Meaning of the Term “Religion”
To understand the background of the First Amendment, we also have to understand the meaning of the word “religion” in the 18th century. “Religion” in its 18th century usage generally referred to what we call today denominations or Churches within the Christian faith. For example, even today some Catholics refer to their church as the “Catholic Religion” even though it is a Church within the wider Christian faith.
Protestant churches today, such as the Church of England, Lutheran, Methodist, and others usually refer to themselves as denominations, not “religions.” The term “religion” today usually refers to Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and other faiths in the world. At the time of the drafting of the Constitution, the United States was overwhelmingly Christian, so these other faiths weren’t considered, although they certainly would fall under its provisions given the wording of the First Amendment. The Founders were not thinking of other religions as we would today, since none of these other faiths were in the U.S. at that time. There was a relatively small number of Jewish people in the country, but everybody else had some sort of a Christian background.
Interestingly, most state constitutions required public officials to be practicing Christians, and those provisions within the state constitutions continued well after the U.S. Constitution was ratified. Despite revisionist history to the contrary, the vast majority of the Founders were devout and practicing Christians. Even Thomas Jefferson attended church regularly when he was president, and Benjamin Franklin attended various churches and supported public prayer. Although most of the Founders hadn’t lived in Europe, they were coming out of a European experience in which official state Christian “religions” oppressed minority Christian “religions.” Therefore, they wanted to allow all Christian “religions” freedom to exist without government interference, with no Christian “religion” being dominant.
As non-Christian faiths entered the country via immigrants, they were protected under the First Amendment. Its wording was broad enough that non-Christian faiths fell under its protection, so these immigrants could freely practice their religions in (at that time) a predominantly Protestant country. But we have to realize that “religion” in the First Amendment was understood to be Christian denominations. In no way were the Founders trying to eliminate Christianity or any mention of God from society, but rather to protect all religious expression from governmental interference.