Religious liberty part of America’s revolution

Sunday, July 2, 2000

What are the fireworks all about? Or, to put it another way, what's the real meaning of the American Revolution?

John Adams, a member of the “committee of five” appointed to draft the Declaration of Independence, argued that the Revolution was much more than a war against England.

“The Revolution was effected before the war commenced,” he explained. “The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people; a change in religious sentiments of their duties and obligations.”

What change in “religious sentiments” emboldened the colonists to separate from the “mother country” — and the mother church?

By July 4, 1776, religious upheavals in the colonies — including the remarkable revivals of the Great Awakening — had transformed the meaning of worship and faith for thousands of Americans.

As a result, Baptists, Methodists and other “dissenting” churches clamored for full religious liberty. And that meant freedom from the oppression of the Anglican Church or any other religious coercion through the power of the state.

They saw disestablishment — separating church from state — as the cornerstone of new political order they envisioned for the new nation.

Today, more than 200 years after the Revolution, Americans of all faiths continue to cherish and enjoy religious liberty as an inalienable and precious right.

A new First Amendment Center survey on the State of the First Amendment reports that 63% of respondents think that we have the right amount of religious freedom, 29% want more, and only 5% believe that we have “too much” religious freedom.

At the same time, however, the survey suggests that a majority of Americans don't see a link between their “free exercise” of religion and the First Amendment principle of “no establishment” of religion by government.

  • Sixty-three percent agreed that teachers should be allowed to lead prayers in school.
  • Sixty-two percent would allow school officials to put the Ten Commandments on classroom walls.
  • Eighty-one percent would allow a majority of the high school graduating class to determine whether or not to have prayer at graduation.

Clearly, most respondents don't view these school-sponsored religious practices as government “establishment” of religion or as threat to their religious freedom.

That may be because the majority assumes that the prayers prayed would be consistent with their faith and the scriptures posted would be from their Bible.

Often it's only when people find themselves in the minority that they suddenly remember that full religious liberty means protecting each and every citizen from the “tyranny of the majority.”

Let's remember our history. When the Baptists and other dissenting groups were in the minority in colonial Virginia, they were forced to support the established church. Their ministers were often fined and even imprisoned for the simple act of preaching the Gospel.

The Revolution gave birth to a radically new arrangement in religious freedom. No longer would the government be allowed to coerce people in matters of faith. Citizens would be able to practice their faith openly and freely without governmental interference.

That's why the Supreme Court continues to strike down state-sponsored religious practices in public schools. Those decisions are rooted in the conviction that government-sponsored religion — even the most seemingly benign expressions — undermines that freedom and threatens authentic expression of religious faith.

What's the real meaning of the American Revolution? For people of faith the legacy of the Revolution may be seen in the vitality of religion in American life.

Thanks to the First Amendment — the principle of “no establishment” as well as “free exercise” — we are the heirs to the boldest and most successful experiment in religious freedom the world has ever known.