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Author:Michael I. MeyersonImprint:Yale University Press
Author:Michael I. MeyersonImprint:Yale University Press
On November 6, the US will elect a president and vice-president. For the first time in US history though, neither of the major parties has nominated a white Protestant to their tickets. Given these remarkable and unprecedented circumstances, Michael Meyerson’s work is a timely and relevant contribution to the study of religion in American politics.
While he does not address modern politics explicitly, Meyerson occasionally references recent Supreme Court decisions to emphasize how modern interpreters use and misuse the documents of the Founding Fathers in parsing the role of religion in government and vice-versa. Impressive in both breadth and depth, the author’s treatment of the primary documents is carried out in a tedious and exhaustive manner, as only a law professor could. Meyerson shows how the Founders’ views were diverse, complex, ever-changing, and anything but straightforward. Nevertheless, he argues convincingly that the balanced and forward-thinking approaches of Washington, Jefferson, and Madison serve as a cornerstone of our national ideology of religious freedom.
Meyerson begins “before the beginning.” The British colonies established early on an ironic balance between religious freedom and bigotry. In New England, Puritans seeking freedom of practice for themselves denied a voice, a home, and, occasionally, a life, to local religious “dissenters.” (Though hypocritical to modern sensibilities, this is a very old theme.) Each colony came to be dominated by a different Protestant denomination—Anglicans, Presbyterians, Quakers, Baptists, Anabaptists, Congregationalists, etc.—with occasional communities of Catholics and Jews interspersed. Despite their common language and homeland, it seemed that these colonies were destined to be forever fractured.
Nevertheless, as they proceeded down the path to revolution, the disjointed colonies found a unifying ethos under the banner of intolerance. With the Quebec Act of 1774, the king guaranteed protection to Canadian Catholics. The Act was denounced as “Intolerable” by John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, Sam Adams, and Thomas Paine, among others. England’s act of religious tolerance was taken as an affront to Protestants in the lower colonies, thereby uniting the Americans.
America’s legacy owes much to the level-headed Washington for his conciliatory voice amid widespread religious scapegoating. (The land provisioned to Canada in the Quebec Act was the more substantive objection.) As Washington wrote, “[w]hile we are Contending for our own Liberty, we should be very cautious of violating the Rights of Conscience in others.” During his tenures as general and president, Washington set a myriad of precedents, not least of which was his delicate use of religious language. While his speeches frequently implored a monotheistic deity, he was, without exception, nonsectarian. Meyerson thus challenges recent historical mis-treatments: “[A] host of fabricated or exaggerated stories about Washington’s public expressions of religion have been introduced into his biography,” and used “to justify a greater role for government in discussing and encouraging religion.”
While Washington’s religious policies were largely practical, Jefferson and Madison provided a more philosophical perspective, as champions of the “wall of separation.” As Meyerson contends though, positions advocating the restriction of government in religion should not paint either statesmen as non-religious. Despite the oversimplified assertions of modern commentators, “[t]here is nothing inconsistent or novel in religious people believing that governmental involvement harms religion.” Indeed, one of the most outspoken proponents of “freedom of conscience” at the time was the Baptist minister John Leland.
Jefferson’s idealism was not typical of his peers. The backbone of Meyerson’s thesis denies that the Founders had any unified or well-developed position on religion. From the end of the revolution, “the march toward religious liberty was not a simple choice of freedom versus tyranny, but a series of decisions, compromises, trials and errors.” The author thereby criticizes those who seek the “Founders’ intent” by calling into question its very existence.
In reading Meyerson, it is important to note that the Founders never envisioned a society in which white Protestants failed to comprise a majority or in which religion would be challenged by atheism in any way. Nevertheless, modern interpreters mine the period’s documents for evidence of a such considerations. For example, the Constitution binds all US officials to uphold the document “by Oath”—that is, a direct appeal to God—“or Affirmation,” the non-religious equivalent. Some have interpreted this as an exception for non-believers, but, as Meyerson explains, the recorded discourse indicates it was an accommodation for Quakers, whose religious principles forbade the swearing of oaths. Atheists simply were not on the radar.
In sum, Meyerson is to be commended for his balanced and honest approach to a polarizing topic. Endowed by Our Creator is an insightful study that should challenge students of history and Constitutional law to think critically and candidly about religion’s role in the public sphere and the government’s role in religion. It should be read by all teachers of US History, all conscientious politicians, and all who value personal freedom and diversity.
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