The line between religion and government may be vague, but Americans revolt when they sense it's being crossed. Take the current controversy surrounding the contraception mandate in the Affordable Care Act, popularly known as Obamacare. In April, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops released a statement, "Our First, Most Cherished Liberty," warning against unprecedented threats to religious freedom from the government. Evangelicals and Catholics Together—an ecumenical group of pastors, theologians, and educators—published its own manifesto in First Things, calling for the renewal of religious freedom "in the greatest period of persecution in the history of Christianity." Of course, several women's rights groups responded by accusing the church of conducting a war on women. In case we needed a reminder, the culture wars continue to blaze.
But occasionally in times of war, peacemakers emerge. Michael Meyerson, a legal scholar at the University of Baltimore School of Law, is just such a peacemaker. His latest work, Endowed by Our Creator: The Birth of Religious Freedom in America (Yale University Press), seeks a sane middle ground between those who believe the First Amendment prohibits any type of support for religion (whether symbolic or financial) and "accommodationists" who believe the Constitution permits government to assist and even endorse religion. For Meyerson, the way to mediate this controversy is through re-examining American history. He asks, "What did the framers of the Constitution believe about religious freedom?" In this meticulously researched book devoid of the usual partisan bickering, Meyerson argues it's possible to protect both individual liberty and public religious expression, and he emerges with a strikingly balanced perspective on one of America's most hotly debated issues.
The Birth of Religious Freedom
Meyerson masterfully traces the historical development of religious freedom in America from the 1600s through the end of James Madison's presidency in 1817. Ironically, religious freedom was born in a context of religious hostility. Early Puritans such as John Winthrop sought to establish a "city on a hill" free from the persecutions waged by the Church of England. Yet in Winthrop's Massachusetts, Baptists were arrested, Catholics were excluded from public office, and Quakers were hanged. Over the course of a century, distaste for sectarian strife slowly began to change public attitudes. James Madison denounced religious persecution as "diabolical and hell-conceived," and although George Whitefield and Benjamin Franklin couldn't agree on doctrine, they were unified in their distaste for religious antagonism.
Despite growing religious toleration, through the 1700s most states had no scruples with formally establishing Protestant Christianity at the expense of other faiths. Maryland permitted a tax to benefit Christian churches, while Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Hampshire particularly favored Congregationalists. Six of the original colonies barred Catholics, Jews, and other non-Protestants from serving in public office. However, as religiously homogenous states began to see the need for cooperation to form a new nation, protecting religious freedom took center stage.