Home Programs Past Programs Religion and Public Policy

Religious Liberty and the American Tradition

America’s commitment to religious liberty—and its complement, religious tolerance—did not evolve into a firmly established ideal until many decades after the American Revolution.  George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and other Founding Fathers strove to secure religious freedom in the new nation.  But widespread acceptance of religious diversity—especially for non-Christian religions—evolved over time, rather than emerging in short order.

For decades after the enactment of the First Amendment to the Constitution, many states in the new nation enforced official religions and practiced various forms of religious intolerance.  Especially egregious cases of state-sponsored persecution occurred with the Missouri state militia massacre and expulsion of Mormons in 1838 and General Grant’s order to expel Jews from the several states during the Civil War (an order President Lincoln ordered rescinded upon hearing about it).

Outside of government, the American ideals of religious freedom and tolerance have been tested by periods of religious bigotry, from the Know-Nothing Party’s crusade against Catholics in the mid-1800s to Father Charles Coughlin’s anti-Semitic radio addresses in the 1930s. Today, fear of Islamic extremism is sometimes distorted into discrimination against American Muslims.

CSPC explores the (fitful) evolution of religious liberty and tolerance in America, how these principals became underlying ideals of American society, and how they have affected the development of America’s democratic system and civil society.