Last week, in a move that seems more reminiscent of 1783 than 2013, North Carolina legislators proposed a bill declaring their right to establish an official state religion. In doing so, the two GOP lawmakers from Rowan County, who were supported by 14 other Republican members of the House, directly challenged federal and constitutional authority. “The North Carolina General Assembly asserts,” the bill states, “that the Constitution of the United States of America does not prohibit states or their subsidiaries from making laws respecting an establishment of religion.”
While legislators don’t expect the bill to actually pass or even come to a vote—one of the bill’s authors admitted that this was “more of a demonstration” than anything else—the quixotic move taps into a deeper strain of ideological angst. Even more, it is just another example in a long line of moments in which America’s political tradition is shaped through religious belief, regional identity, and the always contested, if often heralded, notion of separation between church and state.
It is true that the First Amendment only states that an official religion cannot be established from the federal level: it declares that the nation’s “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,” which left the door open for individual states to do as they please. But the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868, along with the legal and legislative interpretations of that amendment in the following century, has made it unconstitutional to establish any religion at the state level. Thus, the North Carolina bill’s argument is a cafeteria-style reading of the government’s laws and applications. There is historical precedent, however, for such a move at the state level, highlighting America’s tenuous balance of religious freedom and the consistent temptation for an official religious identity.
The American nation was born at a moment of constitutional awakening, an era in which people rejected the notion of divine right in favor of human-made governments. As a result, the framers of federal, state, and local governments believed that constitutions worked best when they embodied the norms of their constituents. Citizens wanted their laws to correspond with their own morals, values, and, more often than is typically acknowledged, religious beliefs.
An important debate that resulted from this adjusted political understanding was what to do with the nation’s sponsorship of religion. On the one hand, American ideals and practicalities necessitated a freedom of practice that would enable the broad range of religious difference already in existence in the young nation; on the other, many felt that complete disestablishment would lead to several problems, including religious anarchy and the deterioration of biblical principles. While some felt the nation’s promise rested in unfettered religious liberty, others maintained that the government was required to reflect the religiosity of its constituents. The ensuing compromise shifted the responsibility from the federal government to the states, where the local cultural tenor and expectations could be better represented.
At the state level, this tension played out in a much more dynamic way, as regions appropriated local customs, practices, and beliefs in their legislation. In some regions, religious pluralism was part and parcel to both their cultural tradition and legal jurisdictions. Many states incorporated disestablishment from the beginning—even if the Protestant faith was either explicitly or implicitly required for office holders. Other states maintained an established religion or an allegiance to a particular denomination. New Hampshire (the Congregational Church) and South Carolina (the Episcopal Church) didn’t abolish state-funded sponsorship of a specific religion until after the Constitution was ratified. For Connecticut and Massachusetts, Congregationalism remained the established religion until 1818 and 1833, respectively.
That established religion did not cease at the dawn of America, supposedly the bastion of religious liberty, may strike modern readers as contradictory. Yet the contested idea of “religious freedom” is a fluid concept understood in different ways within different settings, and is more indicative of an individual or culture’s assumptions than is a statement of how things actually are. Many citizens in the early republic, while acknowledging that everyone had a right to private worship, believed that the government would only succeed if it incorporated Christian morals; their providential outlook designated that if America didn’t fulfill its biblical covenant, it could not prosper. Maintaining an established religion while allowing the freedom of individual worship, then, was understood to be a compromise that enabled institutional righteousness while not infringing on the private conscience.
Even those states that didn’t establish a state religion often retained Protestantism as a barrier for civic service. North Carolina’s original constitution, for instance, while refusing to sanction an established religion, declared that “no person who shall deny the being of God, or the truth of the Protestant religion, or the divine authority of either the Old or New Testaments” would be eligible for “holding any office” (Article 32). Such stipulations were common throughout the states. The competing impulses to enshrine religious liberty as a hallmark of the country’s foundation while still positing America as a Christian nation led to paradoxical and, at times, seemingly contradictory beliefs and practices.
Yet statutes of established religions and oaths for offices were eventually blotted out from state laws as the nation more fully (if reluctantly) embraced pluralism. As a result of many factors, including the work by minority religious groups, the expansion of free-market thought into the religious realm, and the acknowledgement traditional prejudices, Americans came to recognize that a complete separation between state and religious institutions was the best course for the nation. Indeed, even staunch supporters of state religions came to see the benefits of disestablishment. Lyman Beecher, previously a dogged defender of Connecticut’s sponsorship of Congregationalism, came to understand these legal changes as “the best thing that ever happened to the State of Connecticut” because it “cut the churches loose from dependence on state support [and] threw them wholly on their own resources and on God.” In the end, volunteerism and free market, turned out to be the driving forces behind the end to state-sponsored religion.
The final nail in established religion’s coffin came in the aftermath of the Civil War, when the federal government was further strengthened. The Fourteenth Amendment, besides granting citizenship to all naturalized persons, prohibited discrimination, including on the basis of religion. Ironically, this same amendment that cemented religious disestablishment also represents one of the primary causes for North Carolina raising the issue once again: the extended reach of the federal government.
Individual states have proven more likely to embrace their regional identity as the federal government grows more powerful and seeks to better accommodate unique regions under a centralized jurisdiction. Local customs and traditions are among the few things a state can use as an anchor in a sea of continual change and assimilation. It might be more than mere coincidence that North Carolina’s bill claiming the right to a state religion was proposed only days after the State conceded to take down a Confederate flag in their Capitol. If the state can’t be symbolically proud of its history, it can at least be outspoken about its religious allegiance.
The bill is only one of several recent state proposals designed to challenge federal authority. In Mississippi, a proposed bill sought to establish a state board with power to nullify federal laws. In Kentucky, a “Religious Freedom Act” was designed to curtail, in the face of national cultural shifts, the government from interfering in cases of discrimination against homosexual individuals. In Alabama, the state senate passed legislation that preemptively pushed back against federal restrictions on gun access. One of the sponsors of North Carolina’s religious establishment bill recently declared that the state must allow broader gun access in part to guard against the “tyranny” of an overbearing government. In one sense, then, the establishment bill is just another embodiment of struggles over states rights.
But the seemingly fringe bill is more than just a political statement: it is an expression of regional angst toward the loss of a desired regional identity—an identity that is as much religious as it is political. The North Carolina bill’s immediate and acknowledged context is a lawsuit brought against the state regarding Christian prayer. More than just squabbling about who gets to define the state’s religiosity, then, North Carolina legislators wish their government to be an embodiment of their private values and beliefs. They are wrestling with an idealized, even imagined, constitutional past. Their proposed bill is another in a long line of instances in which religious belief, regional identity, and state sovereignty prove to be a potent cocktail.
Benjamin E. Park, a PhD student at the University of Cambridge, studies the cultural, religious, and intellectual history of early America. He is the associate editor of Mormon Studies Review, blogs at The Junto, and is currently a visiting fellow with Boston University’s American Political History Institute.