True or False? The Founding Fathers designed the First Amendment to the Constitution to protect religion from government interference and from the unfair advantages and inevitable oppression that come from conferring official status on any one religion. Well, it all depends which Founding Father you ask, John Adams or Thomas Jefferson.
In the August issue of Commentary, Richard A. Samuelson reports that Adams believed "the religious impulse was inherent in man"; despite the sordid history of religious wars, religion was the source of genuine piety and faith. Any attempt to uproot it would "wreck something with much potential good in it." Adams looked for the good in all religions and welcomed all to the public square. He expected disestablishment to bear good fruit in both piety and public policy.
Thomas Jefferson, on the other hand, had quite different purposes. "Like many other Enlightenment thinkers," writes Samuelson, "Jefferson saw the sum total of man's religious past as one long line of crusades and persecutions piling abuse upon abuse and spewing rivers of blood." Jefferson had great hopes that once traditional religion was disestablished, and thus deprived of its political influence, the good religion of Reason would drive out the bad religion of revelation and tradition.
These Founding Fathers agreed on disestablishment, toleration, and on free exercise, but their vastly different goals are still with us over two centuries later. We now find the Supreme Court displaying a Jeffersonian disdain for the religion of ordinary Americans and defining religious liberty so narrowly that it puts the burden of proof not on the state, which proposes to interfere with religious ...1
Already a CT subscriber? Log in for full digital access.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 63+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more