During the second decade of the nineteenth century, writer Washington Irving developed an acute sense that his native land was no longer the same place it had been just a generation earlier. Irving had conservative and nostalgic sensibilities, and he sought to express some of his amazement at the transformation that had taken place in America by writing his story "Rip Van Winkle." Irving had his character Rip awaken from a sleep that had begun before the Revolution and had lasted twenty years. When Rip entered the village, he immediately felt lost. The buildings, the faces, the names were all strange and incomprehensible. "The very character of the people seemed changed. There was a busy, bustling disputatious tone about it, instead of the accustomed phlegm and drowsy tranquility."Yes, the convoluted world of early America was a swirling, evolving clash of ideas and beliefs that made the future seem different and uncertain. And among these changes to America's landscape, religion was a front and center issue for a people whose faith and devotion were changing as much as the rest of society.
"Rip Van Winkle" became the most popular if Irving's many stories, for early nineteenth-century Americans could appreciate Rip's bewilderment. Although superficially the political leadership seemed much the same...beneath the surface Rip, like most Americans, knew that "every thing's changed." In a few short decades Americans had experienced a remarkable transformation in their society and culture, and, like Rip and his creator, many wondered what happened and who they really were.
One of the central components to this evolution of American religion has been the role of state constitutions in the establishment and execution of religious devotion. For many who argue in favor of America's Christian heritage, these state charters serve as a barometer of sorts, which, in their opinion, lean clearly in favor of the "Christian Nation" thesis. On the flip side of that coin, others see these state constitutions as an irrelevant blip on the radar, a mere side show to more important issues concerning the nation's true heritage.
And while I agree that these state constitutions provide substantial evidence that religion has played a dramatic role on the grand stage of American history, I think we would be mistaken to conclude that these various state charters serve as conclusive proof that America is a "Christian Nation." These constitutions do not close the door on this ongoing debate but in fact complicate the issue. Yes, they do help to color in many of the details, affording us a clearer picture of America's true heritage but they are no Rosetta Stone. With that said, if we keep Rip Van Winkle in mind, we can see that these state charters clearly demonstrate the fact that American religion was (and still is) an evolving specie; that America's PLANTING and its FOUNDING are both exclusive and joined at the hip. So let us travel back in time a ways and see what Mr. Van Winkle may have seen. How would different American generations, which all existed within relatively the same time and place, differ on the role that religion should play in the "New World?"
Our guide on this journey will be the Massachusetts State Constitution. From its creation in 1780 and extending all the way into the third decade of the 19th century, the Massachusetts State Constitution became an important experimental rat in the laboratory of religion and government. Initially we would see that many of the first proposals that incorporated both religion and government were based on earlier Puritan roots. After all, codifying religion as a part of government was nothing new. Before and after the Protestant Reformation, religion had been a component of government that would seem only natural and necessary to the earliest (and even later generations) of American settlers. As historian Patricia Bonomi points out in her book, Under the Cope of Heaven:
According to traditional history, colonial leaders were above all with creating stable New World communities, and it was an axiom of early seventeenth-century political thought that a strong church was the handmaiden and bulwark of a stable state. The church's guardianship of morality and public behavior made it an ally of orderly government, an interdependence that statesmen acknowledged by granting official status to one church only. Every colony founded in the western hemisphere before the mid-seventeenth century, except Maryland, reproduced the Old World model of a single, established church...the privileged position of these churches was protected by laws restricting the religious and political rights of dissenters from the official establishment. Only through such an arrangement, so the leaders believed, might the colonists ward off the evils of religious strife and achieve the civic harmony essential to the survival of those imperial outposts situated so precariously on the rim of the civilized world.In consequence, it would seem appropriate for the founders of state constitutions to include religion as a component of good government. Or as those Right Guard commercials from the 90s would put it, "Anything less would be uncivilized."
So, in the wake of the newly declared independence from the home world, Massachusetts was forced to create a new government. In early 1777, delegates from the various counties gathered to draft the state constitution of Massachusetts. And in the process, religion became an issue of paramount importance. The question that plagued everyone was how should religion be represented. Should taxpayers be required to pay for the support of religion or should such a practice be done away with?
Well, to make a long story short, this first attempt to establish a state constitution failed miserably. Most counties outright rejected the new constitution because of disagreements over religious issues and the lack of a bill of rights. With that said, it is important that we recognize the fact that nobody was wanting to toss religion aside completely. When secularist historians of this era suggest that the earliest Americans tried to set up a secular government they do so by misrepresenting the fact that these debates came down to HOW should religion be represented, not WHY should religion be represented. Nobody in their right mind was willing to do without religion entirely. Instead, the question was how should religion be made manifest in a new government.
