Religious Pluralism and Civil Society
The Fathers of the Constitution were not unaware of the varied and extreme
views of religious sects, of the violence of disagreement among them, and
of the lack of any one religious creed to which all men would agree. They
fashioned a charter of government which envisaged the widest possible
toleration of conflicting views. Man’s relation to his God was made no
concern of the state. He was granted the right to worship as he pleased and
to answer to no man for the verity of his religious views.
- Justice William O. Douglas for the majority in United States v. Ballard (1944), 322 U.S.86
It is precisely for the protection of the minority that constitutional limitations
exist. Majorities need no such protection. They can take care of themselves.
- Illinois Supreme Court in Ring v. Board of Education (1910), 245 ILL.334,92 NE 254
Through our Bill of Rights, we pledged ourselves to attain a level of human
freedom and dignity that had no parallel in history. Our constitutional
commitment to religious freedom and acceptance of religious pluralism is
one of our greatest achievements in that noble endeavor. Almost 200 years
after the First Amendment was drafted, tolerance and respect for all
religions still set us apart from most other countries and draws to our shores
refugees from religious persecution around the world.
- Justice William Brennan, dissent in Goldman v. Weinberger (1986), 475 U.S.503
The place of religion in our society is an exalted one, achieved through a
long tradition of reliance on the home, the church and the inviolable citadel of
the individual heart and mind. We have come to recognize through bitter
experience that it is not within the power of government to invade that
citadel, whether its purpose or effect be to aid or oppose, to advance or
retard. In the relationship between man and religion, the State is firmly
committed to a position of neutrality.
- Justice Tom Clark [for the majority in Abington School District v. Schempp (1963), 374
Heresy trials are foreign to our Constitution. Men may believe what they
cannot prove. They may not be put to the proof of their religious doctrines or
beliefs. Religious experiences which are as real as life to some may be
incomprehensible to others.
- Justice William O. Douglas [for the majority in United States v. Ballard (1944), 322
Recognition that freedom of religion for all implies official sponsorship of
none has grown with the growing diversity of the nation itself.
- Justice Hans Linde in Cooper v. Eugene School District (1987), Oregon Supreme Court
The door of the Free Exercise Clause stands tightly closed against any
governmental regulation of religious beliefs as such. Government may
neither compel affirmation of a repugnant belief, nor penalize or discriminate
against individual or groups because they hold religious views abhorrent to
- Justice William J. Brennan [for the majority in Sherbert v. Verner (1963), 374 U.S.402]
Statements by Authors or Authorities
Freedom of religion means the right of the individual to choose and to
adhere to whichever religious beliefs he may prefer, to join with others in
religious associations to express these beliefs, and to incur no civil
disabilities because of his choice… Those who accept freedom of religion
as a right are obligated by this acceptance to take the maintenance of
freedom of religion as a duty.
- Joseph L. Blau, Cornerstones of Religious Freedom in America, Beacon Press, 1949
Government sponsored and required acts of religious devotion have no
place in a pluralistic society dedicated to religious freedom.
- Richard C. McMillan in Religion in the Public Schools, Mercer University Press, 1984
The secular democratic state is the surest protector of religious and
intellectual liberty ever crafted by human ingenuity. Nothing is more
fallacious, or inimical to genuine religious liberty, than the seductive notion
that the state should "favor" or "foster" religion. All history testifies that such
practices inevitably result in favoring one religion over less powerful
minorities and secular opinion.
- Edward L. Ericson, American Freedom and the Radical Right, New York, Frederick
Given the ambiguity of religious texts and teachings, the mixed historical
record, and the empirical evidence, it would be foolhardy to assert that
religious faith necessarily upholds democratic values.
- Kenneth D. Wald in Religion and Politics in the United States, St. Martin’s, 1986
The freedom allowed in the United States to all sorts of inquiry and
discussion necessarily leads to a diversity of opinion, which is seen not only
in there being different denominations, but different opinions also in the
- Robert Baird, Religion in America, 1856, p. 578
The present trend to repudiate the concept of America as a secular state
and officially identify this nation with God and certain sectarian religious
views does not bode well for religious pluralism in the United States, in
which virtually all of the world’s religions are represented among its citizens,
along with new religious movements that are making substantial gains.
- James E. Wood, "Religious Pluralism and American Society," in Ecumenical
Perspectives on Church and State (Baylor University Press, 1988), p. 16
One of the thorniest aspects of the first modernization process was the
confrontation between establishments of religion and those seeking
separation of church and state. The establishments of religion were looked
upon as citadels of the traditional standing orders that had to be stormed if
the forces of modernity were to be victorious. The political struggles over
disestablishment were constant, severe, and often debilitating. Only in the
United States was a reasonably clear-cut victory won for the separation of
church and state. This was undoubtedly one of the reasons why the United
States was able to forge ahead so rapidly in its modernization. There were
no enormously powerful land-owning churches to hold off political reform or
economic development as they did in Eastern and Southern Europe, and for
a time in France, England, and Germany.
