Concerns About the Freedom of Religion

Since the colonial period, Americans had demonstrated a profound appreciation for religion. Americans generally advocated religious toleration, but not necessarily religious freedom in the sense of guaranteeing full civil rights to adherents of any religion or none at all. When the Constitution was drafted in 1787, ten of the thirteen states had either established churches and/or religious tests for state officeholders in their constitutions. Only New York, Rhode Island, and Virginia had neither, and even in these states equal rights for Roman Catholics, dissenters, Jews, and other religious minorities were frequently denied by legislative acts or local prejudices. Despite Americans being overwhelmingly Christian and Protestant in heritage, the Constitution never mentioned God and only mentioned religion in Article VI, where it forbade the use of religious tests for national offices.

Because the Constitution said so little about religious freedom, Americans easily projected both their hopes and fears onto it, as the following documents demonstrate. Benjamin Rush saw the prohibition of a religious test as opening the nation’s highest office to “worthy men of every religion.” “A Watchman” feared this would allow “Jews, Turks, and Heathen to enter into publick office, and be seated at the head of the government of the United States.” Optimists believed the clause barring religious tests in Article VI would prevent the oppression of religious dissenters (see Pennsylvania Gazette, 16 July 1788), while pessimists, such as “Philadelphiensis,” argued that nothing in the Constitution would protect conscientious objectors, particularly Quakers, from being compelled to serve in the military despite their religious convictions. “Timothy Meanwell” and “A Watchman” both complained that the Constitution went too far in forbidding religious tests and not far enough in preventing an established church. They wanted provisions forbidding a state church and also a religious test for officeholders that would exclude non-Christians. Some of these concerns were addressed in the First Amendment to the Constitution, but religious freedom has remained a constant source of debate.