The Separation of Church & State Defended: Selected Writings of James E. Wood, Jr.

By Derek H. Davis; James E. Wood Jr. | Go to book overview

New Religions and the First Amendment

A n extraordinary diversity of religious phenomena and religious denominations has been one of the most distinctive features of American life since early colonial times. The constitutional provisions denying the state the right to pass any law either contributing to an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise of religion have played a significant role in America's religious diversity and the unparalleled multiplicity of America's religious denominations. Although religious diversity was not desired by the American colonists, and this religious diversity was by no means always marked by toleration, the absence of religious uniformity characterized colonial America from the beginning.

It is this diversity or "multiplicity," as James Madison expressed it, that is the best guarantee against a tyranny of a majority, whether that majority be characterized as secular or religious. For this reason, Madison wrote in The Federalist, the new country should secure civil and religious rights since both belong to the coin of freedom, guaranteeing "the multiplicity of interests" on the one side and "the multiplicity of sects" on the other. In the absence of any religious establishment and in the presence of religious liberty as a matter of organic law in the formation of the early Republic, religious diversity was assured. This diversity has historically stemmed from two sources: those religious groups which originated in older cultures and emigrated to America, first primarily from the Old World and more recently from the East, and those which originated in America, either as new expression of older religious traditions or as indigenous faiths from out of the American milieu.

While sectarianism is characteristic of all religions, even those that are highly eclectic and inclusive in character, it is in a free

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