LIBERTY LETTERS WITH STEVE FARRELL
Justice Joseph Story served as a Supreme Court Justice from 1811 through 1845. His Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States (first published in 1833) was required reading in U.S. law schools for over a century, being a cornerstone of early American jurisprudence. As such, it was and still is a critical source as to the original intent of the American Founders in penning and passing the First Amendment, and more particularly, regarding the Religious Establishment and Freedom of Religion clauses.
Justice Story writes:
§ 984. Let us now enter upon the consideration of the amendments, which, (it will be found,) principally regard subjects properly belonging to a bill of rights.
§ 985. The first is “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition government for a redress of grievances.”
§ 986. And first, the prohibition of any establishment of religion, and the freedom of religious opinion and worship.
How far any government has a right to interfere in matters touching religion, has been a subject much discussed by writers upon public and political law. The right and the duty of the interference of government, in matters of religion, have been maintained by many distinguished authors, as well those, who were the warmest advocates of free governments, as those, who were attached to governments of a more arbitrary character. Indeed, the right of a society or government to interfere in matters of religion will hardly be contested by any persons, who believe that piety, religion, and morality are intimately connected with the well being of the state, and indispensable to the administration of civil justice. The promulgation of the great doctrines of religion; the being, and attributes, and providence of one Almighty God; the responsibility to him for all our actions, founded upon moral freedom and accountability; a future state of rewards and punishments; the cultivation of all the personal, social, and benevolent virtues; — these never can be a matter of indifference in any well ordered community. It is, indeed, difficult to conceive, how any civilized society can well exist without them. And at all events, it is impossible for those, who believe in the truth of Christianity, as a divine revelation, to doubt, that it is the especial duty of government to foster, and encourage it among all the citizens and subjects. This is a point wholly distinct from that of the right of private judgment in matters of religion, and of the freedom of public worship according to the dictates of one’s own conscience.
§ 987. The real difficulty lies in ascertaining the limits, to which government may rightfully go in fostering and encouraging religion. Three cases may easily be supposed. One, where a government affords aid to a particular religion, leaving all persons free to adopt any other; another, where it creates an ecclesiastical establishment for the propagation of the doctrines of a particular sect of that religion, leaving a like freedom to all others; and a third, where it creates such an establishment, and excludes all persons, not belonging to it, either wholly, or in part, from any participation in the public honours, trusts, emoluments, privileges, and immunities of the state. For instance, a government may simply declare, that the Christian religion shall be the religion of the state, and shall be aided, and encouraged in all the varieties of sects belonging to it; or it may declare, that the Catholic or Protestant religion shall be the religion of the state, leaving every man to the free enjoyment of his own religious opinions; or it may establish the doctrines of a particular sect, as of Episcopalians, as the religion of the state, with a like freedom; or it may establish the doctrines of a particular sect, as exclusively the religion of the state, tolerating others to a limited extent, or excluding all, not belonging to it, from all public honours, trusts, emoluments, privileges, and immunities.
§ 988. Probably at the time of the adoption of the constitution, and of the amendment to it, now under consideration, the general, if not the universal, sentiment in America was, that Christianity ought to receive encouragement from the state, so far as it is not incompatible with the private rights of conscience, and the freedom of religious worship. An attempt to level all religions, and to make it a matter of state policy to hold all in utter indifference, would have created universal disapprobation, if not universal indignation.
§ 989. It yet remains a problem to be solved in human affairs, whether say free government can be permanent, where the public worship of God, and the support of religion, constitute no part of the policy or duty of the state in any assignable shape. The future experience of Christendom, and chiefly of the American states, must settle this problem, as yet new in the history of the world, abundant, as it has been, in experiments in the theory of government.
