“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Historically, the first amendment was written to protect the church from secular interference and to break away from the situation which was still endemic in Europe at the time: secular leaders (which at the time only meant non-clerical) had for centuries appointed relatives and supporters to positions of authority within the church. It served their interests as it guaranteed church support -in most respects- for their decisions. In 1777 the founding fathers saw a Europe that was about to explode under its own weight (the nobility were supported by the clergy and vice versa and most nations had established churches which served the interests of the ruling powers) and decided to take measures to prevent this. The situation which resulted in the 1st French revolution in 1789 (there was more than one battle: actually a prolonged series over 10 years) was imminent and they feared it would spread to the colonies: England had already undergone a revolution when James II was deposed. .
Also the church, was at the time, still the most convenient means of law enforcement and tax collection (e.g. there was also no police service in the UK until Queen Victoria took direct action over the high crime rate). For this reason the relationship between the estates of nobility and clergy was, in the main, mutually beneficial. They both claimed to be working to protect the spiritual and physical interests of the commons (peasantry and rising middle classes by the 1750s) but in practice it was not the case. At the time that amendment of the US constitution was written, society had really only just begun moving from a feudalistic/agrarian one to one with condensed urban centres and the commons and peasants were –and in a lot of cases still are – regarded as a disposable, cheap labour force and virtually the property of the landed and ruling classes. I must emphasise here, serfs were not slaves. Serfs were bound to the land they lived on (not to a master. If the land was sold, the serfs stayed put), and lived rent free on their lord’s land in return for working it or providing other services. They fed themselves through subsistence farming. Ordinary peasants were not bound and lived self-sufficiently off the common land. Taxation of the peasant classes into starvation, and the debts owed by the king and nobles, supported by the church, had bankrupted France (France as we know it did not exist until after the Napoleonic wars).
Christians’ denial of the separation between church and state merely demonstrates their complete and wilful ignorance of history as well as their unsuitability to take an active role. What might also be a pertinent point at this juncture is that the first pilgrims were not actually fleeing persecution in England (England was under a Protestant Queen Elizabeth I then a Protestant James I). They left England because they had not been allowed to retaliate against their persecution under Mary I (they weren’t allowed to persecute Catholics). Initially they had moved the mostly Protestant Netherlands but there was still a high proportion of Catholics there, mostly in the nobility or positions of power (re Dutch revolt) so they left the Netherlands too and claimed land that was already inhabited after the native population had saved them from starving to death. That’s gratitude for you.
- Creating Nations – The Open University (Block 5 of the course texts for OU module A200 Exploring History – Medieval to Modern 1400-1900)
- Reformation, Diarmaid MacCulloch
- A History of Christianity, Diarmaid MacCulloch