The Framers’ Debates on Religion

The First Amendment and the Utah Constitution

Lesson I. Historical Background

Step 9. Religion & Government

Welcome & Overview

Transcript

Hi there, it’s Eleesha. This part is about the historical background of religion in revolutionary America. I’m going to summarize and introduce how people in revolutionary America began to question the traditional role government played in religion. Okay, so we just learned how James Madison in Virginia led the way to change the law from toleration to free exercise. Imagine you are living during the end of the Revolutionary War. There are lots of changes and you’re no longer under the control of the king. Will this new experiment in self-government work? It required people to be virtuous. Almost everyone believed the government should use tax money to pay preachers to encourage people to be virtuous. This was the traditional role government played in religion, but after the war, some people began to question it. Join me as we learn more about it.

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Transcript

What role should the government play in religion? Most people in revolutionary America believed the government was responsible for encouraging citizens to be virtuous–or to be good and respectable–and almost everyone in America after the American Revolution believed you learned how to be virtuous in a Christian church. Revolutionary Americans were nervous about the virtue of their fellow countrymen because they created a new and vulnerable government that relied on the people being able to govern themselves. They worried if citizens were not virtuous the whole experiment in government would crumble, just like the Roman Empire fell.

Most people believed the way the government should encourage virtue was to use tax money to pay teachers of religion to preach. Teachers of religion were also known as Christian clergy. This view of the government’s role in religion can be seen in the Massachusetts constitution, which declared the happiness of the people and good order of society depend on “piety, religion and morality and these cannot be diffused through a community but by the institution of the public worship of God.” The Massachusetts constitution then granted its legislature the power to use tax money to pay Protestant teachers if they did not receive enough donations from the community.

Up until the early 1780s, famous Americans, such as George Washington and Patrick Henry, believed the government should encourage virtue by paying Christian clergy with taxes. Other famous Americans, such as James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, advocated for the far-out view that the government should not use tax money for any support of religion. By 1786, Madison led a movement to successfully disestablish the state church in Virginia, ending any tax support for religion in the state. This was far out of the norm for the time. Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Delaware began with no established churches while every other colony set up an established church in some form. Virginia was the first to undo the relationship with an established church.

The American Revolution ushered in tremendous change for religion. People began to question the traditional relationship between government and religion. These are a few of the questions they began to ask: (1) Should the government encourage virtue by requiring and paying for public religious worship? (2) Should citizens be forced to pay taxes to support religious teachers or activities, even if they disagreed? (3) Should an individual be punished for worshipping or not worshipping in a particular way? (4) Should all religions be treated equally, or are some religions entitled to special treatment?

The congressmen in the First Federal Congress wrestled with these questions as they debated a Bill of Rights and considered laws about religion.

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Student Exercise

Imagine you are an American living right after the American Revolution. At this time, Americans began to question the traditional role of government in religion. Below are examples of the kinds of questions Americans began asking. In your opinion, which question is the most important? Why? Write your answer on a piece of paper and bring it to your class discussion.

  1. Should the government play a role in encouraging virtue by requiring and paying for public religious worship?
  2. Should citizens be forced to pay taxes to support religious teachers or activities, even if they disagreed?
  3. Should an individual be punished for worshipping or not worshipping in a particular way?
  4. Should all religions be treated equally, or are some religions entitled to special treatment?
Congratulations! You've completed all nine steps of Lesson I.
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