In my last post, I made the case that the United States Constitution is clearly not a Christian document. The framers of the government and the document in 1787-1789 purposefully crafted this sort of document, complete with the disestablishment of all churches and the promise of religious freedom.
But that was for the nation, and for the national Congress. The story of the state constitutions is a very different story. From the 1770s through the 1790s, leaders in every state (not every leader) came together to craft state constitutions which in some way, aimed at creating specifically Christian societies. Here are some of the ways they did this:
The state constitutions of Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont, and New Hampshire all established a particular religious denomination as the official religion of the state. Essentially (although the laws could get very convoluted), this meant that if you were a resident of the state, part of your taxes went toward supporting this denomination. The State of Massachusetts was the last state to finally disestablish the state-supported church. It did this in 1833, more than forty years after the ratification of the Constitution and the First Amendment.
Limited Religious Freedom and Toleration
Every state which did not officially establish a Christian denomination still limited freedom and toleration in some way. Pennsylvania required that all citizens believe in God. North Carolina’s “Declaration of Rights” promised freedom of religion, so long as it was “to worship Almighty God” (This article pointed out an attempt a few weeks ago in North Carolina to return to something like this, and the Washington Post’s poor coverage of it). The 1777 Constitution of South Carolina stated that all people would be “freely tolerated,” as long as they “acknowledge that there is one God, and a future state of rewards and punishments, and that God is publicly to be worshiped.”
Religious Tests for Public Office
While the U.S. Constitution specifically barred religious tests, many states specifically required them. Almost every state required that elected officials profess a belief in the God of Christianity. Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Vermont required officials to believe in the divine inspiration of the Old and New Testaments. North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, New Jersey, and New Hampshire required members of the state legislature, judges, and governors to be Protestants. Ironically, most of these constitutions contained the promise that “no further religious test” would ever be required of anyone – except, of course, for the religious test they just had to take.
Religious Tests for Voting
Some states even required religious tests for citizens who wanted to vote. Pennsylvania only granted civil rights like voting to those who acknowledged “the being of a God.” South Carolina required a belief in God and in “the future states of rewards and punishments.” And don’t forget, in most every place, voting was already restricted to property-owning white males.
All of this information puts the national, constitutional calls for the free exercise of religion and disestablishment of churches in the 1780s in a fascinating context. Some American leaders in the 1780s were stalwart on the issues of disestablishment and the separation of church and state in the national Constitution because they were such strong proponents of religious freedom.
But many leaders were bent on clarifying the language of the Constitution on religion not because they wanted a nation or government without church influence, but because they wanted the national government to be limited in its religious power. With that settled, they could return to their states, and state constitutions, in order to exert precisely that power.
So Christians, as you have conversations about the issues surrounding the role of religion in our constitutions, laws, or history, keep in mind that these are historically complex issues. You should seek answers, and you should take stands. But you should base it on the varied history of the role religion in American life and laws, not based on a God-and-country caricature of it.
You can find the early constitutions of all the states, territories, and nation in the multivolume book “The Federal and State Constitutions,” freely available on Google Books. Click here for a link to one of these volumes.
Books and Articles
David Sehat, The Myth of American Religious Freedom
John Fea, Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?
Thomas Kidd, God Of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution
Benjamin Park, “North Carolina’s ‘Official Religion’: The Convoluted History of American States and Established Religions
(More articles at www.ThinkingThroughChristianity.com)