§ 990. But the duty of supporting religion, and especially the Christian religion, is very different from the right to force the consciences of other men, or to punish them for worshipping God in the manner, which, they believe, their accountability to him requires. It has been truly said, that “religion, or the duty we owe to our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be dictated only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence.” Mr. Locke himself, who did not doubt the right of government to interfere in matters of religion, and especially to encourage Christianity, has at the same time expressed his opinion of the right of private judgment, and liberty of conscience, in a manner becoming his character, as a sincere friend of civil and religious liberty. “No man, or society of men,” says he, “have any authority to impose their opinions or interpretations on any other, the meanest Christian; since, in matters of religion, every man must know, and believe, and give an account for himself.” The rights of conscience are, indeed, beyond the just reach of any human power. They are given by God, and cannot be encroached upon by human authority, without a criminal disobedience of the precepts of natural, as well as of revealed religion.
§ 991. The real object of the amendment was, not to countenance, much less to advance Mahometanism, or Judaism, or infidelity, by prostrating Christianity; but to exclude all rivalry among Christian sects, and to prevent any national ecclesiastical establishment, which should give to an hierarchy the exclusive patronage of the national government. It thus sought to cut off the means of religious persecution, (the vice and pest of former ages,) and the power of subverting the rights of conscience in matters of religion, which had been trampled upon almost from the days of the Apostles to the present age. The history of the parent country had afforded the most solemn warnings and melancholy instructions on this head; and even New-England, the land of the persecuted puritans, as well as other colonies, where the Church of England had maintained its superiority, had furnished a chapter, as full of dark bigotry and intolerance, as any, which could be found to disgrace the pages of foreign annals. Apostacy, heresy, and nonconformity have been standard crimes for public appeals, to kindle the flames of persecution, and apologize for the most atrocious triumphs over innocence and virtue.
§ 992. It was under a solemn consciousness of the dangers from ecclesiastical ambition, the bigotry of spiritual pride, and the intolerance of sects, thus exemplified in our domestic, as well as in foreign annals, that it was deemed advisable to exclude from the national government all power to act upon the subject. The situation, too, of the different states equally proclaimed the policy, as well as the necessity, of such an exclusion. In some of the states, episcopalians constituted the predominant sect; in others, presbyterians; in others, congregationalists; in others, quakers; and in others again, there was a close numerical rivalry among contending sects. It was impossible, that there should not arise perpetual strife and perpetual jealousy on the subject of ecclesiastical ascendancy, if the national government were left free to create a religious establishment. The only security was in extirpating the power. But this alone would have been an imperfect security, if it had not been followed up by a declaration of the right of the free exercise of religion, and a prohibition (as we have seen) of all religious tests. Thus, the whole power over the subject of religion is left exclusively to the state governments, to be acted upon according to their own sense of justice, and the state constitutions; and the Catholic and the Protestant, the Calvinist and the Arminian, the Jew and the Infidel, may sit down at the common table of the national councils, without any inquisition into their faith, or mode of worship. (1)
This is a far cry from what is taught in our schools today and insisted upon by many a so-called modern expert who collectively labor – it seems – for a cause the very opposite of the Founder’s original intent – and while so doing, taking aim at, indeed making into PUBLIC ENEMY NUMBER ONE, free religious expression in public life. Such speech – consistent with the very Nature of man as a spiritual being – was supposed to be protected as a God-given, Inalienable Right, not crushed with the iron fist of socialism, humanism, and atheism! – And as to religion, in general, as Story notes, it was to be encouraged. The First Amendment then being a legal written check upon Congress, a legal prohibition if you will, on passing ANY bill—ANY bill into law that would interfere with this free expression in ANY forum (public or private) period. —And again, a prohibition against any law that might tend to hinder the prosperity of religion in general. Finally, as to the Establishment Clause, it had one clear purpose, and ONE ONLY, being a prohibition against a national church—avoiding that great evil and enemy to true religion and civic virtue.
Footnote: Joseph Story, Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States; with a Preliminary Review of the Constitutional History of the Colonies and States, before the Adoption of the Constitution. Abridged by the Author, for the Use of Colleges and High Schools (Boston: Hilliard, Gray, and Company/Cambridge: Brown, Shattuck, and Co., 1833), pp. iii-viii, 693-703.
Liberty Letters is a project of Steve Farrell and The Moral Liberal. Copyright 2014 Steve Farrell and The Moral Liberal.