Reason and Conviction: Natural Rights, Natural Religion, and the Origins of the Free Exercise Clause
124 Pages Posted: 2 Jul 2020 Last revised: 24 Feb 2021
Date Written: February 23, 2021
One of the most intense debates in contemporary America involves conflicts between religious liberty and other key values like civil rights. To shed light on such problems, courts and scholars often look to the historical background of the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. But that inquiry turns out to be no less controversial. In recent years, a growing number of scholars have challenged the traditional account that focuses on the roles of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison in the movement to protect religious liberty in late eighteenth-century America. These scholars emphasize that most of the political energy behind the movement came from Evangelical Christians. On this revisionist account, we should not understand the Free Exercise Clause and corresponding state provisions in terms of the Enlightenment views of Jefferson and Madison, which these scholars characterize as secular, rationalist, and skeptical—if not hostile—toward religion. Instead, those protections were adopted for essentially religious reasons: to protect the liberty of individuals to respond to God’s will and to allow the church to carry out its mission to spread the Gospel.
This Article offers a different understanding of the intellectual foundations of the Free Exercise Clause. The most basic view that supported religious liberty was neither secular rationalism nor Christian Evangelicalism but what contemporaries called natural religion. This view held that human beings were capable of using reason to discern the basic principles of religion, including the duties they owed to God and one another. Because religion was founded on reason, individuals had an inalienable natural right to develop their own beliefs and to worship in accord with them. At the same time, that right was limited by the law of nature and reason, which required people to respect the rights of others. In this way, the concept of natural religion established both the foundations and the limits of religious liberty. This view enabled people with different religious and philosophical perspectives to find common ground. It provided the basis for a political coalition between Evangelicals, rationalist Christians, and Enlightenment liberals that secured the adoption of state and federal constitutional guarantees for religious freedom.
The Article begins by demonstrating that natural religion and its associated ideas of natural law and natural rights were central to the intellectual world of eighteenth-century Americans. Those ideas played a vital part in many areas of thought, including political and moral philosophy, natural jurisprudence, English law, Christian and Deist theology, and even Newtonian natural science—intellectual strands that came together in the Radical Whig ideology that animated the American Revolution. Next, I explain how those ideas can enhance our understanding of the religious-liberty provisions of the first state declarations of rights; the political controversy that culminated in the passage of Jefferson’s Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom in Virginia; and the debates surrounding the adoption of the Federal Constitution and the Free Exercise Clause itself. Finally, I explore the founders’ views on the problem of religious exemptions from civil laws, and discuss the implications of this history for our current debates over civil rights and religious liberty—a subject that the Supreme Court recently grappled with in Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, and that is before the Court again this Term in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia.
Keywords: Religion, Religious Liberty, Religious Freedom, Free Exercise, Natural Rights, Natural Religion, Deism, Christianity, Evangelical, Jefferson, Madison, Whig, Enlightenment, First Amendment, Exemption
JEL Classification: K10, K19
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation