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.
The turning point came on June 12, 1776, as the Virginia Colonial Convention adopted Article 16 of its Declaration of Rights. In a colony where Anglicans enjoyed official support, Baptists (who had previously been jailed for preaching) petitioned the Colonial Convention for equal rights, citing their faithful service in the army. Unable to refuse their request, the Convention adopted Article 16:
That religion, or the duty which we owe our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence, and therefore all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion … and that it is the mutual duty of all to practice Christian forbearance, love and charity towards each other.
This declaration set the tone for all subsequent conversations. Religious language would be allowed ("Creator"), and religious convictions invited into the public sphere ("Christian forbearance, love and charity"), but no longer would one religion be privileged at the expense of others. And although Anglicanism wasn't officially disestablished in Virginia, James Madison edited a previous version to ensure that language of "free exercise" won out over mere "toleration of religion," effectively removing one group's right to grant permission of worship to another. For the first time, Anglicans, Baptists, Roman Catholics, and Jews stood on equal civil footing.
The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution delicately balance both public religious expression and the restriction of government in religious affairs. The Declaration references "the Supreme Judge of the world" and "the protection of divine Providence," yet the Constitution lacks any specific religious reference and forbids religious tests for office. Yet the Constitution, Meyerson says, wasn't "godless." Congress simply had no authority to legislate on religious matters. The religion clauses of the First Amendment—"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof"—balanced the refusal to create a national church with the protection of religious liberty for all.
Truth in History
The strength of Meyerson's book is its attempt at impartiality; in spite of polarizing contemporary debates, he goes where the evidence takes him. For example, today many deride Thomas Jefferson as the patron saint of secularism. Yet this is the same Jefferson who proposed biblical imagery for a national seal and once approved federal funding for a Catholic priest to minister to a Native American tribe. And it's quickly forgotten that Jefferson wrote that most famous American metaphor—"the separation of church and state"—in defense of Baptist rights in Connecticut, not to banish "that Infinite Power" (even Jefferson referenced God) from the public lexicon.
On the other side, many evangelicals claim figures like George Washington as proof that America is a Christian nation. They cite his first inaugural address, replete with references to God, and his public declarations of days for prayer and fasting. But Washington refused to publicly endorse Christianity. When a group of New England ministers once complained that the Constitution lacked any specific "acknowledgment of the only true God and Jesus Christ," he reminded them it wasn't the government's role to instruct people in the "path of true piety." It is "to the guidance of the ministers of the gospel," he suggested, that "this important object is, perhaps, more properly committed." Instead of publicly confessing the gospel, Washington endeavored to create a "religiously inclusive language" to unify a religiously diverse nation, setting a precedent for all subsequent American presidents.
Though careful to balance his argument, Meyerson is unafraid to take on dicey debates. "Is America a Christian nation?" he asks. For Meyerson, the question is not simply demographic (the majority of Americans self identify as Christians). Nor is it about founding principles (early America is full of Christian influence, including ministers like John Leland who influenced Jefferson's concept of religious freedom). Instead, the question is about identity. That is to say, do you have to be Christian to be a "real" American? Washington, Jefferson, and Madison would all say no. Because America has always been a country of religious diversity, framing America as a Christian nation treads the path back to religious establishment and tends to exclude minority views from public life.
Being a peacemaker, however, has limits. Throughout the book there's a tendency to lump all religions into one shapeless pile. Meyerson says that the "framers' [spiritual] language was designed to communicate to all, including Deistic, agnostic and atheist," and that phrases like "Almighty God" and "holy author of our religion" encompassed the beliefs of groups like Hindus—and even unbelievers. Although the founders certainly valued religious inclusion, it's unclear how atheists (there is no God) and Hindus (there are many gods) could both acknowledge one Almighty God. Talk like this leads to religious illiteracy—an ignorance of the basic tenets of world religions. Better to admit, as Meyerson does in the introduction, that America was born in a broadly theistic framework. There is no danger in admitting the overtly Protestant roots of the framing period, while simultaneously protecting the rights of minority religions to speak with the liberty Christians demand for themselves.
Hearing Both Sides
Both sides of the church-state debate will probably be aggravated by this book—and that's precisely why they should read it. Those who adamantly portray America as a Christian nation should heed the voice of colonial ministers who warned of making "their church a mere political machine, which the State may regulate at pleasure." The problem with establishing Christianity as a national religion is that it may, either explicitly or implicitly, come to depend upon the state for legitimacy, and often lapses into using Christianity for political ends—a practice all too common in a political culture where evangelicals are primarily seen as votes to be won in November.
Yet those who believe religious conviction in American politics is constitutionally prohibited would be wise to re-examine the actual words of the founders who often referred, among other divine designations, to "the Great Parent and Sovereign of the Universe." Washington, Jefferson, and Madison intended to protect freedom for religious conviction and not banish it from public life.
Peacemakers are rarely heroes, and occasionally they are caught in the crossfire. But perhaps Michael Meyerson will dodge enough partisan criticism to emerge as a voice of balance and truth on an issue in desperate need of civility. At bare minimum, this book should inspire a new reverence for that most cherished liberty endowed upon us by our Creator.
Jeff Haanen is a freelance writer living in Denver, Colorado, and a graduate of Denver Seminary.
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