[Editor's note: American Creation is pleased to have Michael Meyerson write a guest post. He is the Wilson H. Elkins Professor of Law and Piper & Marbury Faculty Fellow at the University of Baltimore School of Law. He authored the highly recommended new book, "Endowed by Our Creator The Birth of Religious Freedom in America." The Amazon page is here.]
By Michael Meyerson
There was a bit of excitement at the Democratic National Convention last week over the use of religious language in the party’s platform. The Democratic National Committee’s Platform Committee’s draft platform omitted any reference to God. After an attack by leading Republicans, the language was amended to include a statement that government must give, “everyone willing to work hard the chance to make the most of their God-given potential.” According to news accounts, this change in language angered many atheists as a betrayal of their beliefs.
There is, however, another way of looking at the platform language. Not every mention of God in the political sphere need be interpreted as exclusionary. Consider the history of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, a landmark piece of legislation, authored by Thomas Jefferson, and enacted into law in 1786, which provided that, “all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion.” Jefferson’s original draft declared that, “Almighty God hath created the mind free” and that “all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments, or burthens, or by civil incapacitations, … are a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion…” Some legislators attempted to amend the sentence so that it read, “a departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion.” When the legislature rejected the amendment, Jefferson wrote that the legislature’s decision to preserve the language of the statute demonstrated an intent, “to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and infidel of every denomination.”
Thus, to Jefferson, language such as “Almighty God” and “holy author of our religion” did not disregard, but encompassed, the belief systems of both the polytheistic Hindu and the “unbeliever” infidel. Jefferson’s view of the inclusiveness of this language is consistent with his belief that religion could be divided into, “the moral branch of religion, which is the same in all religions; while in that branch which consists of dogmas, all differ, all have a different set.” God, in other words, could be understood as a deliberately ambiguous term, understood by each individual through the prism of his or her personal beliefs.
If today’s political leaders have the courage of a Thomas Jefferson, they will make explicit that they include all Americans, regardless of their view of religion, as equal participants in our democratic system. It is not the use of the phrase “God-given,” that will matter in the end; it is whether the candidates make explicit their commitment to the framers’ promise of universal liberty of conscience.