Freedom of Religion

Foundational Documents and Historical Arguments

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Stephen A. Smith
  • Fayetteville, AR: 
    Oxbridge Research Associates
    , June
     702 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


It becomes apparent by the third entry—Asoka the Great’s “Major Rock Edict 12,” from the Mauryan empire (275 BCE)—that this collection of documents will chart a different course from other American church-state readers. Stephen A. Smith, who compiled the 300 documents, explains that, while he will “frame the issue” in the American context, he has sought to assemble “the most comprehensive collection of arguments regarding freedom of religion, not only from the United States but from a broader geographical and political experience” (v).

This volume is less oriented towards the classroom than it is for those engaged in contemporary debates about religious freedom who are looking for new perspectives on very old issues. The collection begins in 600-900 BCE with the Mosaic Law, and ends in 1927 with the Scopes trial. The selections are arranged chronologically, so, tucked between American freethinker Lemeul Washburn’s “The Protestant Menace to Our Government (1889)” and Robert Ingersoll’s “God in the Constitution (1890)” are Ito Hirobumi’s “Commentaries on the Constitution of Japan” and a “Brazilian Decree on the Separation of State.” Not long thereafter, Lenin’s endorsement of the freedom of conscience appears only a few pages before Justice Brewer’s “The United States a Christian Nation.”  

Smith’s stated goal is to provide “an accessible resource, to strengthen your understanding of the parameters of religious liberty, and to provide you with the opportunity to have better grounded arguments to advance and defend your own positions” (vi). When he speaks of “your own positions,” he seems to have in mind a strong commitment to individuals’ freedom of conscience as well as to the strict separation of church and state, generally as set out in James Madison’s Memorial and Remembrance and Thomas Jefferson’s religious freedom bill. Madison and Jefferson together account for eight entries in the volume. 

Other perspectives on church-state issues make an appearance, but not always in the most favorable light. The cover illustration, a painting of “Galileo before the Holy Office,” foreshadows the inclusion of numerous examples of either churches or states dealing harshly with religious dissenters, and endorsing methods such as condemning heretics to death (Pliny the Younger, Aquinas, Henry IV, Calvin, and others), and banning or burning heretical books (the Council of Trent, the Massachusetts General Court). Theologians and political leaders who have argued that church and state should cooperate for the common good are harder to find: John Winthrop’s “City on a Hill,” the Northwest Ordinance’s commitment to “religion, morality and knowledge being necessary to good government,” Washington’s Farewell Address, Theophilus Parsons’ extended discourse on the benefits of Massachusetts’s established church, and numerous other appeals for mutually supportive links between religion and government are notably absent.   

Some documents pointing to the importance of religion to civil society do nevertheless appear in this compilation, including those by Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story and the Reverend Jasper Adams. In the introductions to those entries, however, Smith makes a point of saying that Story was “rejecting the tenets of James Madison, who had appointed him to the Court” (435), and that Madison“politely reject[ed]” Adams’ “rhetorical move to reinterpret [Establishment Clause] history” (438). In a similar vein, when the Northwest Ordinance is mentioned in passing, Smith says that its language about religion being necessary to good government, as copied in the Constitution of the Cherokee Nation (1827), “breeches the separation of church and state mandated by the U.S. Constitution” (417).

Irrespective of whether readers share Smith’s perspectives on these cultural and constitutional issues, the volume is sure to offer an insightful survey of how various, and often unfamiliar, figures have argued for religious freedom around the world. Where else can we find, on contiguous pages, a California Seventh Day Adventist writing on “soul freedom,” an Izvestia editorial urging the Council of People’s Commissars to separate church and state, and the articles of the 1917 Mexican Constitution “confiscat[ing] church properties, disenfranchising clerics, abolishing parochial schools, and regulating the licensing and number of ministers” (647)?

This volume is, therefore, a useful reference tool, and it will provide even experts with the opportunity to explore documents they have not yet encountered. Beyond brief introductions, the materials themselves are rarely situated in their own historical or geopolitical contexts, but that is not the point. Rather, the volume contains a free-flowing chronicle of arguments from many parts of the world touching on church-state themes that have resonated throughout American religious history. There is much of interest in those materials. Moreover, seeing how Smith has assembled, organized and commented on them can offer a valuable insight into the role of scholarship in fashioning an American religious freedom canon that can be employed as artillery in church-state battles still being fought in courtrooms and legislatures around the country.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Donald L. Drakeman is Distinguished Research Professor in the Program on Constitutional Studies at the University of Notre Dame.

Date of Review: 
February 15, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Stephen A. Smith is Professor Emeritus of Communication at the University of Arkansas.


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