Amendment Paper

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From Washington to Jefferson – A Changing Vision, A Changing First Amendment: Charting the Ideological Connection of First Amendment Adjudication to Our Founding Fathers’ Views on Religion
Paul Baumgardner, Baylor University, Texas, USA
Abstract: As an independent society in the United States began to structure its democratic government towards the end of the eighteenth century, the issue of religion greatly divided early leaders. Our Founding Fathers — principally George Washington and Thomas Jefferson — offered influential, yet disparate, visions concerning the role of religion in American society. In 1791, the United States ratified the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”. Since the ratification of the First Amendment, the Supreme Court has been left to define the breadth of the oft-clashing constitutional religion clauses. While attempting to balance citizens’ right of free exercise with the prohibition against religious establishment, the Court has vacillated in its interpretation of the First Amendment. The judicial swing between the landmark 1947 free exercise case Everson v. Board of Education and a growingly pro-government 1990 ruling (Employment Division of Oregon v. Smith) also reflected a changing treatment towards our Founding Fathers’ visions. The majority holding in Smith embraced a modernized Jeffersonian vision regarding the role of religion and spirituality in society. However, this opinion represented a significant reworking in the American definition of individual religious liberty, at the expense of George Washington’s hopes for America. Keywords: United States Supreme Court, U.S. Constitution, First Amendment- Freedom of Religion, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Civil Religion, Everson v. Board of Education, Sherbert v. Verner, Employment Division of Oregon v. Smith

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N MANY WAYS, modern day juridical disagreements concerning religious freedoms represent nothing more than a recapitulation of the clash posed during our nation’s founding. As our independent society began to structure its democratic government towards the end of the eighteenth century, the issue of religion greatly divided early leaders. Our founding fathers offered influential, yet disparate, visions concerning the role of religion in American society. This essay sets its focus on two heavyweights in America’s founding, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, both men who would leave indelible marks on the public policies and the political institutions of our nation. However, the writings and proclamations of these two leaders furnish a fundamental clash in political theories vis-à-vis the proper relationship between religion and the state. Three influential Supreme Court freedom of religion cases shall be evaluated through the lenses of Jeffersonian and Washingtonian thought, revealing the changing nature of First Amendment jurisprudence. George Washington’s vision concerning the ideal role of religion in the democratic state has been closely linked to the concept of civil religion. Proponents of civil religion believe that there are multiple benefits that the state receives if it encourages a strong religious
The International Journal of Religion and Spirituality in Society Volume 1, Number 2, 2011, http://religioninsociety.com/journal/, ISSN 2152-7857
© Common Ground, Paul Baumgardner, All Rights Reserved, Permissions: cg-support@commongroundpublishing.com

THE INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF RELIGION AND SPIRITUALITY IN SOCIETY

identity in its citizens. Washington linked religion to democratic principles and good governance. In his Farewell Address, Washington imparted this wisdom upon the new nation: “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports… Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on…