“Religion is no less the companion of liberty in all its battles and its triumphs; the cradle of its infancy, and the divine source of its claims. The safeguard of morality is religion, and morality is the best security of law and the surest pledge of freedom.”
Alexis de Tocqueville
Democracy in America, Vol. 1 Ch. 2
Religious liberty is a central tenet of American political and legal development. Religion also significantly impacts American society and culture, as observed by Tocqueville in Democracy in America. This page contains texts that describe and contribute to the influence of religion on American culture from before the Founding Era through Abraham Lincoln’s presidency. Learn more about religion and American political thought on these JMC Discovery Pages.
Religion in the Colonies
When the Puritans landed in Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1620, they established a political community with the Mayflower Compact. Forty-one men signed the document, which bound them “together into a civil Body Politick, for [their] better Ordering and Preservation.” The men acknowledge King James and God in the compact, linking the political endeavor to the “Glory of God, and Advancement of the Christian Faith.” As the first political compact of the colonies, it influenced later constitutions and the forming of communities around a common faith and political goal.
In this letter, John Locke argues that members of other faiths should be tolerated in society because belonging to another religion does not impact civil laws. Locke also stipulates that non-believers should not receive toleration because “Promises, Covenants, and Oaths…are the Bonds of Humane Society.” He strongly believes religiosity is critical for maintaining civil society even though he advocates for one’s religious life and one’s public life to be independently governed.
Founders on Religion and Society
This letter is a response from John Adams to his cousin, Zabdiel Adams, a minister in Massachusetts. John Adams supports declaring independence from Great Britain and forming a “permanent Constitution” to govern the states. He also believes that the “only foundation of a free Constitution, is pure Virtue” so it is essential that the American people remain devoutly committed to their faiths. For Adams, morality and religiosity were the basis for a functional free society
As President, George Washington responded to hundreds, if not thousands, of personal letters from Americans of all kinds. The collection of letters here, which are all responses from Washington to a religious congregation, demonstrate Washington’s commitment to religious liberty for all Americans. Washington also repeatedly remarks that America’s success and happiness are dependent on citizens’ religious devotion.
George Washington’s voluntary resignation from the Presidency set a precedent of peaceful, regular transitions of power in the United States that would last nearly 150 years. In his Farewell Address, he describes his hopes for the future of the nation using religious language and calls upon citizens to “sacredly maintain” the Constitution. Like his contemporary John Adams, Washington believed morality and virtue, both consequences of a commitment to religion, were essential to a flourishing free nation.
Montesquieu & Tocqueville
Baron de Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws, 1748
These short passages from The Spirit of the Laws touch on three important aspects of the relationship between religion and government. The first argues that civil laws should be created in response to religious laws. Since both kinds of laws regulate human behavior, Montesquieu proposes that civil laws should be created with religious laws in mind so that together the two kinds of laws form good citizens and good people.
The second passage insists that in a society in which multiple religions are allowed, all religions must be tolerated. Montesquieu posits that toleration of all religions should be mandated and enforced by the government to prevent the religious groups from tyrannizing one another and the society as a whole.
In the third selection, Montesquieu differentiates between the origin, object, and nature of religious and civil laws.
Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1835
In this early chapter of Democracy in America, Tocqueville describes the unique circumstances of the founding of the United States. The United States was established by immigrants who had no inherent connection to the land on which the nation was created. For this reason, the United States is the “only country in which it has been possible to witness the natural and tranquil growth of society.” One essential aspect of American society Tocqueville discusses is the significant role religion played in the founding of the New England colonies and why those colonies have been more successful at democracy, according to him, than the Southern colonies. His observations mirror some of Montesquieu’s arguments about religious laws and civil laws working together to create a society.
This short chapter reiterates the idea that civil liberty and religiosity are entwined in America. Tocqueville describes a “tranquil, methodical, and deliberate” commitment to religion that results in a desire to create and preserve a productive civil society for themselves and future generations.
Abraham Lincoln and Political Religion
The Lyceum Address is one of Lincoln’s earliest public speeches; he was only 28 at the time. The event that spurred the speech was the murder of a black man by a mob in St. Louis, one of the many instances of mob justice carried out at the time. Lincoln denounces the mob activities, whether the actions seem justified or not, and implores his audience to “religiously observe” the law. He uses religious language throughout the speech, comparing a religious devotion to the efforts required to maintain the government formed by the founding generation: “Let reverence for the laws…become the political religion of the nation.” For Lincoln, citizens need to be as committed to upholding the law as they are to their personal faiths for the nation to survive.
Christianity in 18th Century America
Letters to the Congregations: George Washington and Religious Liberty
Bill of Rights Institute