Religion and the Founding of the American Republic

By James H. Hutson | Go to book overview

FIVE
RELIGION AND THE STATE GOVERNMENTS

That holiness was necessary for secular happiness was not an idea that grew, like some exotic plant, only in the environs of Congress. It was the common conviction of the American people when independence forced them, in 1776, to establish governments in each of the former colonies. The relationship of church to state became an issue in many of the new governments, for if "pure, undefiled religion" was in the public interest, as Congress constantly assured the American people that it was, it seemed to follow that the new state governments must take responsibility for the condition of religion in their jurisdictions, must support religion financially, if necessary, so that it could be the rock on which the public welfare rested. As the debate about the relationship between religion and civil society developed in the state legislatures and constitutional conventions, it focused not so much on the large question of a whole people's obedience to a national covenant with God--this was Congress's concern--as on the more specific issues of religion's ability to produce the special kinds of citizens needed to make republican government work and its role in building in the population that basic degree of social responsibility necessary for a civilized existence.

To many people, a church-state partnership was the only way to produce a virtuous society, yet this goal seemed to collide with another equally powerful revolutionary goal--the free exercise of religion (as the First Amendment later phrased it). The first objective required state action in, the second seemed to dictate state retraction from, the religious sphere. The solution to the dilemma of how the state could use religion without abusing it, of how it could support religion without subverting religious liberty, was sought with differing results in Virginia, Massachusetts, and elsewhere. The issue created an intense debate about the possibility of a constructive engagement of government and religion which is often neglected in popular histories of the period. These leave the impression that the Declaration of Independence loosed a

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