Monday, September 10, 2012

The Democrats' Platform

[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.


Ray Soller said...

Here's another piece, God is a Weapon, by Santiago Wills, which includes an interview with Professor Meyerson, but here's a statement I don't understand:

Taking Romney into account, what I think you end up with, ironically, are two candidates who consider themselves to be Christian, even though the Mormon faith is not considered to be Christian by some Christians, and Obama is not considered to be a Christian by some Christians. Both of them need to present their bona fide credentials in a way that I think works to divide, rather than to unite, religious faith.

Isn't that backwards?

Michael Meyerson said...

Ray is absolutely correct. Either I misspoke or I was misquoted. Regardless, the task for our Presidential candidates remain to be able to acknowledge their religion while acknowledging , respecting, and welcoming the liberty of conscience of all.

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Tom Van Dyke said...

Thanks, Dr. Meyerson. However, that our rights are God-given, "endowed by [the] creator," is very much disputed by the modern left.

Further, although Jefferson appears to be ecumenical with all religions, the God of the Founding is still monotheistic and providential. This fits the Judeo-Christian God, but not the idea of deity in the Eastern religions [if any], not Zeus, nor much of any religion outside the Abrahamic tradition.

In our rush to blur the details of the God of the Founding, which they did, at least among the Christian sects---we miss the monotheism and the idea of Providence that contradicts the deist view of God and distant and uninterested in humanity.

Phil Johnson said...

However, please be advised that all comments containing spam, obscenity, profanity, or other material deemed inappropriate for this forum will be deleted.

Thanks for the article, Dr. Myerson.

JMS said...

Jon – thanks for the post, and Professor Myerson thanks for the cogent article.

As we all know (and is recounted by an author named James Parton in an Atlantic Magazine article from July 1873 (yes 1873 – that is not a typo), Federalist Party opponents (ministers, pamphleteers and journalists) of Thomas Jefferson during the presidential election campaign of 1800 labeled Jefferson untruthfully as a "deist, atheist, and infidel " and claimed he “aim[ed] at the destruction of the Christian religion.”

Parton goes on to write, “it is not clear, upon the first view of this subject, why Jefferson should have been singled out for reprobation on account of a heterodoxy in which so many of the great among his compeers shared.”

He then goes on to state that: He [Jefferson] avoided, on principle, that line of conduct, so familiar to public men of the fourth, fifth, and sixth rank, which Mark Twain has recently called "currying favor with the religious element." While he was most careful not to utter a word, in the hearing of young or unformed persons, even in his own family, calculated to disturb their faith, he was equally strenuous in maintaining his right to liberty both of thought and utterance. Thus, at a time when the word "Unitarian" was only less opprobrious than infidel, and he was a candidate for the Presidency, he went to a church of that denomination, at Philadelphia, in which, as he says, "Dr. Priestley officiated to numerous audiences." "I never will," he once wrote, "by any word or act, bow to the shrine of intolerance or admit a right of inquiry into the religious opinions of others. On the contrary, we are bound, you, I, and every one, to make common right of freedom of conscience. We ought, with one heart and one hand, to hew down the daring and dangerous efforts of those who would seduce the public opinion to substitute itself into that tyranny over religious faith which the laws have so justly abdicated. For this reason, were my opinions up to the standard of those who arrogate the right of questioning them, I would not countenance that arrogance by descending to an explanation."

Here is the weblink

Of course Parton - circa 1873 - got the Sally Heming’s intimacies with Jefferson wrong on all counts.

Jason Pappas said...

Let me write a good word on Zeus since my ancestors aren't around to do it. From what I read, Greek and Roman authors often talked about God in the singular. Often Zeus and Jove were considered the supreme God. Thus, these religions often had a monotheistic feel to them. Cicero talks of God in the singular. And the Stoics talk about an almost pantheistic God in the singular that was clearly providential. Thus, I'd modify Tom's strict exclusion of pagan religion on that logical basis.

Now, that there were no practicing pagans at the time of the founding is an empirical fact. So this is a mute point. But I'd thought I'd stop by and say hello in my distinctive contrary style.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I'll stipulate the Stoics to a point, Jason. "Natural theology."

jimmiraybob said...

Now, that there were no practicing pagans at the time of the founding is an empirical fact.

As you point out, there was the legacy of the pagan classical thinkers, writers and statesmen of classical antiquity, which was heavily influential on the founding. And the later Stoics and Platonists were largely moving toward a quasi-monotheism.

But, there were also practicing pagans* inside of and adjacent to the 13 colonies/states, the indigenous peoples of America. These peoples had demonstrated the ability to establish governing relationships, such as the Iroquois Confederacy, that provided at least two apparent influences on their neighbors; 1) the idea of confederacy and 2) a broadly democratic and cooperative governance incorporating principles such as shared responsibility and obligation and diplomacy. Add their lack of an aristocracy and you have a broadly republican form of governance.

As to religion, they appear to have been monotheistic in as far as belief in a creator Great Spirit (to which Jonathan Rowe has referenced in the past).

*Pagan = "country dweller" or "rustic" and often refers to indigenous peoples. Often used as a catchall term differentiating Christian monotheism from "other."