No Establishment of Religion: America's Original Contribution to Religious Liberty

No Establishment of Religion: America's Original Contribution to Religious Liberty

No Establishment of Religion: America's Original Contribution to Religious Liberty

No Establishment of Religion: America's Original Contribution to Religious Liberty


The First Amendment guarantee that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion" rejected the millennium-old Western policy of supporting one form of Christianity in each nation and subjugating all other faiths. The exact meaning and application of this American innovation, however, has always proved elusive. Individual states found it difficult to remove traditional laws that controlled religious doctrine, liturgy, and church life, and that discriminated against unpopular religions. They found it even harder to decide more subtle legal questions that continue to divide Americans today: Did the constitution prohibit governmental support for religion altogether, or just preferential support for some religions over others? Did it require that government remove Sabbath, blasphemy, and oath-taking laws, or could they now be justified on other grounds? Did it mean the removal of religious texts, symbols, and ceremonies from public documents and government lands, or could a democratic government represent these in ever more inclusive ways? These twelve essays stake out strong and sometimes competing positions on what "no establishment of religion" meant to the American founders and to subsequent generations of Americans, and what it might mean today.


John Witte, Jr.

Thomas Jefferson once described America’s new constitutional guarantees of disestablishment and free exercise of religion as a “fair” and “novel experiment” in religious freedom. These guarantees, set out in the new state and federal constitutions of 1776–1791, defied the millennium-old assumptions inherited from Western Europe—that one form of Christianity must be established in a community, and that the state must protect and support it against all other forms of faith. America would no longer suffer such governmental prescriptions and proscriptions of religion, Jefferson declared. All forms of Christianity had to stand on their own feet and on an equal footing with all other religions. Their survival and growth had to turn on the cogency of their word, not the coercion of the sword—on the faith of their members, not the force of the law.

America’s new experiment in granting religious freedom to all and religious establishments to none was designed to end what James Madison called the Western “career of intolerance.” “In most of the Gov[ernment]s of the old world,” Madison declared, “the legal establishment of a particular religion and without or with very little toleration of others, makes a pa[c]t of the political & civil organization.” “[I]t was taken for granted that an exclusive & intolerant establishment was essential,” and “that Religion could not be preserved without the support of Government, nor Government be supported with[ou]t an established Religion.” the main European powers that had colonized the Americas all had religious establishments—with Anglican establishments in England; Lutheran establishments in Germany and Scandinavia; Calvinist establishments in Scotland, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Germany; and Catholic establishments in France, Spain, Portugal, and Italy.

Many founders laid the blame for the initial creation of these Western laws of religious establishment squarely on the first Christian Roman Emperor . . .

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