As mentioned before, religion had always been a component of government in the "Old World." The traditional understanding of the unity between church and state was often linked with the biblical admonition found in Isaiah 49, which states that "kings shall be thy nursing fathers, and their queens thy nursing mothers." In other words, the government (and the people it was supposed to represent) had the duty to be the "nursing father" of the church. The Library of Congress' website explains this relationship appropriately with the following commentary:
Congregationalists and Anglicans who, before 1776, had received public financial support, called their state benefactors "nursing fathers" (Isaiah 49:23). After independence they urged the state governments, as "nursing fathers," to continue succoring them. Knowing that in the egalitarian, post-independence era, the public would no longer permit single denominations to monopolize state support, legislators devised "general assessment schemes." Religious taxes were laid on all citizens, each of whom was given the option of designating his share to the church of his choice. Such laws took effect in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Hampshire and were passed but not implemented in Maryland and Georgia.But not everyone was pleased with the obligatory taxation. Isaac Backus, a Baptist preacher in Massachusetts, equated the obligatory "taxation without representation" of British Parliament to that of the Massachusetts government collecting taxes for a religion that many did not embrace. In addressing the pro-taxation crowd of Mass., Backus wrote:
Suffer us a little to expostulate with our fathers and brethren, who inhabit the land to which our ancestors fled for religious liberty. You have lately been accused with being disorderly and rebellious, by men in power, who profess a great regard for order and the public good; and why don't you believe them and rest easy under their administrations? You tell us you cannot because you are taxed where you are not represented; and is it not really so with us? You do not deny the right of the British to impose taxes within her own realm; only complain that she extends her taxing power beyond her proper limits; and have we not as good right to say you do the same thing? And so that wherein you judge others you condemn yourselves? Can three thousand miles possibly fix such limits to taxing power, as the difference between civil and sacred matters has already done? One is only a distance of space, the other is so great a difference in the nature of things, as there is between sacrifices to God, and the ordinances of men. This we trust has been fully proved.Such was the dilemma that plagued the authors of the Mass. Constitution. The heritage of America's PLANTING, which was deeply rooted in a church/state combination, was, for the first time, coming into question. The coup on government was spilling over to a coup of religious dominion. Again, this isn't to say that people were discarding religion entirely. Instead they were beginning to see that a singular faith was not needing the guarantee of protection that the civil power could afford.
But as we all know, the eventual ratification of the Mass. Constitution of 1780 DID provide for public taxes to fund religion. Despite all of the protests and petitions for change, the "old school" view of church and state won the day. It seemed that the "Nursing fathers" doctrine of America's PLANTING had survived another violent storm...at least for the time being
But not everything was the same. The Constitution of 1780 did have a few important concessions that broke from some of the traditional concepts of the Old World. First, no one single religion was promoted over another. Or as the writers of the document (James Bowdoin, John Adams and Samuel Adams) put it, "Religion was a matter between God and individuals."
But the consensus was that religion WAS a matter. As Article II and III of the 1780 Constitution state:
Art. II. It is the right as well as the duty of all men in society, publicly and at stated seasons, to worship the Supreme Being, the great Creator and Preserver of the universe. And no subject shall be hurt, molested or restrained in his person, liberty, or estate, for worshipping God in the manner and season most agreeable to the dictates of his own conscience, or for his religious profession or sentiments, provided he doth not disturb the public peace or obstruct others in their religious worship.The third article was of particular importance. The delegates informed the people that the “third article of the declaration of rights...provided for the free exercise of the rights of conscience” as they understood that these rights were more valuable to the people than other rights. So in essence, the compromise to allow for a multiplicity of religions was, in fact, an important distinction between America's PLANTING and its FOUNDING.
Art. III. As the happiness of a people and the good order and preservation of civil government essentially depend upon piety, religion, and morality, and as these cannot be generally diffused through a community but by the institution of the public worship of God and of the public instructions in piety, religion, and morality: Therefore, To promote their happiness and to secure the good order and preservation of their government, the people of this commonwealth have a right to invest their legislature with power to authorize and require, and the legislature shall, from time to time, authorize and require, the several towns, parishes, precincts, and other bodies-politic or religious societies to make suitable provision, at their own expense, for the institution of the public worship of God and for the support and maintenance of public Protestant teachers of piety, religion, and morality in all cases where such provision shall not be made voluntarily.
And all moneys paid by the subject to the support of public worship and of public teachers aforesaid shall, if he require it, be uniformly applied to the support of the public teacher or teachers of his own religious sect or denomination, provided there be any on whose instructions he attends; othewise it may be paid toward the support of the teacher or teachers of the parish or precinct in which the said moneys are raised.
And every denomination of Christians, demeaning themselves peaceably and as good subjects of the commonwealth, shall be equally under the protection of the law; and no subordination of any sect or denomination to another shall ever be established by law.
But the FOUNDING wasn't quite finished. Over the course of the next 50 years, Massachusetts would further its devotion to a more complete separation of church and state. In 1831, after a tremendous outpouring of protests from Unitarian, Baptist and other church leaders, the Mass. house voted 272 to 78 to revise article three. Eventually, Article XI was adopted in 1833 to replace Article III, effectively eliminating the requirement of public taxes on religion. In so doing, Massachusetts became the last of the original 13 states to remove the government sanctioning of an established church, overthrowing 200 years of tradition. In essence, America's FOUNDING had taken root.
And though I do not personally see how these state charters support any "Christian Nation" argument, I see the fact that they do confirm a deeply religious heritage. In many ways, charters like the Mass. Constitution serve to bridge the gap between America's PLANTING, which was a deeply Christian experience, and America's FOUNDING, which, in part, brought about the greatest explosion of religious freedom in history. But the bottom line is this: religion was, for the PLANTERS and the FOUNDERS very much in view. It was a constant reality that never disappeared over time. So while the Rip Van Winkle's of American religion may have been shocked to see the dramatic changes that took place (i.e. elimination of tax dollars to support religion, no sanctioning of a specific religious faith, etc.) the spirit of pious devotion and ecclesiastical preservation remained as solid as the day that John Winthrop proudly declared Massachusetts Bay to be a "shining city upon a hill."