The Founders’ Vision of Religious Liberty


It seems politically incorrect today, but the truth is there truly were “Founding Fathers” of the American republic in the latter part of the eighteenth century. The most prominent of these Founders (and Framers as those who would write the second constitution in 1787 were called) are familiar names: Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton. 

Not quite so well known, but part of this company were John Jay, Charles Carroll of Carrollton (the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence), George Mason, Luther Martin [!] (a participant at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 who opposed its ratification particularly because it recognized a legal slave trade for at least another twenty years), James Wilson, and Benjamin Rush, among many others. 

The best known earned their historical reputations by their contributions and their willingness to engage various issues at a high level, despite deep differences in their personal views. What, then, of religion, religious toleration, and religious liberty?

It is important that there is no religious test, whether for citizenship or office, in either the Articles of Confederation (1781-1788) or the Constitution (ratified in 1788).  Further, the First Amendment (1791) prohibits Congress from making any laws “respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”  The states were not so restricted. 

Beginning in 1776, and continuing with various revisions into the nineteenth century,  state constitutions in a number of instances created Protestant church establishments and/or political disabilities for non-Protestants, especially Catholics.  There was toleration, but not yet complete religious freedom. 

These disabilities were noticed. In a 1789 letter congratulating the newly elected president from several Catholic figures, including Fr. John Carroll (who would soon become the first U.S. Catholic bishop), Washington was reminded of Catholic involvement in the recent Revolutionary War. This surely offered “a well founded title to claim from her [the United States] justice [and] equal rights of citizenship.”  The writers would continue to “pray for the preservation of. . .[equal rights], where they have been granted; and expect the full extension of them from the justice of those States, which still restrict them.” 

Washington’s reply implied his recognition of state sovereignty and the immediate prospect of toleration rather than complete religious liberty for all:  “As mankind become more liberal, they will be more apt to allow, that all those who conduct themselves as worthy members of the community are equally entitled to the protection of civil government.”

Washington’s liberality regarding America’s future religious liberty was shared by many of the Founders, but not without some unease regarding Catholics. The new republic, as its state constitutions often indicated, was on the local level a Protestant community, perhaps a self-conscious “Christian nation.” 

A number of the Founders, while inclined towards Deism or outright Deists, were not necessarily convinced by Protestant theology, but they were more comfortable with various trends at work among Protestant groups toward a more rational religion, such as Unitarianism, which emphasized right action rather than – often contested right – doctrine.

       Bishop John Carroll by Gilbert Stuart, c. 1806

Benjamin Franklin understood the proper role of religion to be emphasizing the Second Great Commandment: “that the most acceptable Service of God was the doing Good to man.”  Too often, involvement with the First Great Commandment raised thorny issues, and even religious wars, regarding orthodox belief. 

As to revelation, Franklin argued that actions were not good or bad according to Divine command, but actually were good or bad, “in their own Natures, all the Circumstances & Situations considered.”  In short, reason applied to “the Nature of Man alone” was quite enough to arrive at governing human truths. 

In that view, the Catholic Church, with its Creed, along with an insistence on institutional mediation between God and man, introduced the “priestcraft” and clerical abuse associated with the European ancien régime, an establishment thus anti-liberal, anti-freedom, anti-republican, and, well, anti-social! 

Not all Americans agreed with Franklin, or course, but a habit of anti-Catholicism in the Anglo-American background inclined towards reasonable toleration rather than complete liberty for Catholicism, which might challenge the new regime or even seek to evangelize it.

Franklin or the decidedly anti-Catholic John Adams did not speak for all Americans or all of the Founders, but their vision of religious liberty in the new nation was not quite an absolute commitment to a completely free exercise of religion beyond safeguards against a federal assault on such freedom. 

Still, by 1833, all states had eliminated the establishment of religion. And the nation’s history would continue to be marked by an uneasy relationship with Catholicism, which occasionally even led to violence. 

It was not easy to overcome this gap. In 1960, John F. Kennedy offended even some Protestant observers with his elevation of Jefferson’s “wall” to breathtaking heights with an absolute personal separation of church and state.  Kennedy’s own moral compass appeared to be so thoroughly secular that he seemed to suggest that religion had no legitimate place in the public square. 

It was a successful political move, but the Founders would probably have been puzzled at this “naked public square” from which certain personal beliefs, especially religiously grounded beliefs, would apparently be banished. 

Religious liberty, a protected Constitutional right at federal and state levels, is under renewed attack.  With an absolutist secularism, we have once again begun to trend back toward a religious toleration that is intended to silence any suspicious sectarian voices. 

Religion, personal and private, is to remain. . .personal and private.

But we would do better with our Founders’ vision of religious liberty, a renewed commitment to ordered liberty and civil conversation that includes religious “values” and even – dare one say – religious truths? 


Thomas W. Jodziewicz is a professor of history at the University of Dallas. He was president of the Texas Catholic History Society (2004-2008, 2012-2014).