There is a growing movement in the fascist wing of the Republican Party to infuse more Protestant Christianity in to all government decisions. We see this in current anti-abortion and anti-LBGTQ laws as well as the political speech of certain candidates who wish to garner support from ultra-religious factions. These politicians believe (or at least say they believe) that America is inherently a Christian nation and should be guided by Christian values. They justify this belief in the argument that the Founding Fathers were all followers of Christian churches (technically true). This argument, however, is very problematic not just for those of us who do not share their views, but also for the very religious institutions they are seeking to promote. When the Congress amended the US Constitution to formally separate Church and State, this was not just done to protect the state from influence of the Church but it was done to protect the Church from becoming controlled by the State. Failing to acknowledge this will ultimately destroy both our most sacred political institutions as well as our sacred institutions.
Prior to the American Revolution, the British colonies were governed under British Law and there was, legally, only one official church. This is why Benjamin Franklin, a Quaker and professed Deist, maintained a pew at the Anglican Christ Church in Philadelphia. Being a member of the state sponsored church was a political reality and while most Americans could flaunt this law, everyone was considered by the King and Parliament to be members of the Church of England and subject to its edicts and regulation. This had lots of practical consequences. While you weren’t necessarily punished for not attending Anglican services (in most places), it was a legal requirement and those who did not attend could be jailed or publicly whipped. Furthermore, since the Church of England relied upon tithes to support their clergy and churches, people were taxed for the upkeep of Anglican congregations. In some colonies, there were local protections for toleration but remember prior to the American Revolution, Parliament was taking actions to reestablished its dominion over colonial governments and part of that domination was reinvigorating the role of the Church of England.
We in American like to say we value religious freedom and toleration but this is actually something we learned from the Netherlands. The Dutch concept of tolerance dates back to the end of the Eighty Years’ War, after William of Orange, just crowned King and as a Protestant monarch, decided to let the Catholic minority have the freedom to practice their faith as they saw fit. It was all in the spirit of that very Dutch zeitgeist — “live and let live.” Given the hatred between Catholics and Protestants at the time all over Europe, it was no small feat for a Protestant Dutch King to grant freedom of religion to a Catholic minority. This could never have happened in countries like France, and especially England.
Creating a system of tolerance between Protestants and Catholics created an economic engine that fueled the growth of the Dutch Empire. Unlike the British East India Company who were scorned in Japan and China for open religious intolerance, the Dutch simply accepted the people with whom they traded neither attempted to convert nor were converted in their religious persuasion. This allowed the Dutch to reach markets predominantly Muslim countries and most importantly allowed them to trade with Japan where Christianity was overtly outlawed. When the Dutch East India company established settlements in America, the settlers of New Netherland (now New York) were obligated to uphold religious toleration as a legal right by the Dutch Republic’s founding document, the 1579 Union of Utrecht, which stated that “everyone shall remain free in religion and that no one may be persecuted or investigated because of religion.“
Contrast this with the story in England. Before Henry VIII’s break with the papacy in the 1530s, the Roman Catholic Church was all powerful in England. In fact, Henry VIII was awarded the title ‘Defender of the Faith’ in 1521 by the Pope for his defense of the Catholic Church against the challenges presented by Martin Luther. This all changed in 1533, when Henry petitioned for an annulment of his marriage to Katherine of Aragon. When the Pope refused to sanction his divorce, Henry declared himself Supreme Head of the Church in England and began systematically and militarily sweeping away of all Catholic in the country.
Setting aside the obvious sexual goals of this take-over, Henry’s move to separate England from Catholicism had huge economic and political ramifications. It was an easy means for Henry to both clean house with regard to nobles (Catholics were now traitors) as well as fill his royal coffers with the wealth and property formerly controlled by the papacy.
This usurpation of the church by the state continues under James I when he “translated” the Latin Bible in to English. In 1604, England’s King James I authorized a new translation of the Bible aimed at settling some thorny religious differences in his kingdom—and solidifying his own power. The popular text at the time was the Geneva Bible which was the first English bible translated entirely from the original languages of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek in 1534. This version of the bible posed a political problem since it contained certain annotations questioning not only the bishops’ power but the King’s. In seeking to prove his own supremacy, King James rewrote those sections in so as to quash any doubt of his (and his successors’) divine right to power. He eliminated passages that spoke of limits to the power of secular rulers (Deuteronomy 17, which suggests that the king should not acquire too many horses, wives or silver and gold for himself; and that he, like anyone else, should be subject to the laws of God.) James also instituted the practice of services that focused on sermon-preaching, Bible readings, and the very formalized Book of Common Prayer. All of these actions were no doubt pursued with religious fervor but also clearly political in their motivations.
By the time of the American Revolution and later creation of the Bill of Rights to the new US Constitution (1793), the Congress was keenly aware of problems that merging Church and State in Britain had caused and the political intrigues that result. Not only were they keen on keeping outside religious officials from interfering with government, only were they focused on keeping the government usurping control of out of people’s individual religious expression. The First Amendment protect not just those who wish to honor religious expression separate from the majority, it protects the majority religion from having the government redefine their religion to serve its own ends.