It is probably the shortest of the original ten amendments that were ratified as the Bill of Rights. Although its wording is fairly plain and simple, its meanings have been debated in the nation’s courthouses, school rooms, college classrooms, political debates, congressional hearings and churches nationwide since its adoption in 1791. It is amazing that yet again, just a decade into the 21st century, we are nationally struggling to define what was meant by those 18th century authors who wrote Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
As an American historian and someone genuinely fascinated with the political and social thoughts of the Enlightenment, I have always believed that the best answer to understanding the language of the First Amendment has been to understand the mindsets of the men that helped to write it. It must be noted that if one reads the Federalist Papers, a collection of writings by Publius (John Jay, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton), it was clear why they objected to the concept of the amendments that would become the Bill of Rights. In their minds, the natural rights of man, according to Enlightenment thoughts of John Locke, John Hobbs, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and to some extent, Montesquieu, believed they were a part of the natural law handed down by the Creator. These liberties, it was believed, should not have been defined by the Constitution because once rights become defined, they can then be further restricted to the strictest interpretation of that definition.
With that in mind, it was understood that many of the states would not ratify the newly written Constitution unless it did contain some guarantees of rights, privileges, and protections against the tyranny that, as former subjects to the British crown, the colonists had experienced. The authors of these amendments tried to construct a framework that would place the burdens upon the national government and not on the individual citizen or by law abiding groups of citizens. It was determined that the Bill of Rights would be considered as a binding covenant on the citizenry, the states, and the national government; following this model, each of the amendments deals with a specific function of government or those relationships between the national government, the people, and the states.
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof
From the context of the time that this was written, it seems pretty common sense. Since about the sixteenth century, and with the formation of the nation-states, Europe found itself embroiled in a series of wars with each other, and in many cases, with themselves as more began to reject the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church and formed new denominations. The result at the time of the American Revolution is that within the nations of Europe, duty to the state, worship of God, salvation and grace, and even the sacraments of the church became tied to one’s duty to the state. The state had replaced God as the purveyor of grace and eternal salvation; not only had this happened in Europe, but it had now begun to surface within the United States as Maryland, South Carolina, Virginia, and Delaware began to consider legislation to make the Anglican Church the state religion of those states. Under the Articles of Confederation, Even as late as 1801, rumors circulated around the nation of several states petitioning the Congress to create a national church, as existed in the nations of Europe.
A group of men, known as the Danbury Baptists, sent a letter to President Thomas Jefferson on October 7, 1801, asking him to intervene or to use the powers of his office as President of the United States to protect the concept of religious liberty. Specifically, they asked Jefferson:
Our sentiments are uniformly on the side of religious liberty–that religion is at all times and places a matter between God and individuals–that no man ought to suffer in name, person, or effects on account of his religious opinions–that the legitimate power of civil government extends no further than to punish the man who works ill to his neighbors; But, sir, our constitution of government is not specific. Our ancient charter together with the law made coincident therewith, were adopted as the basis of our government, at the time of our revolution; and such had been our laws and usages, and such still are; that religion is considered as the first object of legislation; and therefore what religious privileges we enjoy (as a minor part of the state) we enjoy as favors granted, and not as inalienable rights; and these favors we receive at the expense of such degrading acknowledgements as are inconsistent with the rights of freemen. It is not to be wondered at therefore; if those who seek after power and gain under the pretense of government and religion should reproach their fellow men–should reproach their order magistrate, as a enemy of religion, law, and good order, because he will not, dare not, assume the prerogatives of Jehovah and make laws to govern the kingdom of Christ.(1)
While Jefferson’s response is well known, many Americans have never read the entire letter that inspired Jefferson to theorize about the “separation of church and state.” At the heart of the letter sent to him by the Danbury Baptists are several crucial fears that were addressed in the first part of the First Amendment – the concept of religious liberty. As part of Enlightenment thought, it had become widely accepted that true religious liberty was when the individual was able to worship God according to the dictates of their own heart. While the early national government did recognize the existence of God as a Supreme Being, it purposely did not define that God to be it accordance to the Christian definition, the Jewish definition, or even as an American Indian deity. The Danbury Baptists acknowledge that government does have the right to legislate human behavior between individuals but that government did not have the right to legislate religious “privilege” because to do so would be an intrusion into the Kingdom of Christ – the Christian religion itself.