America’s Founders: As Goes Religion, So Goes All Freedom

As governmental and social restrictions on religion increase, violent religious persecution and conflict result. That’s the stunning conclusion of a study of religious freedom conducted by Brian J. Grim and Roger Finke and published by Cambridge University Press.

If Grim and Finke are correct, the Obama administration’s indifferent and sometimes hostile attitude toward religious freedom could be setting America on a catastrophic course.

Only in America has religious freedom been protected, on purpose, from the beginning. But government coercion now poses a real threat to this first freedom.

The target is Christians. Michael Horowitz says that historically Jews were the “canaries in the coal mine”—if a nation persecuted Jews, it was more likely to deny freedoms to others as well. But now, Horowitz says, the canaries are Christians. 1

Religious freedom is the first domino. If it falls, so will all other freedoms. This is why it is imperative to grasp why religious freedom was so important to our founders and how they secured it.

Why Religious Freedom Was Important to America’s Founders

According to historian Thomas Kidd, “In the medieval period, Europeans had simply assumed that a union between church and state, and the persecution of those who challenged it, was a natural, even God-sanctioned state of affairs.” 2

Initially, the same was true in America. Various protestant groups lobbied to be the officially recognized religion. Anglicans in Virginia actually paid priests with tax dollars.

But British efforts to increase the Anglican church’s influence raised an alarm: if parliament was willing to diminish colonist’s religious liberty, then all liberty was at risk. John Adams said this apprehension contributed “as much as any cause” to the corroding of America’s loyalty to Britain, leading directly to the Revolution. 3

America’s founders knew that human corruption would put liberties of all kinds at risk. George Washington was realistic: “We must take human nature as we find it. Perfection falls not to the share of mortals.” 4 To secure religious freedom from infringement our founders refused a state church and instead constitutionally guaranteed a free market of religion.

Religious freedom led to greater freedom and also greater devotion. According to Grim and Finke, “the rate of church attendance increased from 17 percent of the population in 1776 to 51 percent by 1890.” 5

A Paradox: How America’s Founders Secured Religious Freedom

The founders believed that only adherence to Christian principles guaranteed religious freedom for all. This leaves most liberal academics quivering in indignation: “The founders were not evangelical Christians!” we’re told. It’s not true. But more important, it’s irrelevant.

Here’s the proper question: “What of the founders’ firm convictions are aligned with Scripture, derived only from Scripture, or self-evident but justified only by Scripture?” The founders almost unanimously believed in the soul’s immortality, divine judgment, providential acts, sin nature, moral absolutes, the human capacity to bear God’s image, order in the universe, public virtue, and the general teachings of the Bible.

America’s founders had no doubt about the relationship between public virtue and national success. This, in turn, grounded their belief in limited government, just war, and the importance of Christian influence in national life. They believed in religious liberty because without it no liberty is secure.

As Presbyterian pastor John Zubly warned the British government in the 1760s, “Americans are no idiots, and they appear determined not to be slaves.” 6 Are we still so determined?


  1. Brian J. Grim and Roger Finke, The Price of Freedom Denied (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011), p. 202.
  2. Thomas S. Kidd, God of Liberty (New York: Basic Books, 2010), p. 39.
  3. Ibid., p. 59.
  4. Ibid., p. 209.
  5. Grim and Finke, p. 7.
  6. Kidd, p. 86