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Watching today’s news, you might get the impression that religious conflict is more acute in America than ever before. Religious belief does infuse almost every political controversy, including the ones about abortion, homosexuality, immigration, and the presidency of Donald Trump.

But we should remember that America itself was born in religious conflict, conflict often more vicious than what we face today. 

Evangelical Minorities

Early America could be a dangerous place to work for an evangelical preacher, even in the South. Though white evangelicals today often seek to exercise political power as a “moral majority,” evangelical Christians in the colonies were a decided, if surging, minority. Their spiritual exuberance sometimes attracted unwanted attention.

Consider the case of Baptist evangelist James Ireland. On the eve of the American Revolution, Ireland ran afoul of Virginia authorities for illegal preaching. Local magistrates ordered him to stop publicizing his “detestable, abominable, diabolical doctrines,” or they’d throw him in jail. He refused, so they clapped him in a cell in Culpeper. His jail window was covered with bars but was otherwise open to the elements.

Religious dissenters could face the kind of severe religious violence that we might associate with today’s China or Nigeria—but not America.

Ireland’s followers came to comfort him, but as they tried to converse, antagonists drove away his friends with whips. Some bullies even urinated on him as he sought to preach through the grate. This is what you got for refusing to comply with regulations on preaching in Virginia, where dozens of Baptist ministers landed in jail before the Revolution.

Jail wasn’t too bad, however, compared to what happened to preachers and missionaries from other religious groups, such as Quakers or Catholics, who lost their lives for preaching their version of the gospel. Religious dissenters could face the kind of severe religious violence we might associate with today’s China or Nigeria—but not America.

Religious Liberty—from Persecution

From reading Enlightenment writers such as England’s John Locke, patriot leaders James Madison and Thomas Jefferson knew the value of religious liberty. But they really became activists for religious freedom as they watched the wave of persecution wash over pre-Revolutionary Virginia. Madison, who had studied under the Presbyterian minister and college president John Witherspoon at Princeton, was aghast at the anti-Baptist violence he observed when he returned to Virginia. Writing to a friend in the North, he fretted over the “hell-conceived principle of persecution” and asked for prayer that religious liberty would prevail.

Madison, Jefferson, and their Baptist allies became convinced that the solution to the persecution was getting the government to stop playing religious favorites. For hundreds of years, European nations had legally defended their preferred version of Christianity (Anglican, Lutheran, Catholic, or other) as a state-supported denomination. America was thriving religiously, but it was also mind-bogglingly diverse. Maintaining an “establishment” of religion—as Madison would call it in the First Amendment—virtually guaranteed that the government would clash with upstart dissenters like James Ireland. Religious vitality would produce violence until the government stopped sponsoring a particular denomination.

Unlike the preferences of some secularists today, Jefferson and Madison’s vision of religious liberty didn’t seek to eliminate religion from public life or to impose legal disadvantages on people of faith.

Some forward-thinking Baptists, such as Jefferson’s longtime ally John Leland, realized that full religious liberty would eventually have to apply to non-Christian groups, such as Muslims. But unlike the preferences of some secularists today, Jefferson and Madison’s vision of religious liberty didn’t seek to eliminate religion from public life or to impose legal disadvantages on people of faith. If they could have imagined the scenario, the Founding Fathers certainly wouldn’t have forced Christian bakers to make custom cakes for gay weddings. They simply wanted the American government to guarantee religious freedom for all rather than to enforce correct doctrine or preferred cultural views.

From 1776 to 2020

We live in a different world from that of the Founders, and the spectrum of religious commitment, or the lack thereof, has grown much wider than it was in 1776. But we shouldn’t forget religious conflict was, in important ways, worse in 1776 than it is today.

That’s why the Founding Fathers’ solution to religious strife was so ingenious. The government, they said, shouldn’t require or forbid any religious belief or practice. It should simply maximize the freedom to believe (or not) and to exercise religion (or not).

They figured God could sort out the results.

Editors’ note: 

Check out Thomas Kidd’s America’s Religious History: Faith, Politics, and the Shaping of a Nation. This article is published in partnership with Zondervan.

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