The age of revolution brought an enlightened political ideology to the modern world. Among its many achievements, none faces greater global challenges than freedom of religion. Today, it seems almost unthinkable that any deeply religious people, whether in the Middle East or the United States, would create constitutions, bills of rights and statutes that would not only guarantee their own freedom of conscience, but also the religious faith of others. Why, we wonder, and how, did revolutionary-era Americans choose to adopt a radical regime of religious freedom?
Their reasons did not rely on any idealistic consensus that religion must be separate from politics and instead owed everything to their deep suspicion of power in the hands of flawed humanity. Informed by centuries of European history, revolutionary-era Americans believed that governments empowered to coerce belief – long the common European practice – became tyrannical. History proved that, where religion was concerned, governments resorted to coercion. Consequently, to provide a barrier against tyranny, key American patriots believed that protecting religious freedom was vital.
But old ways died hard. Leaders in every American state argued that religious observance was not only a divine commandment, but also a bulwark of social and political order. As a result, defenders of Protestant faiths battled over religious taxation almost everywhere, and debated whether to maintain established churches. At independence in 1776, nine of the 13 colonies were supporting state churches; yet by 1860, the US would become a country of almost complete religious freedom.