Skip to main content

Religious Liberty and the American Founding

Natural Rights and the Original Meanings of the First Amendment Religion Clauses

An insightful rethinking of the meaning of the First Amendment’s protection of religious freedom.
The Founders understood religious liberty to be an inalienable natural right. Vincent Phillip Muñoz explains what this means for church-state constitutional law, uncovering what we can and cannot determine about the original meanings of the First Amendment’s Religion Clauses and constructing a natural rights jurisprudence of religious liberty.  

Drawing on early state constitutions, declarations of religious freedom, Founding-era debates, and the First Amendment’s drafting record, Muñoz demonstrates that adherence to the Founders’ political philosophy would lead neither to consistently conservative nor consistently liberal results. Rather, adopting the Founders’ understanding would lead to a minimalist church-state jurisprudence that, in most cases, would return authority from the judiciary to the American people. Thorough and convincing, Religious Liberty and the American Founding is key reading for those seeking to understand the Founders’ political philosophy of religious freedom and the First Amendment Religion Clauses.

344 pages | 8 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2022

Law and Legal Studies: The Constitution and the Courts

Political Science: American Government and Politics, Classic Political Thought


"In Religious Liberty and the American Founding, Vincent Phillip Muñoz offers an intriguing new argument on the meaning of the religion clauses of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. His unconventional argument is not likely to please anyone in the heated political and legal debates over religious liberty, but this book deserves a close reading from anyone interested in religious liberty juris-prudence, natural rights theory, or originalist approaches to constitutional interpretation."

Keith E. Whittington, Perspectives on Politics

"This book is the culmination of a decade of Muñoz’s scholarship on the religion clauses of the First Amendment. Those who imagine there is nothing new and valuable to say on this much-analyzed topic should think again. Muñoz has written the best account in one place of the way in which the political theory of the founders regarding religious liberty connects with the delphic legal text of those clauses."

Michael W. McConnell, First Things

"The importance of the First Amendment is universally understood. It is the most discussed part of the Constitution and the courts have ruled on its meaning many times. Muñoz argues persuasively, however, that scholars, lawyers, and judges have all done a consistently sloppy job of seeking to understand what the founders actually meant by the words they used."

Journal of the American Revolution

"This book is an outstanding guide to the many schools of thought on religious liberty in the United States and in his argument for an inalienable natural rights understanding as the Founders’ most authoritative view, Muñoz convincingly shows that competing accounts (e.g., 'neutrality,' 'accommodation,' 'separation,' 'non-endorsement,' 'minimizing political division,' and 'tradition') do not capture the deepest understanding of the Founders’ thought."

New Books Network

"Vincent Phillip Muñoz’s superb new book is an indispensable guide to the issue that will soon replace abortion as the most important point of contention in our constitutional law. . . . The relationship between church and state will become the defining concern of a new era in the courts. . . . The framers wrote the religion clauses of our Constitution to set the parameters, as best they could, for a healthy and noble balance between freedom and order. Recovering the original meanings of those clauses is essential if we are to restore that balance, and Vincent Phillip Muñoz’s book gives invaluable aid in that necessary task."

Claremont Review of Books

"Phillip Muñoz, whose religion clauses scholarship is incredibly learned and thoughtful, now provides significant evidence of a natural rights basis for religious liberty in the American founding with a complete study in his new book, Religious Liberty and the American Founding. Muñoz contends, with deep support, that this natural rights foundation is the most historically accurate formulation of religious liberty."

Law & Liberty

"Muñoz’s account exhibits impressive scholarship; it provides a lucid explanation of the Founders’ natural rights thinking; and the examination of constitutional texts is methodical and informative. The analysis of the legislative history of the Establishment Clause is as meticulous as any I have seen."

Public Discourse

"Religious Liberty and the American Founding provides a superb analysis of the natural-rights thinking that undergirded the founders’ understanding of the relation between religion and government. Muñoz examines the moral premises, political ideas, and public debates that informed the Constitution’s best-known limitations on government’s power to regulate religion. His natural-rights constitutionalism yields results that at different junctures will discomfit the right and the left. But his analysis makes better sense of the Constitution’s promise of religious liberty than the major alternatives."

RealClear Politics

"Vincent Phillip Muñoz’s lucid Religious Liberty and the American Founding provides one of the best treatments we have on the meaning of the religion clauses, despite the sometimes unclear records of their development. He delivers a compelling analysis of the state constitutional debates and their various comments about religious liberty....[His] review of what the Founders did—and did not—say about religious liberty, church-state relations, and natural rights is one of the best analyses I’ve ever seen on this sometimes perplexing historical topic."

Action Institute

"In a field crowded with books on religious liberty, Muñoz’s is especially welcome because it perhaps uniquely relies on the natural rights theory of the founding and its implications for constitutional interpretation. It is a radical book, in both senses of that term. He makes bold claims, and he returns to the roots: natural rights, which he argues are the original meaning behind the legal original meaning."

Thomas G. West, University Bookman

“Muñoz’s exploration of the natural law foundations of religious liberty is highly illuminating. It is a model of how natural law analysis can be used to understand constitutional rights.”

Philip Hamburger, Columbia Law School

“Muñoz offers a careful reconstruction of the original meaning of the religion clauses, scrupulously mapping the motives and concerns that animated the framers.  He vividly recreates their world and draws surprising contemporary implications from the constitutional text they wrote—implications that pose a serious challenge to the self-styled originalists on today’s Supreme Court.”

Andrew Koppelman, author of "Defending American Religious Neutrality"

Table of Contents

Introduction: Natural Rights and the First Amendment Religion Clauses

Part 1 Philosophy: The Founders’ Political Philosophy of Religious Liberty
Chapter 1 The Founders’ First Agreement: The Natural Right of Religious Liberty Is Possessed by All Individuals
Chapter 2 The Founders’ Second Agreement: Society Compact Theory, Freedom of Worship, and Religious Liberty as an Inalienable Right
Chapter 3 The Foundations of the Founders’ Agreements: The Founders’ Philosophies and Theologies of the Natural Right of Religious Liberty
Chapter 4 The Founders’ Disagreement: Natural Rights and the Separation of Church from State

Part 2 Constitutional Originalism: The Original Meanings of the Religion Clauses
Chapter 5 The Original Meaning of the Establishment Clause
Chapter 6 The Original Meaning of the Free Exercise Clause

Part 3 Constitutional Meaning: Constructing the Religion Clauses
Chapter 7 Natural Rights Constructions of the First Amendment’s Religion Clauses
Chapter 8 How the Natural Rights Constructions Would Adjudicate Actual Cases
Conclusion   Should We Adopt the Natural Rights Constructions?

Be the first to know

Get the latest updates on new releases, special offers, and media highlights when you subscribe to our email lists!

Sign up here for updates about the Press