Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Meyerson in the WSJ

The Wall Street Journal, via Facebook, promoted this piece from July 5 by Michael I. Meyerson this morning, and I had to share it here.

Americans of all political stripes invoked the Declaration of Independence this Fourth of July week. Some read the document and found, as Harvard Prof. Alan Dershowitz has, that it "rejected Christianity, along with other organized religions, as a basis for governance." Others saw the same language proving the opposite, that our nation was founded on "Judeo- Christian values." Such definitive statements do not tell the full story. The American Framers, in their desire to unite a nation, were theologically bilingual—not only in the Declaration of Independence but beyond.

Read all about it here.


JMS said...

Great post - thanks!

Professor Myerson is right on the money about the historical context of the religious references in the Declaration of Independence. Unity was a necessity to achieve the goal of independence. Religion was always a potentially divisive force in society, but it can also be unifying as well.

Nobody understood this better than George Washington (as outlined in Steven Waldman’s book, Founding Faith, in Chapter 7: Holy War: George Washington Uses Religious Tolerance and Appeals to God to Win the War of Independence.

My only criticism of Professor Meyerson’s essay is his statement that, “George Washington maintained this adroit balance when he became president.” That is true. But more in line with 1776 than 1789, it started while Washington was commander-in-chief.

Waldman concludes that, “whatever the cause, Washington’s approach to religious tolerance represented a significant departure from earlier generations.” (p. 63) While there is no direct evidence that they influenced GW’s appeal for religious tolerance, the Freemasons were a powerful non-sectarian force in colonial American society. GW was one of the first to recognize that a revolution based on “liberty” would need a new approach to religious freedom.

Of course Washington had practical and strategic reasons: “military necessity spurred religious tolerance.” (p. 67) To try and pry the French Canadians away from the British (which failed), or secure financial and military aid from France and Spain, GW had to overcome the traditional Protestant anti-Catholicism prevalent in British North America, especially in New England (e.g., trying to ban Pope’s (Guy Fawkes) Day in Boston). Many troops in the continental lines of PA and MD were Catholic. In a gesture towards the large numbers of Irish continentals, Washington ordered March 17, 1780 as a day off from “all fatigue and working parties” to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day.

As Waldman notes, the inherent pluralism of the Continental army helped spread religious toleration throughout the colonies. (p. 68) Washington also appointed sectarian chaplains, like the Universalist minister John Murray, to a Rhode Island brigade. When some orthodox chaplains complained, GW said that his order and Murray’s appointment were to “be respected,” – end of story. Obviously a commander-in-chief can order religious tolerance with little or no objections from the rank and file, officers or chaplains.

One final “military necessity spurred religious tolerance.” Washington and the Congress pursued a policy of encouraging the Hessian mercenaries fighting for Great Britain to defect by promising 50 acres of land and religious freedom. By the end of the war this appealed to 25-50% of the Hessians who were Calvinists, Lutherans, Catholics and Unitarians.

Phil Johnson said...

Can you speak to the present day consequences of those attitudes and positions taken by our Founding Fathers?

JMS said...

Phil - your question is "THE QUESTION" this website is all about. So, I doubt I can answer it adequately. But here it goes.

The American Revolution provided Protestant dissenters with the opportunity to negotiate against state established churches (e.g., in VA) and for religious liberty.

Evangelicals, Dissenters and Whigs were united about religious liberty for individual believers and church autonomy, but divided over church-state relations (i.e., the Anglican southern states disestablished, while the New England Congregationalists held on to their established church for a few more decades).

What so many contemporary evangelical Christians and secular humanists fail to understand (and what scholars like John Fea, Gregg Frazer, Frank Lambert, David Holmes and Steven Waldman are trying to educate us about) is that “religious settlements occur within specific moments of time and must be considered within historical context.” The “founding fathers” “defined their religious settlement amidst the birth of a republic conceived in liberty.” (Frank Lambert, The Founding Fathers and the Place of Religion in America, p. 206)

The need for unity among “We the People” amidst the crucibles of a war of independence and creating a republican form of government resulted in an American revolution of religion. But, the “American revolution of religion” was more than the design of a few founders; it came at the insistence of masses of men and women to choose (Lambert p. 210) religious faith and practice without interference from any religious establishment. David Ramsey’s history of the American Revolution (1789) considered separation of church and state among its most revolutionary legacies (Lambert p. 235)

Tom Van Dyke said...

