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The Founders and Religious Freedom: A Critical Look

Mark A. Noll, May 21, 2014

Thomas Kidd’s illuminating post synthesizes some of the conclusions he developed at length in his helpful book God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution. In my view he has accurately portrayed the central importance that religious liberty assumed for the American founders, especially as expressed in their ubiquitous linkage of “civil and religious liberty.”
Prof. Kidd’s reference to Isaac Backus and the Baptists does, however, complicate the history; it should also make citizens today careful about how we interpret the national founding. In 1770, after the Massachusetts legislature had once again refused to relax its support for the colony’s tax-supported Congregational churches and moderate the civil penalties it imposed on all non-Congregationalists, the leader of New England’s Baptists, Isaac Backus, responded with a vigorous pamphlet entitled A Seasonable Plea for Liberty of Conscience. One of Backus’ chief concerns was the use of inflammatory language for partisan purposes:
many who are filling the nation with the cry of Liberty and against oppressors [with Britain in view] are at the same time themselves violating [for Baptists and others in New England] the dearest of all rights, LIBERTY OF CONSCIENCE.
Backus’ complaint was asking about the honesty, but even more the blinkered assumptions, of those who claimed that Parliament was undermining the “civil and religious liberty” of the colonists. Understanding this fuller history of the founding era might make all of us cautious about using slogans from that period without full attention to how they were actually put to use.

An additional worry comes from Prof. Kidd’s reference to Alexander Hamilton and the Quebec Act of 1774. Hamilton and other patriots may have seen the Act as threatening because of the privileges it granted to Roman Catholics in British North America. But Jean-Olivier Briand, the Bishop of Quebec, saw things differently. As tension escalated between colonies and mother country, patriots invited Quebec to join them in overthrowing British tyranny. Bishop Briand brought in a contrary report:
Here we enjoy perfect peace under the government of one of the most amiable of men. Religion is practised here in complete freedom, and in many cases more fervently than ever. . . . We hardly notice that we are under a Protestant prince. It must be admitted that no nation is as humane as the English one.
As in the era of the American founding, so today, it is important to probe beneath the surface when phrases like “religious freedom” (or “civil and religious liberty”) become battle cries. If such ideals are to be more than vacuous polemical slogans, they must reflect a full grasp on reality, shun exaggeration, and avoid hypocrisy. They must also be applied as liberally to others as to our own group. Historically considered, the founders’ defense of “civil and religious liberty” only occasionally met those criteria. It will be good for all if those of us who defend “religious liberty” today do much better.
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Cornerstone is the blog of the Religious Freedom Project (RFP) at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. The Cornerstone blog is the only online platform devoted exclusively to scholarly debate about the meaning and reach of religious liberty. Read more.