Perhaps no subject is more commonly misunderstood, by both political conservatives and liberals, than the separation of church and state and the even broader issue of religious liberty in American life, both public and private. We often fail to get the church-state, religious freedom and religion and politics equation right. One reason for this failure is that the vast majority of people have not thought about this equation seriously at all. They not only fail to understand America’s religious history but they do not understand the principle of church-state clearly.

Some History

Religion in America has expressed itself in manifold ways, making America the most religious nation in the world and the freest. Much of our religious expression, and most of its rich variety, came initially from Europe. More recently it has come from the Middle and Far East as new waves of immigrants have come into the nation. What is often forgotten is that the European discoverers of America found religion already in place when they arrived here, only adding further to the rich patterns of our religious heterogeneity.

We were reminded in the last decade of the Native American Church, largely assimilated into various strands of Christianity, when they contested a legally ruling in the courts for the right to ritually use peyote in their worship. In the 20th century American Indians routinely petitioned the courts to maintain (or even regain) their sacred spaces and to keep them free of government’s interference.

The First Amendment

The First Amendment to the U. S. Constitution guarantees religious freedom to all American citizens. But until 1924 Indians were not guaranteed religious rights since they were not citizens, a little known fact in the modern debates. In 1978 Congress passed the Indian Religious Freedom Act, which settled some, though not all, of the cases arguing for the freedom of religious expression.

The First Amendment prohibits Congress from establishing an official religion and provides for the freedom of assembly, speech, the press and the right of petition. This amendment, like all ten in the Bill of Rights, was intended to restrain the influence of government power over American citizens. In this case the First Amendment protects all religious expression so that we, as citizens, can worship as we please and not be bound by government interference in our faith and practice.

In the 17th and 18th centuries the American colonies received the prevailing denominations of Protestant faith found in Britain and continental Europe. In Virginia and South Carolina there was, initially, an official establishment of Anglicanism as the official expression of faith. In much of New England the unofficial religious faith was Congregationalism and it received considerable favor from the various state and local governments.

Historian Edwin S. Gaustad says, “Denominations scrambled for bits and pieces of sacred space.” Baptists found liberty in the tiny colony of Rhode Island but were often persecuted elsewhere, which led to them becoming America’s real champions for the separation of church and state. Quakers were fined and jailed and sought sanctuary in Pennsylvania. Roman Catholics were truly a people without a home, making Maryland their place of residence for many years. (It was until near the middle of the 19th century that Catholics had the vote in Massachusetts, a fact that I find always astounds people who do not know this history.)

The immigration movements of the 19th century brought great change to America. This was particularly true with regard to the new sects and denominations that began to proliferate across the land. The 19th century was a time of religious innovation like no previous time in Western history. Mind science became popular and the result was a wave of new religious groups, including Christian Science. Revivalism brought about the Adventists and the Mormons, among others. There was even a huge wave of utopian experiments in religion which brought about communities like Oneida, Amana, New Harmony and the Shakers.

The Growth of Non-European Immigration

The 19th century saw a trickle of religions come to our shores that became a flood by the 20th century. Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, Shikhs, Taoists and others came to American’s shores in increasing numbers and now, in the early 21st century, we are truly a nation defined by a rather profound religious mosaic. Honestly, there is no nation on the earth like America in this regard.

We are no longer defined, simplistically, by “Protestant, Catholic and Jew.” In fact, Protestant recently became the second largest religious identifier in America, being surpassed by Roman Catholic for the first time in our history.

Pluralism and the Modern Age

The result of this historical development is religious pluralism. This pluralism comes not only from the vast numbers of denominations we have in America but also from very profound theological changes and the rise of a strong expression of secularism. While fundamentalists and liberals fought one another in the first quarter of the 20th century within their various denominations the impact on the larger culture was minimal. The press reported these church struggles but as Gaustad writes, “the social order for the most part sailed on smoothly.”

But by the 1970s this began to change. A combination of the radical secularism of the 1950s and 60s and the rise of a new kind of “politicized” fundamentalism brought about huge debates over how to define and protect America. Fundamentalism, which had previously remained outside the cultural battles, now engaged them aggressively. Coalitions were formed and candidates were endorsed and openly supported by churches and church organizations.

More liberal theologians and churches sensed they were losing ground during this era and began to fight back. Not only were their numbers in the church declining but their direct influence in society was being lost as well. The influence of Reinhold Niebuhr, and similar voices during and after the Second World War, were coming to an end. Soon the religious voices that were being widely heard were Falwell, Robertson, Dobson and Kennedy. This era is now slowly fading away too.


By the second half of the last century secularism made important strides in American culture. Although Americans are still the most religious people on the planet, at least in comparison with any other Western society, large segments of our society, especially among elite thinkers and teachers, have moved out from the “sacred canopy” of the churches and traditional denominational expressions. Religion, at least as we’ve known it for three hundred years, no longer dominates the culture in the same way. This fact seems missed by many on the right who keep insisting that they can restore “Christian America,” an effort that is, in my view, a complete waste of time and money.


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