And to what extent could religious ideas and observances figure in the conduct of civic life?
Today those questions loom large in the United States, as controversies rage over prayer and the teaching of evolution in the public schools, the posting of the Ten Commandments in courtrooms, and the launching of “faith-based initiatives” by the executive branch.
That did not go far enough to satisfy Jefferson, so in 1779 he presented a bill to the state legislature guaranteeing full religious liberty to all Virginians—not merely tax exemptions to non-Anglicans—only to meet with resistance from those who deemed his measure too radical.
Among them was Patrick Henry, who countered by proposing a “general assessment” on all citizens to support Christianity itself as the established religion of Virginia.
“What we have to do I think is devoutly to pray for his [Henry’s] death,” Jefferson joked in a letter to Madison.
Divining America Advisors and Staff In 1773, it came to the notice of a weedy, bookish, young Virginian that some Baptists were languishing in a nearby jail.
In their view, civil governments should not only tolerate all forms of religious belief—neither penalizing nor encouraging any particular faith—but also uphold the principle, as Jefferson’s bill declared, “Our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions, any more than our opinions in physics or geometry.” Specifically, candidates for public office should not be judged based on whether they “profess or renounce this or that religious opinion.” But rougher sledding lay ahead for making their ideals of religious freedom those, which would guide an entire nation.
The first challenge loomed with the meeting of the Constitutional Convention at Philadelphia in the spring of 1787.
At that time, nearly all state constitutions required office-holders to swear to their belief in either the divine inspiration of the Old and New Testaments or the truth of Protestant Christianity, and one-third of the states still levied taxes to support Christian churches.
Yet the delegates at Philadelphia wished to avoid protracted controversy over religious matters—which, in any case, most believed should be left to the states—and hoped to reach consensus on the Constitution as quickly as possible.