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Religion in an Age of Revolution

Religion in an Age of Revolution. Disestablishment and the Revolutionary “Birth” of Religious Liberty. I. Before the Revolution. Political tensions were mounting between England and the colonies over issues of taxation Yet British control was being tested on religious fronts as well

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Religion in an Age of Revolution

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  1. Religion in an Age of Revolution Disestablishment and the Revolutionary “Birth” of Religious Liberty

  2. I. Before the Revolution • Political tensions were mounting between England and the colonies over issues of taxation • Yet British control was being tested on religious fronts as well • Due to increasing immigration, internal migration of peoples and increasingly new religious styles, the Church of England did not have singular dominance; different denominations were clashing (sometimes openly) with church establishment • In this sense, religious diversity was influencing the political nature of America and vice versa • Just like the colonists did not want to pay taxes to Great Britain, neither did they wish to contribute monies to a church they did not attend

  3. I. Before the Revolution • As diversity increased in areas where the Church of England was established, so did it increase in other regions where different churches were established • New England was becoming increasingly diverse • Orthodox Calvinists lived alongside Unitarian Congregationalists and others who had absorbed the rationalism of the Enlightenment; Baptists, under the leadership of Isaac Backus, had also been making inroads into New England society

  4. II. During the Revolution • Once the colonies were officially at war, there was no uniform response by clergy • Some supported the war, believing that England had entangled America for too long in its politics and religion; some saw the separation as dangerous, fearing that it would lead to an utter collapse of institutional and societal order • Many churches did experience incredible uproar, making it possible for others (some like Catholicism that had been on the fringe) to carve themselves a place in the new nation • However even when the war had finished, membership would stay down, as much of the mechanism behind running a church had been compromised by war

  5. III. The Religious Aftermath: Civil Religion • The years following the Revolution saw the birth of what historians would often refer to as “civil” or “public” religion • The nation was often spoken about as if it were sacrosanct; Providence, or God’s helping hand, were often invoked as the reason behind American victory • Many places, like Lexington or Concord, became pilgrimage sites and certain religious symbols were reappropriated for national use (i.e. the eye on the dollar bill) • Civil religion was not intended to infringe upon other forms of religion, but occurred alongside them as something that “endow[ed] the public experience of the people with a sacred canopy of meaning” (50), which would in turn unite all Americans together

  6. III. The Religious Aftermath: Legal Moves • Following the revolution, religion was increasingly seen as a personal choice, not as a matter of state establishment • Thomas Jefferson and James Madison’s 1786 Act for Establishing Religious Freedom in Virginia represented one of the earliest attempts to secure religious liberty • Religious liberty was different to religious toleration in that liberty allowed for freedom to believe (or not believe) “as one saw fit” (53), whereas toleration still elevated one tradition above others while allowing for other religious variations

  7. III. The Religious Aftermath: Legal Moves • As originally set forth, the Constitution mentions religion only in reference to the illegality of “religious oaths”; this was later seen as insufficient • To ensure that no religion could be established above others and that all religions could enjoy free exercise, the First Amendment made explicit acknowledgement of this • The intention behind the First Amendment was ostensibly to establish a “wall of separation” (Jefferson’s coinage) between church and state, both preventing the church from exhibiting political powers and denying the government power to interfere in church affairs • This was a national statute, thus states still had the option of establishing religion (the last religious establishment ended in 1833 in Massachusetts)

  8. Revolutionary Religion as a Free Market • With church establishment a thing of the past, denominationalism became the religious system of America • In this system, different denominations competed for the voluntary membership of Americans; each had an equal voice and an equal chance to be heard and such was the democratization of American religion • One further effect of the increasing democracy and possibility for alternative religious traditions was the greater involvement of women • Mother Ann Lee, founder of the Shakers, is one prime example of a woman occupying a place of prominence in her tradition

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