Some politicians seek to blur the lines between church and state. Presidential candidate Ted Cruz for example, states that our nation was founded on Judeo-Christian principles. While many of our founders were people of faith, others famously were not, at least in the traditional sense. Jefferson, Washington, Franklin held to very unorthodox beliefs about the nature of a deity and were wary of attempts to merge state with religion.
The First Amendment (Amendment I) to the United States Constitution prohibits the making of any law respecting an establishment of religion, impeding the free exercise of religion, abridging the freedom of speech, infringing on the freedom of the press, interfering with the right to peaceably assemble or prohibiting the petitioning for a governmental redress of grievances. It was adopted on December 15, 1791, as one of the ten amendments that constitute the Bill of Rights.
One common rationale for separation of church and state was supported by the Enlightenment thinking of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Essentially secular in nature, this view supports a “high wall of separation” in order to keep religion from imposing its will on the state and from the state from imposing its will on religion.
A fact not widely known is that it was people of faith who laid the foundation for this separation. Roger Williams the founder of the colony of Rhode Island (my home state) was a Baptist (my tradition) who believed in ‘soul freedom’. Soul freedom teaches that no one should be coerced to believe in God. A common phrase among Baptists of the time ‘that following Christ must be a choice of the heart’ and not coerced by King or religious hierarchy. Roger Williams was a strong person of faith but believed in this principle of choice. He famously said: ‘I grant my brother the right to be wrong.’ It was Roger who went to the King of England and talked him into granting a charter to form the colony of Rhode Island, which for the first time in history, put into law protecting religious freedom.
At that same time a group of Jews in Europe were being persecuted for their faith. They heard about this new experiment in Rhode Island. Seeking freedom they built the Touro Synogoge in Newport, R.I the first Jewish congregation in the new world (a building still standing and active). All because Roger Williams believed in the choice to believe or not believe (soul freedom).
Fast forward a hundred plus years and we are at the Constitutional Congress of the newly formed United States. John Leland a Baptist pastor (and proponent of soul freedom) was competing with James Madison for election to the Convention on Ratification of the Constitution. John’s wife Sally, suggested that John make a deal with Madison, throw his support to Madison with the promise that an amendment be passed, protecting freedom from and for religion. The rest as they say, is history.