In an Acton University lecture titled “Religious Freedom: The Dawn of the First Amendment,” John Pinheiro sought to give a fuller understanding of the meaning of the First Amendment through its historical context. Contrary to a current widespread belief, religious freedom has not always been valued in the United States and has been almost constantly threatened, even after the ratification of the Constitution. Pinheiro described the Founders’ fight for religious liberty as both radical and counter-cultural because of the religious conflict and disdain for true religious freedom that existed throughout the history of the United States and continues today.
The historical context of the First Amendment starts with the history of the colonies and the political thought of the time period. Many of the colonists came to North America seeking freedom from religious persecution and state established churches, most notably the Puritans leaving to escape the Church of England.
At the same time, Enlightenment thinking was developing and gaining acceptance. The emergence of a belief that religion is opposed to reason and something that humanity will, and should, outgrow meant that it was less consequential which religion people practiced. Toleration of other religions, in that way grew out of a belief that none of them held the final truth, so none was above the other. (more…)