Freedom of religion is firmly rooted within our American consciousness, and we take it for granted that our right to worship if and when and where we choose is inalienable and protected. But the origins of this line of thinking were anything but commonplace.
In James Madison’s Virginia, the Anglican Church was the state church before and directly after American independence. Anglican clergy were employed by the government and acted as teachers, becoming officials of the state. In the years directly after the Revolution, the Founders were eager to cast off British practices and create those that reflected new American ideals. A church as an established arm of the government ran counter to the Enlightenment tenet that liberty was a natural human right.
In his years as a young Virginia legislator, Madison became keenly interested in the efforts of Elijah Craig, a Baptist preacher who was arrested for not having an Anglican license. Madison’s philosophical mind began to view an established state religion as a denial of a citizen’s right to exercise his or her own freedom of conscience.