by Jeff Polet, director of the Ford Leadership Forum, Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation
Our reflection essay this week provides a brief overview of the complex nature of religion during the founding era and how it shaped our Constitutional order. We emphasized two elements: that the debates about public order largely took place within the context of religious faith, and the context itself required little attention or justification; and that within this religious context Americans experienced tremendous religious diversity. Virtually every sect or church you could name was represented in one way or another in the thinking of this period.
Within that context we find two common assumptions: the first is that public order can get undone pretty quickly by sectarian strife, and the second that government authority should not favor one religion over another (whether it should treat religion and irreligion differently is an enormous scholarly debate). Even then, thinkers had different reasons for this non-preferential approach, one of which was they feared that too cozy a relationship with governing authorities would tend to corrupt religion.
We have discussed previously the concern that using religion as the sole basis for public order had resulted in the European wars of religion, with the concomitant belief that civil war could be avoided if religious passions could be cooled as they enter the marketplace. Those who argued for such cooling typically operated by asking what was the minimum amount of religion needed to hold things together. We refer to this strategy as “latitudinarian,” drawn from the distinction between things essential to belief and things largely inconsequential. The problem that latitudinarians thought they had identified was that a great deal of public strife was driven by disagreements over disputes that didn’t go to the core of the religious problem. Our divisions were driven by paying too much attention to things that didn’t really matter, that weren’t essential for salvation.
The latitudinarian position was fairly well-represented in America, nowhere more starkly than in the essay we know as “Worcesteriensis,” written in 1776. The author of this piece is unknown to us, but it was addressed to the Massachusetts legislature during the early days of the Revolutionary War. We should not be surprised that the author argues we need to put our differences aside in a time of war with its demands for unity.
The subject of this disquisition … which is humbly offered to your consideration, is the promotion and establishment of religion in the State. In the course of the reasoning, it was suggested that a toleration of all religious principles (in other words, of all professions, modes & forms of worship) which do not sap the foundation of good government, is consistent with equity and the soundest policy. To establish this, as well as the general doctrine is my present design.
We live in [an] age of the world, in which the knowledge of the arts and sciences, calm and dispassionate enquiries and sound reasoning have been carried to surprising lengths, much to the honor of mankind. The rights of men and things, as well in an intellectual as a civil view, have by able writers, friends of human nature, been ascertained with great degrees of precision. Therefore it now becomes us in all our words and action to do nothing ungenerous, nothing unworthy the dignity of our rational nature.
The author here suggests to us that religious difference can be resolved when referred to another, overarching principle, and this principle can be provided by reason, and part of the law of reason is to not treat other people in ways we don’t want to be treated (what we know as “the silver rule,” a negative version of the golden rule). Note, however, that the author in arguing for religious toleration does not take that to be a commitment against religion itself:
In a well regulated state, it will be the business of the Legislature to prevent sectaries of different denominations from molesting and disturbing each other; to ordain that no part of the community shall be permitted to perplex and harrass the other for any supposed heresy, but that each individual shall be allowed to have and enjoy, profess and maintain his own system of religion, provided it does not issue in overt acts of treason against the state undermining the peace and good order of society…
The author draws our attention to a long-standing problem in religious liberty: what to do when the religion of any particular citizen differs from that of duly appointed political authorities. He makes the additional point that coercing persons into performing religious acts not borne of conviction can only lead to hypocrisy. Earlier thinkers had thought hypocrisy not the worst things of which human beings might be guilty, but here the author seems to single it out as especially noxious.
Compulsion, instead of making men religious, generally has a contrary tendency, it works not conviction, but most naturally leads them into hypocrisy. If they are honest enquirers after truth; if their articles of belief differ from the creed of their civil superiors, compulsion will bring them into a sad dilemma. If they are conformists to what they do not believe, great uneasiness of mind must continuously perplex them. If they stand out and persist in nonconformity, they subject themselves to pains and penalties. There is further this ill consequence resulting from the establishment of religious dominion, viz. That an endeavor to suppress nonconformists, will increase, rather than diminish their number: For, however strange it may appear, yet indubitable facts prove that mankind [is] naturally compassionate [toward] those who are subjected to pains and hardships for the sake of their religion, and very frequently join with them and espouse their cause, raise sedition and faction, and endanger the public peace…
In a particularly dramatic passage, the author gives examples on how inconsequential religious differences produces unsavory public consequences:
The fire first began among and between the congregations of different persuasions (calvinistic and arminian) the women and children came to blows and women pulled each others caps and hair as they passed and repassed the streets after (what they called divine) service was over in the several congregations, and the children gave each other bloody noses. This brought on civil dissention and altercation, until at length, rivers of blood in quarrels about things entirely immaterial and useless, relative either to this world or the other were shed; the nearest kindred embrued their hands in each others blood, subjects withdrew their allegiance and tumbled their rulers from their seats…
The author is undoubtedly guilty of overstatement, but he articulates an emerging idea: that religious divisions could lead to public disorder, and so it is best, as far as public life is concerned, to put aside differences about “things immaterial and useless.” Obviously, debates could ensue about what these things might be, but the author of this essay, at least, seems to extend it to all matters of doctrine and worship. In the next paragraph, he indicates the problem could be handled by a minimalist religion. Much of the author’s thinking is informed by the idea that faith is individual and personal while reason is universal and shared by all. Faith, therefore, must be brought before the tribunal of reason before it can enter the public square, but the author can’t imagine a public square devoid of faith. Nor does he believe government has no role to play in its promotion.
It must proceed only from the benign frames of the legislature from an encouragement of the General Principles of religion and morality, recommending free inquiry and examination of the doctrines said to be divine; using all possible and lawful means to enable its subjects to discover the truth, and to entertain good and rational sentiments, and taking mild and parental measures to bring about the design; these are the most probable means to bring about that establishment of religion which is recommended, and a settlement on an immoveable Basis. It is lawful for the directors of a state to give preference to that profession of religion which they take to be true, and they have right to inflict penalties on those who notoriously violate the laws of natural religion, and thereby disturb the public peace. The openly profane come within their penal jurisdiction.
As I have demonstrated, this argument for religious toleration, for scaling back religious controversy, can in no way be taken as an argument against religion, or for government having no interest in the promotion of religion. This idea that government had an interest in both the protection of religious freedom and in religion’s importance for common life was a fairly common one in that period.
And now with regard to the positive interposition of civil magistracy in behalf of religion, I would say, that what has been above suggested with respect to toleration, will not disprove the right of the legislature to exert themselves in favor of one religious profession rather than another, they have a right of private judgment as well as others, and are Bound to do their utmost to propagate that which they esteem to be true. This they are to do by providing able and learned Teachers, to instruct the people in the knowledge of what they deem the truth, maintaining them by the public money, though at the same time they have no right in the least degree to endeavor the depression of professions of any religious denomination.
If the greatest part of the people, coincide with the public authority of the State in giving the preference to any one religious system and creed, the dissenting few, though they cannot conscientiously conform to the prevailing religion, yet ought to acquiesce and rest satisfied that their religious Liberty is not diminished.
So that none can reasonably blame a government for requiring such a general Contribution, and in this case it seems fit it should be yielded to, as the determination of those to whose guardianship the minority have committed themselves and their possessions…
- How does an essay such as this change your views of the role religion played in the ordering of our public life?
- Why would it be the case that an argument such as this would be largely unacceptable now? What has changed?
- What were the challenges Americans faced in their effort both to endorse religion and to maintain the diversity of it?