JMS, what does "separation of church and state" mean, anyway?

How much did the Church of England rule Britain? Answer: Not atall. This "Theocracy!" business is wrong-headed. While it's true the Roman Church had its hands into governments like France, most often it was the state that ran the church,as in England where the king is the pope, not that the pope is the king.

Before the American revolution, a big issue was that even the Presbyterians were upset at the idea of the Crown appointing the Anglican [C of E, "Episcopalian"] bishops in America.

The government controlling the church.

What so many contemporary evangelical Christians and secular humanists fail to understand...

Well, it was the "evangelicals" who led the charge for religious freedom in Virginia, not the "secular moderns" like Jefferson.


See also "Getting the Framers Wrong,"



[43]. Noll, supra note 19, at 139. Even the alleged “negligible role” of evangelicals is not free from doubt. It may all come down to how one defines evangelicalism, a question beyond the scope of this Response. Suffice it to say that Thomas Buckley argues that “members of evangelical churches” played the pivotal role in a critical event of the Founding Era—the defeat in Virginia of a proposed general tax assessment for the benefit of religion and the 1786 passage instead of Jefferson’s Statute for Religious Freedom. Thomas E. Buckley, Church and State in Revolutionary Virginia, 1776–1787, at 175 (1977). “The key to understanding the nature of the religious settlement in Virginia rests with [the evangelicals], for they wrote and signed the overwhelming majority of the memorials which engulfed the legislature . . . and their representatives provided the votes in the Assembly which determined the outcome.”

[Nice work on the GWash, JMS. Yes, he forbade the troops from celebrating the anti-Catholic Guy Fawkes Day, brought unitarian chaplains in, and as president wrote letters to the Catholics and Jews extending religious freedom to all those whom it made good American citizens.

"And may the members of your society in America, animated alone by the pure spirit of Christianity, and still conducting themselves as the faithful subjects of our free government, enjoy every temporal and spiritual felicity."

Letter to Catholics, 1790. Bold face mine. Edginess Washington's.]

Daniel said...

Your point about the absence of theocracy is apt. Even in the high medieval, the church did not have direct authority over most aspect of the government, and the king did have the authority to appoint bishops. Establishment of a religion usually means state control of the religion; that was a central warning of Roger Williams.

JMS said...

Tom - I never used the word "theocracy" in reference to England or the British North American colonies.

The fight by evangelicals (whom I mentioned, although you implied that I did not) like Isaac Backus and John Leland and "theistic rationalists" like Madison and Jefferson was against "established" churches (i.e., the Congregationalists in New England and the Anglicans in the South).

By "separation of church and state" I mean what is written in the First Amendment: free exercise of religion and no national established church. That was the most revolutionary outcome of the American Revolution.

Tom Van Dyke said...

That answers my initial question cosmetically, but not substantively.

Since there were so many sects, the state couldn't take them all over. There could be no Church of America along the lines of the Church of England.

As for the established [until 1833] church of Massachusetts, I'm unfamiliar with the argument that it amounted to more than a hill of beans.

This by historian Walter Russell Mead, however,is interesting, how the Puritans mutated into today's northeastern liberals.


President Obama’s vision of a strong central government leading the people along the paths of truth and righteousness has “New England” stamped all over it. Puritan Boston believed in a powerful government whose duty was to promote moral behavior and punish the immoral; by 1800 many of the Puritan descendants were turning Unitarian and modernist, but while they lost their love of Christian doctrine they never abandoned their faith in the Godly Commonwealth and the duty of the virtuous to make the rest of the world behave. The New England mind has been open to insights and ideas that come from the third world ever since Henry David Thoreau and his fellow Transcendentalists read the Hindu scriptures in translation, but Obama is no more of a Muslim or an African socialist than Ralph Waldo Emerson was a Hindu.

So the [Romney] advisor was twice wrong: it was stupid to use a term that offends huge numbers of people and leaves you open to a charge of racism, and it was blind to miss the deep homegrown roots of the President’s political worldview.