But it also turned out that political action based upon a secular theory of
natural rights was not the only, perhaps not even the most important, aspect
of the disestablishment process. The political role of nonconformist,
dissenting churches, or radical Protestant sects who believed in the free
exercise of religion without interference by government in religious creed or
practice proved to be indispensable. "Separatists" like the Quakers,
Baptists, Methodists, and Mennonites were opposed to establishments of
religion on principle, but even those who were believers in a close alliance
between church and state (Presbyterian, Congregationalist, Lutheran,
Catholic) began to see the values of separation in societies where they were
not the dominant church. Thus, the religious heterogeneity of the American
colonies helped to undermine the religious establishments which had
benefited from laws that imposed the doctrines of the preferred church and
taxes that were levied upon everyone for the support of the established
- R. Freeman Butts, The Education of the West, 1973, p. 304
In this United States, for the first time in modern Western history, the nation
leaped from the provincial religious preference of its regions into religious
liberty for the whole nation. The Founding Fathers despised the
condescension that was implied in the very concept of toleration. That was a
stage necessary for Old World nations, but not for our New World nation.
- Daniel J. Boorstin, "The Founding Fathers and the Courage to Doubt," in Robert S. Alley
(ed.) James Madison on Religious Liberty, Prometheus, 1985, p. 209
Religion is good for American politics when it supports the civil religion;
when it speaks out with civility and respect; when it accepts the principles of
tolerance and pluralism; when it appeals to a shared sense of morality and
not to religious authority or doctrine; when it reminds us that we are a
community, not a collection of isolated individuals; when it reminds us that
we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers.
Religion is bad for American politics when it undermines the civil religion;
when it speaks of political matters with the certitude of faith, in a pluralistic
society in which faith cannot be used as a political standard; when it treats
opponents as agents of Satan; when it weakens a sense of national
community; when it violates the precept of the Virginia Statute for Religious
Freedom which formed the basis for the First Amendment—the precept that
any American should no more be treated any differently than any other
American on the basis of his or her opinions about religion than on the basis
of his or her opinions on literature or geometry. That is only common sense.
- Jim Castelli, A Plea for Common Sense, Harper & Row, 1980, p. 193
The First Amendment is important not only to guarantee the rights of
alternative religions and of nonreligious persons in society; it is also
important in setting the only possible legal and social condition for the
creative health of serious religion itself.
- Langdon Gilkey, Creationism on Trial, Winston-Seabury, 1985
The significance of the Kennedy Presidency as far as cultural pluralism is
concerned is that it reaffirmed and revitalized the pluralist impulse and led to
major accommodations between religious groups. JFK was a free man. By
being free, he freed many Catholics and Protestants from the debilitating
recriminations of the past.
- Albert J. Menendez, John F. Kennedy: Catholic and Humanist, Prometheus, 1979, p. 62
The election of a President of Catholic faith in 1960 gave a ringing stamp of
recognition to pluralism as an indelible fact of national and political and
- Berton Dulce and Edward J. Richter, Religion and the Presidency, New York: Macmillan
In regard to religion, mutual toleration in the different professions thereof is
what all good and candid minds in all ages have ever practiced, and both by
precept and example inculcated on mankind…
- Samuel Adams (American statesman and revolutionary leader), The Rights of the
Everywhere all who cherish religious liberty should break through every
hindering barrier to unite in the support of this common cause.
- Rufus V. Weaver, Champions of Religious Liberty, Broadman, 1947, p.12
[O]bviously in a religiously pluralistic society, getting consensus on what
constitutes a public moral question is never easy. There is therefore an
important distinction between moral principle and political/legal strategies.
- Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, "Religion and Politics: The Future Agenda," Origins 8, Nov.
We in the United States are pluralistic respecting ultimate beliefs. Profound
values exist apart from a devotion to a god. Indeed, those who discriminate
against nonbelievers flout the principles of religious tolerance that they often
- Norman Doresen, William & Mary Law Review, Vol. 26, 1986
Equality of all religious bodies before the law is possible only in a secular
- John M. Swomley, Jr., Religious Liberty and the Secular State, Prometheus, 1987
Opinions of Former Presidents
Freedom arises from a multiplicity of sects, which pervades America, and
which is the best and only security for religious liberty in any society.
- James Madison, Address to the Virginia Constitutional Convention, June 12, 1788
I have ever regarded the freedom of religious opinions and worship as
equally belonging to every sect.
- James Madison, Letter to Mordecai Noah, May 15, 1818
Is uniformity attainable? Millions of innocent men, women, and children,
since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined,
imprisoned; yet we have not advanced one inch towards uniformity. What
has been the effect of coercion? To make one half the world fools and the
other half hypocrites.
- Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, 1784
It behooves every man who values liberty of conscience for himself, to resist
invasions of it in the case of others.
- Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Benjamin Rush, April 21, 1803
I have ever judged of the religion of others by their lives. It is in our lives, and
not from our words, that our religion must be read.
- Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Mrs. Harrison Smith, August 6, 1816
To discriminate against a thoroughly upright citizen because he belongs to
some particular church, or because, like Abraham Lincoln, he has not
avowed his allegiance to any church, is an outrage against that liberty of
conscience which is one of the foundations of American life.
- Theodore Roosevelt, Letter to J.C. Martin, November 9, 1908
Any political movement directed against any body of our fellow-citizens
because of their religious creed is a grave offense against American
principles and American institutions. It is a wicked thing either to support or
oppose a man because of the creed he professes. This applies to Jew and
Gentile, to Catholic and Protestant, and to the man who would be regarded
as unorthodox by all of them alike.
- Theodore Roosevelt, Address, Carnegie Hall, October 12, 1915
The lessons of religious toleration—a toleration which recognizes complete
liberty of human thought, liberty of conscience—is one which, by precept and
example, must be inculcated in the hearts and minds of all Americans if the
institutions of our democracy are to be maintained and perpetuated.
- Franklin D. Roosevelt, Letter to the Calvert Associates, 1937 (quoted in Samuel I.
Rosenman, ed., The Public Papers and Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Vol.4, p. 96)
From Other Individuals
The Queen England is Defender of the Faith but the President of the United
States is Defender of the Constitution, which defends all faiths.
- Walter F. Mondale, U.S. Vice President (1977-1981), Address to B’nai B’rith,
Washington DC, September 6, 1984
All religions deserve reverence for one reason or another. Reverence for
another person’s religion improves one’s own faith and at the same time
honors the religions of other people.
- Asoka, King of India, c. 270 BCE, from Barry K. Beyer et al., The Eastern Hemisphere,
Macmillan/McGraw Hill, 1991, p. 438
The disconnection of Church and State was a master stroke for freedom
- Josiah Warren, Equitable Commerce, 1855
Religious liberty, sincere and equal for all, without privilege… in a word the
free church in a free nation, such has been the program which inspired my
first efforts and which I have perceived, after thirty years of struggle, in
considering just and reasonable.
- Montalembert (19th Century French Catholic liberal), quoted in M. Searle Bates,
Religious Liberty: An Inquiry, New York, International Missionary Council, 1945, p. 196
That all persons living in this province who confess and acknowledge the
one almighty and eternal God to be the creator, upholder, and ruler of the
world, and that hold themselves obliged in conscience to live peaceably and
justly in civil society, shall in no ways be molested or prejudiced for their
religious persuasion or practice in matters of faith and worship, nor shall
they be compelled at any time to frequent or maintain any religious worship,
place or ministry whatever.
- William Penn, Pennsylvania Code of 1682, Section 35
I can think of no greater disaster to this country than to have the voters of it
divide upon religious lines.
- Alfred E. Smith (Governor of New York; presidential candidate in 1928) in Atlantic
Monthly, April, 1927
What other nations call religious toleration, we call religious rights. They are
not exercised in virtue of governmental indulgence, but as rights, of which
government cannot deprive any portion of citizens, however small. Despotic
power may invade those rights, but justice still confirms them… Our
Constitution recognizes no other power than that of persuasion, for enforcing
- Rep. Richard M. Johnson (Vice President of the United States) in Report on the
Transportion of Mail on Sundays, 1829
One must keep in mind that religious liberty did not come easily. It did not
simply ripen and fall to nonChristians as a gift. It had to be fought for in the
legislative halls, in constitutional conventions and in the courts. What has
been achieved, easily can be lost.
- Morten Borden
Respect for conscience is most in jeopardy and the harmony of our diverse
society is most at risk when we reestablish, directly or indirectly, a religious
test for public office… The foundation of our pluralism is that government will
never determine which religion is right, and religion will not put its imprimatur
on some politicians while damning others because of their political views.
- Edward M. Kennedy, Address, Liberty University, Lynchburg VA, October 3, 1983
Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from
- Blaise Pascal, quoted in Sam J. Irvin, Jr., Preserving the Constitution, Michie, 1984.
Religious liberty in a nation is as real as the liberty of its least popular
religious minority. Look not to the size of cathedrals or even to the words on
the statute books for proof of the reality of religious freedom. Ask what is the
fate of the Protestant in Spain, the Jew in Saudi Arabia, the Arab in Israel,
the Catholic in Poland, or the atheist in the United States.
- Paul Blanshard, Address, Orlando FL, February 1974
Excessive government entanglement with religion can only lead to trouble.
