Getting Out of Our Grooves — Part 3: Where Does Religious Liberty Come From?

The canonical view of American religious liberty was set out in Justice Hugo Black’s opinion in the Everson case (1947):  A “large proportion” of the “early settlers of this country . . . came from Europe to escape the bondage of laws which compelled them to support and attend government favored churches.”  Religious persecution “shocked the freedom-loving colonials into a feeling of abhorrence,” a feeling, he noted “which found expression in the First Amendment.”  Ultimately, the leadership for our national commitment to religious liberty came from Virginia, since Jefferson’s Bill for Establishing Religion Freedom and the First Amendment “had the same objective and were intended to provide the same protection . . . .”

This classic statement of the Jeffersonian origins of the religion clauses basically says that “ideas have consequences.”  And it’s hard to disagree with that principle in the abstract.  But it is also worth looking at some more pragmatic concerns that led Revolutionary America to embrace a greater level of religious freedom.  As discussed in my earlier blog, religious liberty, in addition to being a good idea, can be a useful strategy for governments seeking to expand or consolidate their power.

Scholars have suggested, for example, that the War itself may have had a beneficial trickle down effect on religious liberty.  Most recently, John Ragosta’s Wellspring of Liberty (2010) shows how Virginia’s dissenters, particularly the Baptists and Presbyterians, negotiated for greater religious liberty from the Anglican-dominated state in return for their support of the war effort.

Meanwhile, Charles Hanson’s Necessary Virtue: The Pragmatic Origins of Religious Liberty in New England (1998) shows how events in Massachusetts, where anti-Catholicism had been ingrained for a very long time, led to a “wartime accommodation” of Catholic France.  Hanson’s story touches in part on the oldest endowed university lecture in America, Harvard’s Dudleian Lecture.  Donor Dudley’s carefully drawn will required that, at least once every four years, the distinguished lecturer would be required to address the following topic:  “The detecting and convicting and exposing the idolatry of the Romish Church, their tyranny, usurpations, damnable heresies, fatal errors, abominable superstitions, and other crying wickedness in their high places.”

And so, while New Englanders had blasted the 1774 Quebec Act guarantying Canadian Catholics the “free exercise of religion,” the colonists’ formal alliance with Catholic France in 1788 led to wartime “accommodations,” including far milder Dudleian Lectures during the war years.  Old prejudices tend to die hard, however, and Harvard didn’t look seriously at changing the anti-Catholic focus of the lectures until the end of the 19th century, a move that we may choose to applaud for its liberalness or to criticize for its violation of the principle of upholding donor intent in charitable giving.

Don Drakeman

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3 responses to “Getting Out of Our Grooves — Part 3: Where Does Religious Liberty Come From?

  1. Don: Very good thoughts on the subject. One thing that I have been thinking about is that the origins of American religious freedom (in a legal or intellectual sense) may not be the same as what really moved popular culture to reject establishments and move toward a much more liberal view of religious freedom at the end of the eighteenth century and beginning of the nineteenth. I take this topic up in a new book (coming out in March) which credits the Jeffersonian vision as what really “caught fire.” In any case, keep up the good work. John Ragosta

  2. John, thanks for your comment. Since the Baptists were one of the fastest growing parts of popular culture, and since they had a tendency to refer to “the infidel Jefferson,” I will be interested in seeing how you end up giving credit to the Jeffersoninan vision. Don

  3. The Baptists create a gap in the argument (which I am sure you will see), although I think the conclusion is sound (based on other evidence). I’ll be interested in your thoughts (although, as you are well aware, there is a long gap between finishing a piece and seeing it in print).

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