For as long as I can recall, there has been a movement defending the notion of America as a Christian nation. Of late, one version of that idea has been expressed by Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association. His belief is that the First Amendment to the Constitution protects the free expression of Christians only. Adherents of non-Christian religions, on the other hand, may be tolerated but do not enjoy Constitutional protections for the free exercise of their faith. Fischer writes:
The leftwing political websites lit up over my column of last week in which I took the position that the First Amendment provides no guarantees to practitioners of the Islamic faith, for the simple reason it wasn’t written to protect the free exercise of Islam. It was written to protect the free exercise of the Christian faith.
Fischer defends this reading of the First Amendment by citing Congressional debate on the language proposed by James Madison in 1789. Several alternative suggestions were made, with some Representatives referring to “denominations,” “sects” and “societies” of religion. According to Fischer, these terms clearly point to intent to protect the various versions of Christianity. Indeed, at the time, most people professed allegiance to one Christian denomination or another.
However, a closer examination of the historical context reveals that the framers of the religious freedom amendment sought a broader respect for freedom of conscience than envisioned by Fischer. Most states had established Christian denominations in the years before the passage of the Constitution but two states did not, Rhode Island and Virginia. Virginia, the home of Madison and Jefferson, is the most relevant to what would become the First Amendment. In 1786, Madison succeeded in shepherding religious freedom protections through the Virginia legislature that in his words, “have in this country extinguished forever the ambitious hope of making laws for the human mind.”
The law that gave Madison his ebullient hope was the Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, which reads in part:
Be it enacted by the General Assembly, That no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.
According the Thomas Jefferson, who had no small hand in the matter, some Virginia legislators wanted to direct the act toward Christianity by inserting Jesus Christ into a section of the Preamble. Jefferson’s account makes clear the extent of the freedom of expression which the Virginia legislature affirmed:
The bill for establishing religious freedom, the principles of which had, to a certain degree, been enacted before, I had drawn in all the latitude of reason and right. It still met with opposition; but, with some mutilations in the preamble, it was finally passed; and a singular proposition proved that its protection of opinion was meant to be universal. Where the preamble declares, that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed, by inserting the word "Jesus Christ," so that it should read, "a departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion;" the insertion was rejected by a great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan [Islam], the Hindoo [Hinduism], and Infidel of every denomination.
Jefferson and Madison sought to get the state out of the business of “making laws for the human mind.” In so doing, according to William Lee Miller, Madison and Jefferson moved Virginia, and later the nation away from a national religion. Writing in his book, The First Liberty, Miller describes the importance of the Virginia law:
If some doctrinally specific multiple establishment had been worked out in law for the nation as a whole, there really would have been what thousands of preachers, some judges of the courts and a great many religious Americans have insisted either does exist or should be made to exist: “A Christian America.”
But that did not happen. Virginia moved away from having one of the most solidly established churches all the way to join little Rhode Island on the side of full religious liberty and the separation of church and state.
Madison followed up his success in Virginia with a proposed amendment to the Constitution in 1789 covering religious expression:
The civil rights of none shall be abridged on account of religious belief or worship, nor shall any national religion be established, nor shall the full and equal rights of conscience be in any manner, or on any pretext, infringed.
Through debate, Madison’s language was modified to the current First Amendment – “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Madison’s work in Virginia and his original proposal make clear that freedom of religious expression is an individual right and not meant for adherents of a particular religion, namely Christianity.
If the First Amendment’s application was as Fischer suggests -- only for Christianity -- then Christianity would have been established as the nation’s religion, a result which is clearly prohibited. Rather, the First Amendment forbids federal laws which interfere with a citizen’s free expression of religion and the Fourteenth Amendment extends the prohibition to the states.
Happily, the actual state of affairs in our Constitution and the teaching of Christianity matches well. Christianity cannot be established by a political state or else it ceases to be Christian. James Madison said it best. In his remarks to the Virginia Assembly opposing funds for Christian teachers, Madison wrote:
Because the establishment proposed by the Bill is not requisite for the support of the Christian Religion. To say that it is, is a contradiction to the Christian Religion itself, for every page of it disavows a dependence on the powers of this world: it is a contradiction to fact; for it is known that this Religion both existed and flourished, not only without the support of human laws, but in spite of every opposition from them, and not only during the period of miraculous aid, but long after it had been left to its own evidence and the ordinary care of Providence.
Christianity has no need of political establishment, special rights as it were. Christians should instead be the fiercest defenders of the rights of conscience and expression for – as Jefferson wrote – “the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and Infidel of every denomination.”