Marvin Olasky: A religious liberty history question

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Tuesday, June 18th, the 77th birthday for Paul McCartney, my favorite Beatle. And this tune? Meant a lot to me in my younger years, “In My Life,” from the 1965 album Rubber Soul. So happy birthday, Paul!

Well, good morning! This is The World and Everything in It from listener-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher.

Next up, speaking of trips down memory lane, let’s go way back, shall we? Marvin Olasky now has a religious-liberty history lesson.

MARVIN OLASKY, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF: This month the Supreme Court will decide a big religious liberty case involving a cross erected on public land in Maryland.

Whichever way it goes, we’ll hear a lot of prattle about separating church and state. Here’s one thing to keep in mind in evaluating the oratory: The Constitutional goal 2+ centuries ago was to disestablish powerful denominations without disestablishing God.

Here’s a quick history lesson about the Maryland state constitution of 1776. It emphasized belief in God but separated denomination and state. That constitution said “it is the duty of every man to worship God.” The constitution also noted that the particular style is up for grabs: “It is the duty of every man to worship God in such manner as he thinks most acceptable to him.”

Crucially, Maryland banned any denominational establishment. No one would “be compelled to frequent or maintain any particular place of worship, or any particular ministry.” Help to the poor also proceeded through churches.

If the legislature passed a tax for supporting the poor, a taxpayer could have his money go to “the poor of his own denomination, or the poor in general of any particular county.”

Other states had similar rules. In South Carolina, taxes could be used to support churches, as long as no one was “obliged to pay towards the maintenance and support of a religious worship” not his own.

The Massachusetts constitution of 1780 emphasized toleration—“no subject shall be hurt, molested, or restrained, in his person, liberty, or estate, for worshipping God in the manner and season most agreeable to the dictates of his own conscience.”

But it also encouraged worship, because “The happiness of a people, and the good order and preservation of civil government, essentially depend upon piety, religion, and morality.”

Virginia Governor Patrick Henry also thought religious belief essential. A big chunk of property taxes now go to support government-funded schools, but Henry wanted a diverse educational system. He proposed that each person paying the property tax could send it to the religious society he preferred. If the taxpayer did not designate a particular organization, the tax would be applied to the maintenance of a county school.

George Washington, John Marshall, and George Mason, later known as the Father of the First Amendment, supported Henry. But a coalition of Baptists who favored separation from society, and so-called “freethinkers” who wanted to knock Christianity off its social pedestal, killed the bill in 1784.

A few years later the First Amendment enshrined the principle that there should be no nationally established denomination.

But if an orator 200 years ago had stood up on the Fourth of July and proclaimed that God was disestablished, his listeners would have rushed forward to smell his breath. Consumption of corn likker was not scheduled to begin until the speechifying was done.

For WORLD Radio, I’m Marvin Olasky.

(Photo/Amanda Voisard, Washington Post)

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