances of majority or minority culture is therefore not an appeal to right.
In addition to there being no explicit reference of duty towards a “Christian” God in The Constitution, The Declaration of Independence, or The Federalist Papers, Madison’s “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments” makes it perfectly clear that freedom of conscience is a fundamental and Natural Right of human beings.
The application of this right has diverse ramifications for the role of government in adjudicating spiritual and personal issues that are essentially a matter of individual conscience, as they are without direct and demonstrable harm to other members of society.
While Christians fear that they are under attack by secular progressives who dominate several institutions and the mass culture, their source of rejuvenation throughout this nation’s history is precisely religious freedom; not state compulsion or a legalistic edifice.
As Locke was right to have observed, religious freedom in the New World would lead to the vibrance of Christianity; and faith in its Truth has led America to become the home one of the most religious peoples in the world — and yet also one of the most tolerant and civilized.
Could it be that the nation’s separation of Church and State, as a matter of governmental practice, has fostered an attraction for other religious peoples around the world, who themselves feel oppressed in their native lands? Is it not Just that the Church is an institution of society, based on Reason and Faith, rather than an institution of the polity, based on Force?