Neutrality is the sine qua non for a democracy that prizes itself in having a
Bill of Rights designed to protect us against despotic abuse of authority by
the government. The Constitution is a monumental blessing and its moral
guidance in this pluralistic society is its tolerance and understanding for all.
- Raymond J. Pettine (U.S. District Judge), Address, Providence RI, 1985
Statements of Organizations or Religious Assemblies/Publications
We believe in the American tradition of religious and intellectual freedom
within a secular democratic state. We believe in the philosophy of Thomas
Jefferson and James Madison which gave birth to this tradition. We believe
in the American Constitution and the Bill of Rights which make it the law of
the land….A free and secular democratic state promotes good citizenship. It
fosters respect for the law and respect for the rights and dignity of all
citizens. It establishes a free and religiously neutral system of public
education…It defends the individual against the tyranny of transient
majorities or determined minorities. It allows all people to follow their own
consciences and restrains them only when they harm the public welfare.
- In "Statement of Principles," Americans for Religious Liberty, 1982
Religious freedom, based on the separation principle, has been the
keystone of all our other freedoms. Freedom of religion has made possible
our pluralistic society, with its capacity for negotiating and reconciling
religious conflicts and differences that have so often plunged other societies
into strife, misery and bloodshed.
- Issued by: Episcopal Bishop Paul Moore, Dr. Arnold Olson of the Evangelical Free
Church, Rabbi Marc H. Tanenbaum of the American Jewish Committee, and Rev. Joseph
O’Hare, editor of America, on Oct. 18, 1976
We believe in the freedom of the religious conscience and in the Catholic’s
obligation to guarantee full freedom of belief and worship as a civil right…
We deplore the denial of religious freedom in any land… We believe that the
constitutional separation of church and state offers the best guarantee both
of religious freedom and of civic peace…
- Excerpts from statement on religious liberty by American Catholic Laymen issued in
October, 1960 during the Kennedy-Nixon presidential election campaign (reprinted in full in
Patricia Barrett’s Religious Liberty and the American Presidency, pp.164-166)
We affirm that religious liberty is basic, both historically and philosophically,
to all our liberties, and that religious and civil liberties are interdependent
and indivisible… It is a vicious practice and repugnant to all honorable
Americans to set class against class, race against race, and religion
- Excerpts from a statement issued Sept. 12, 1960 by 107 leaders of varied faiths in
response to religious bigotry and extremism during the Kennedy-Nixon presidential
election (reprinted in full in Patricia Barrett’s Religious Liberty and the American
The rise of extremism in some elements of American life…represents a
clear and present danger to the tradition of American pluralism and a
distortion of religious precepts in political life. We see these developments
as a threat to the fabric of American life, to a democratic society, to Jewish
values and to the security of American Jewry. The great strength of America
lies in its pluralistic nature with its respect for diversity of viewpoints, whether
liberal or conservative, Christian, Jewish or any other.
- Resolution of Union of American Hebrew Congregations, adopted Nov. 22, 1980
In a state where the majority of people are Catholic, the church will require
that legal existence be denied to error, and that if religious minorities exist,
they shall have only a de facto existence without opportunity to spread their
- Editorial, Civilta Cattolica (Italian Jesuit Journal), April 1948
We live in a pluralistic society. In such a society, churches should not seek to
use the authority of government to make the whole community conform to
their particular moral codes. Rather, churches should seek to enlarge and
clarify the ethical grounds of public discourse and to identify and define the
foreseeable consequences of available choices of public policy.
In participating in the arena of public affairs, churches are not inherently
superior to other participants; hence the stands which they take on particular
issues of public policy are not above question or criticism…
- Excerpt from General Assembly Resolution, United Methodist Church, 1980
The principle of church-state separation may sometimes be inconvenient or
costly to one side or the other. But there is one great thing about that wall: it
works for both sides.
- Editorial, Chicago Tribune, June 12, 1985
It must be remembered that America is an increasingly pluralistic society, an
amalgam of different races, cultures, nationalities, religions. In these
conditions Americans can only be grateful for the Constitution’s wisdom of
erecting a wall of separation between church and state and leaving religious
practice to individual conscience.
Religious tolerance is best safeguarded when the state injects itself the
- Editorial, Christian Science Monitor, October 27, 1980
There can be no religious freedom where any church or group of churches
dominates the entire educational system.
- Editorial, New York Times, January 14, 1930
The answer lies in the common understanding we have as Americans about
our diverse religious views and our respect for each other’s beliefs. This
tolerance binds us as a people and protects us as individuals. We have
agreed that each person may practice his own religion without interference
from the state, and we don’t want the government to do anything that will
promote one religion over another.
- Editorial, Washington Post, March 7, 1984
Teaching About Religion
in support of civic pluralism