Jim Cullen: Review of Michael I. Meyerson's "Endowed By Our Creator: The Birth of Religious Freedom in America" (Yale, 2012)
Jim Cullen, who teaches at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York, is a book review editor at HNN. His new book, Sensing the Past: Hollywood Stars and Historical Visions, is slated for publication by Oxford University Press later this year. Cullen blogs at American History Now.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about the ongoing controversy regarding the relationship between governmental and religious institutions in the United States is the fact it is ongoing. From the age of Paine to the Age of Aquarius, rising tides of religious skepticism have been apparent to champion and critic alike. Conversely, periodic Great Awakenings in the last 275 years have made faith ascendant. Each in its moment seemed to have unstoppable momentum. Yet here we are in the twenty-first century, with arguments as heated as they've ever been. Inevitably, partisans invoke the Founding Fathers to bolster their respective claims. As University of Baltimore School of Law professor Michael I. Meyerson shows in this impressively researched book, each side of the sacred vs. secular camp can find ammunition to support its respective point of view. But he regards such partisan exercises as misleading at best and dangerous at worst. That's not because the Founders lacked a clear vision, he says, but rather because that vision was cast in terms of a union in which church and state -- but not God and state, or religion and state -- would be separate.
One of the mistakes contemporary Americans make is their assumption that the Founders' views were static. Actually, Meyerson's narrative, which stretches from the late colonial era to the presidency of James Madison, shows they lived in a world in which the state of faith was highly fluid. It varied between colonies, across time, and among the Founders themselves, who in the face of political exigencies sometimes took positions that were philosophically inconsistent. In fact, the very term "religious freedom" was subject to multiple meanings. For the Puritans, freedom meant liberation from having to tolerate the self-evident corruptions of the crypto-papist Church of England. For others, it could mean simply the right to worship without expulsion. Or a that mandatory taxes would be siphoned toward a church of a believer's choosing. It did not necessarily mean a right to vote or hold office. Even the word "Christian" could be ambiguous (Catholic membership in this category was widely regarded as suspect.) Some colonies, like those of New England, were marked by a high degree of (Congregationalist) homogeneity. Others, particularly the middle colonies, were highly diverse. Though many colonists were aware of the religious terrain beyond their borders, they nevertheless remained worlds of their own, even decades after the Revolution.
It is nevertheless the case that the political imperatives of the Revolution forced the colonists to reckon with their diversity and make allowances for it, which they did with varying degrees of grace. The hero of this book is George Washington, whom Meyerson sees as singularly far-sighted in his ecumenical vision, which he viewed as a practical necessity in his view as commander-in-chief of the the Continental Army, a crucible in the formation of a national identity. But Meyerson views Washington as more than simply pragmatic -- not simply tolerant but accepting of just about all religious persuasions (with the partial exception of the Quakers, whose pacifism he regarded as suspect during the war). And as president he was able to speak and act with remarkable skill and tact in his dealings with the American people, repeatedly invoking terms like "Our Creator" while sidestepping terminology with a sectarian cast.
The Constitution is widely viewed as a conservative document designed to cool the passions of the revolutionary era. But in Endowed by Our Creator, it is depicted an instrument of ongoing religious liberalization. The mere creation of a federal frame, even one that respected states' rights, implicitly offered a contrast, if not an example, for states struggling to disestablish tax-supported churches. But again, severing formal links did not mean the suppression of religiosity, even among government leaders. There was a spectrum of opinion between the relatively orthodox John Adams and the consistently anti-establishment James Madison. But the former would sign a treaty with Tripoli in 1797 that famously stated "the United States of America is not in any sense founded on Christian religion," while the latter once described Christianity as the "best and purest religion." In contrast to his close partner Thomas Jefferson's famous invocation of a "wall of separation" between church and state, Madison offered less forbidding metaphor of a line. Such shadings notwithstanding, Meyerson's overall point in this book is that these people were striving for a sweet spot -- and that they found it.
As such, his book is meant as a rebuke to the aggressive evangelical and expansive secular humanist alike. Of the two, however, he seems more concerned about the former. Meyerson challenges the judgment of a series of current and former Supreme Court justices, but repeatedly singles out Antonin Scalia for what he regards as disingenuous, if not intellectually slipshod, assertions about the government's right to confer privileges on religious institutions. The fact that there may be two sides to an argument doesn't mean that the truth falls squarely in the middle, and it would appear that Meyerson is more concerned about the overweening claims of faith-based government advocates.
In its broadest outlines, Meyerson's argument seems broadly consonant with that of Jon Meacham's American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation (2007). But this is a more temporally focused and rigorously documented study, and as such is more useful for scholarly purposes. At the same time, it's written in clear, vigorous prose. It should be, and, with the aid of divine providence, is likely to be, durable.
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