In the last essay, we discussed the British political system of the 17th century. That system consisted of King and Parliament, supposed to share rule but really locked in a battle for supremacy. While the division of power between them originally consisted of their number—the one king as well as few Lords and the many Commons in Parliament, the division between legislative and executive power grew up in the midst of the English Civil War.
King and Parliament did not fight this war merely for which institution would wield more power. A religious dispute arose, lighting the fires of war as well. In this religious dispute, we see much with which to compare to the American Constitution and the Republic that operates through it.
Every society holds some things in common. Short of total communism, they do not hold everything communally, but divide everything between personal ownership and the common stock. This division includes more than land or stuff. It includes principles. By what a society holds in common, they thereby define who they are and what they should do as a people.
For 17th century English society, people considered religion an essential glue holding them together. They saw God and His commands as essential to right believing and right living. They saw those commands as stretching to public actions pertaining to law and custom. Therefore, they assumed as necessary some king of religious uniformity. A common God understood by a common theology and common church helped to make England one nation. The English Reformation, with King Henry VIII declaring a national church apart from Roman Catholicism, only bolstered the link between national identity and religious conformity. There was a Church of England with dissenters often punished and forced to attend the official state religious body.
This history also bolstered the position of the king within England’s national religion. The Act of Supremacy (1534) had named Henry VIII “Supreme Head of the Church.” Since then, for theological reasons, English monarchs have taken the slightly different title of “Supreme Governor of the Church of England.” Still, the monarch stands as the head of the church.
This view has a utopianism to it. It hopes for uniformity of practice religiously to create a kingdom that conforms to God’s rules here on earth. It sees a unity in the king that helps to bring about this conformity through his or her governing of the Church of England. We see in here some remnants of the old divine right of kings. As God set him on the throne, so the king must made sure right religion reigns so long as he does reign, too.
The civil war saw armies with competing theologies, even as they fought under the banner of Crown or Parliament. The Cavaliers and the Roundheads, as they were called, fought over issues such as religious rites and how to structure church government. So violent did this conflict go that, in 1649, King Charles I was beheaded after a questionable trial by a small portion of Parliament.
America took a different track, both regarding religion and the king’s role related to it. In the United States Constitution, our First Amendment had two clauses related to religion. The first protected its free exercise, the second forbade the national government from making any law regarding establishing a religion. There would be no “Church of America” like existed across the pond. Moreover, the Constitution forbade any religious test be required to hold federal office.
Taken together, these provisions set up a baseline of religious liberty for all. State establishments and tests did continue in some places, including an established Congregational church in Massachusetts as late as 1833. However, even most states quickly adopted similar provisions in their own laws and constitutions.
This position took an anti-utopian stance. It saw religion as something that cannot hold us together because we must leave the individual conscience free to worship or not worship God as that person sees fit. No coercion should fall on the dissenters from majority belief.
This point mattered for the president. He would never be head of a church. He would never protect doctrinal purity. This point, again, connected with the lack of divine right. The people set him up to rule, not his birth. He would rule for four-year terms, not for life.
But our presidents do take some role in religious expression. George Washington’s Farewell Address warned of the need for religious belief among the people. That belief would shore up national morality among the ultimate human rulers, We the People. It would aid in public and private happiness, in the ruling of self that is a prerequisite to running a popular government.
Moreover, since Washington, most presidents have published proclamations or given speeches that thank or make requests of God. John Adams warned in 1798 that our Constitution was made for a religious people and the need to cultivate those beliefs, consistent with human liberty. Perhaps the greatest speech ever given on American soil, Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, consisted of an extended meditation on God’s will in the American Civil War and an affirmation of God’s goodness in the midst of so much hardship and bloodshed.
These appeals to religion should be seen, not as coercions to make one believe, but as encouragements, as attempts at persuasion. In that, we have come a long way from the English Civil War. Much divides us that people think we must hold in common these days. But we continue to hold the right to believe as we see fit and to act on those beliefs within reason, within not hurting others. We can thank our Constitution for that and be thankful for a president who is chief executor of the laws, not governor of an American church.
Adam M. Carrington is an Associate Professor of Politics at Hillsdale College. There, he teaches on matters of Constitutional law, American political institutions, and separation of powers. His writing has appeared in such popular forums as The Wall Street Journal, The Hill, National Review, and Washington Examiner. His book on the jurisprudence of Justice Stephen Field was published in 2017 by Lexington. Carrington received his B.A. from Ashland University and his M.A. and Ph.D. from Baylor University. He lives in Hillsdale with his wife and their two daughters.