Many Americans believe that the First Amendment’s separation of church and state safeguards religious liberty. But when the First Amendment was ratified in 1791, it did not apply to the states and would not until well into the 20th century. As a result, the First Amendment did not prevent states from paying churches out of the public treasury, as Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, Connecticut and South Carolina did when that amendment was written. And those states that did not fund churches still favored Christianity. Blasphemy was forbidden in Delaware in 1826, and officeholders in Pennsylvania had to swear that they believed in “the being of a God and a future state of rewards and punishments.”
American federalism gave states enormous power to regulate the health, welfare and morals of their citizens. Because many thought religion was the foundation of American society, they used their power to imprint their moral ideals on state constitutions and judicial opinions for much of American history. Even today, these laws linger on the books. I still can’t buy beer on Sundays in Atlanta.
2. The founders’ faith matters.
Christians who consider the founders saintly won’t have much luck backing that up. Thomas Jefferson wrote a version of the New Testament that removed references to Jesus’s divinity. Ben Franklin was a deist. And George Washington may not have taken Communion.
But whatever the founders’ religious beliefs were, the First Amendment merely preserved the church-and-state status quo. There had never been an official religion in the 13 colonies, and the new states favored different faiths. The South was traditionally Anglican but had a growing Methodist and Baptist population. New England was traditionally Congregationalist, but evangelicals moved there nonetheless. The middle colonies mixed Lutherans, Catholics (in Maryland), Presbyterians and Quakers. A small number of Jews lived in early America, as well.
So the framers punted the issue of religion to the states, promising only that the power of the federal government would not be used to advance, say, Congregationalist beliefs over Presbyterian ones. This was a pluralistic vision of sorts but one that still allowed states to declare official religions and grant privileges to specific denominations.
3. Christian conservatives
have only recently taken over politics.
Christian partisans mobilized early in U.S. history, seeking to impose an interdenominational — but still Christian and, more specifically, Protestant — moral order on the new nation.
Initially, Christians were more successful in exercising political and legal control at the state level. They passed blasphemy laws. They required Sabbath rest on Sundays. In Massachusetts, they mandated devotional exercises in public schools, a practice that spread to every state with public education.