57 RI Bar J., No. 4, Pg 39. History of American Religious Freedom.

AuthorEdward J. Eberle

Rhode Island Bar Journal

Volume 57.

57 RI Bar J., No. 4, Pg 39.

History of American Religious Freedom

Rhode Island Bar Journal57 RI Bar J., No. 4, Pg .39January/February 2009 History of American Religious FreedomEdward J. EberleProfessor of Law, Roger Williams University School of Law.

We are accustomed to thinking that the history of American religious freedoms is based on the principle of separation of church and state. Certainly separationism has been an influential force in the crafting and interpretation of First Amendment religious protections. However, a closer look at the period of the framing of the Constitution reveals a plurality of differing views that consist, at least, of a contest between separationism and accomodationism.

The crucial developments in Virginia led first by Thomas Jefferson, and then, during the Assessment controversy of 1784-86, by James Madison, Patrick Henry and George Mason, were perhaps the decisive influence in framing First Amendment religious protections. For Thomas Jefferson and James Madison Enlightenment ideals drove their version of civic republicanism. They advocated separation of church and state as the proper institutional relationship. For

Jefferson, deeply influenced by French thought, separation was mainly a strategy to protect the fragility of the experiment in civic republicanism, perhaps an argument for secularism.(fn1) For Madison, separation was designed to protect politics and religion; Madison believed both in the value of the civic republican experiment and the purity and preciousness of religion. Jefferson and Madison are probably the main architects of the First Amendment religious guarantees.(fn2)

Religious evangelicals (most prominently Baptists) aligned themselves with Enlightenment separatists to support separation of church and state. These evangelicals echoed the essential teaching of Roger Williams, America's original religious thinker, that separation of church and state served the interests of each best by protecting the purity and integrity of each against the inevitable tensions arising from one infringing into the domain of the other.

But separationism was not the only early American philosophy to demarcate church-state relations. The Puritan tradition advocated separation of church and state in institutional matters so that the internal governance of...

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