The pursuit of an irreligious government

Chris Banner

By A Contributor

The close relationship between the Christian religion and the government goes back to 314 when Roman Emperor Constantine made it the Empire’s official church.  Over the centuries since, Christianity and government have often been inseparable, mutually dependent and mutually reinforcing. 

That is just the way it was, and is, supposed to be. Or is it? Is it possible to have a government without an established religion?

“First Freedom: The Fight for Religious Liberty” quickly traces the relationship between church and state in Europe over the years since Constantine up to the time of the colonization of North America. It tells of the repressive and often bloody conflicts between the various churches and rulers.

It discusses American church-state thinking in early colonial times, including the Pilgrims, who established a secular society at Plymouth, Mass., in 1620; the Puritans, who came a decade later and established a very sectarian and oppressive society; Dutch New Amsterdam which was very religiously diverse by the time it became British New York; Catholic Maryland; Quaker founded but religiously diverse Pennsylvania; Anglican Virginia; and so on.

It tells of the growth of various other groups and of independent preachers, particularly during the Great Awakening in the mid 1700s. By the time of the Revolution, religion in the Colonies was split into numerous sects that sometimes agreed, more or less, but often disagreed.

In 1787, the U.S. adopted the Constitution, which said in Article 6, “No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”  That settled the question, sort of - no Federal government official had to adhere to any given religion.

The people and the members of Congress were not completely satisfied because they knew that it was impossible to have an established church of any kind without having trouble with everyone else.

In 1791, the U.S. adopted ten Amendments to the Constitution, the first of which read, in part, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” While it meant that the Federal government could not establish a religion, this Amendment did not apply to the states, some of which had, and continued to have, tax supported churches. Massachusetts was the last to give it up in 1833.

The title page of “First Freedom” says that it is a companion book to the PBS documentary of the same name but nowhere does the book say when the program appeared or how a reader might see it.

This short coffee table book has approximately equal areas of text and illustrations, which include scenes from the documentary, historical portraits of various religious and political leaders, paintings of relevant scenes, photos of covers of broadsides and inserts of commentaries by today’s thinkers and writers on ideas presented in the text. It has photographic copies of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and other documents. It has sparse endnotes, a brief bibliography and no index. Clearly, it is intended for the popular reader.

Several times the text refers to the section of the First Amendment, quoted above, and says or implies that the reason that our republic has survived to this day is our guaranteed religious freedom. While “First Freedom” is all about, and makes a good case for, religious freedom, which is a perfectly reasonable and respectable thing for the authors to do, the great emphasis that the book gives to this excerpt may give to the reader the false impression that religious freedom is the whole story.

Actually, the First Amendment reads, in whole, “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.” 

Without each of the freedoms promised in this Amendment, as well as those rights and freedoms guaranteed in the rest of the Constitution, and very importantly, the vigilance of the citizens, our new republic could have become a theocracy, an absolute monarchy or a dictatorship in a short time. 

Enjoy the book with all of its pictures but remember that there is much more to the success of this country is much more than freedom of religion.

Christopher Banner is emeritus senior specialist in music from K-State and a Manhattan resident.

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