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Tuesday, December 4, 2012

"Endowed by Our Creator" (Michael I. Meyerson)

TITLE: Endowed by Our Creator: The Birth of Religious Freedom in America
AUTHOR: Michael I. Meyerson
PUBLISHER: New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012, (370 pages).

This book is an in-depth and insightful look at the beginnings of religious freedom in America. Going all the way back to the Declaration of Independence on July 4th, 1776, Meyerson helps readers see the original intent of the committee who drafted the declaration, namely, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson. The birth of religious freedom arises out of three themes as depicted by the Great Seal: unity of the states, power of peace and war, and beginning of independence. Any "religious" symbols used are meant to be understood "allegorically" rather than "theologically," meaning that the birth of religious freedom is based on freedom for all, and not any particular interest group. The original draft of the Declaration has a level of sophistication and multi-faceted understanding, as well as a balanced viewpoint to bring together a complex society that is inclusive, not exclusive. So ingenious is it, that one can be religious and at the same time, be comfortable in supporting a separation of Church and state.One can be religious without imposing one's religion on another. One can be free to practice one's faith without fear of being suppressed by another belief that is different. That is why George Washington can be comfortable in using "non-sectarian" language to talk about religion or any other matters.

What are the circumstances that led to the framing of the Declaration of Independence? One big reason is widespread religious discrimination encountered during the early colonial states era. Catholics war against Protestants. Baptists and Quakers are despised by the powers in old Massachusetts. Power and politics even lead to change of names. For example, when the English took control of the state of New Amsterdam from the Dutch, they renamed the place New York. By 1774, the "country that won the Revolutionary War was a tolerant, Protestant nation" (93). The second American Revolution took place between 1783 to 1787, where sectarian groups debated and fought for some form of religious assertion and religious freedom. The complexity of the issues surrounding the different interpretations and implementations of religious freedom set the stage for the Declaration of Independence. Yet, the First Declaration is not without its flaws. That is why there needed to be a First Amendment, and Meyerson shows readers why.

Another reason is the desire for a sustained unity of the states. Fear and uncertainty of whether there will be further religious oppression of dissent leads to the proposal of a "bill of rights" that guarantees freedom of belief and still maintain the union of the states. Freedom of religion needs to correspond to equality of status. At this time, it is still hard to agree on what is freedom of religion. Can one use explicitly "Christian language" without diminishing the rights of others to practise their own religions? Can prayer be allowed in the political scene? Jefferson and Madison seek to de-link Government-religious institutions, from Government-religious concepts. 

Meyerson summarises the three major groups of "framers" of the American religious freedom environment. For the "originalists," religious freedom takes place in the context of what is understood by the public at that time. A second group prefers to trace the history and to extract some "abstract understanding" of what the originators had intended, not for solving a certain issue, but to determine some conceptual understanding. A third group, prefers to use the original framing as a starting point for "interpretive inquiry." Meyerson proposes the following, that true progress toward constructive expression of religious freedom means:
  • accurately understanding the framers' intent of the Declaration of Independence
  • Less partisan understanding and more understanding via dialogue
  • Work toward a "unified understanding"
  • Governments cannot endorse any one religious expression.
  • Politicians must consciously make clear that their religious positions expressed is of a personal nature, and not to claim to impose any "official" religious beliefs into public policies. That said, contexts remain key.
Ironically, one big issue now is that for a nation that has promised religious freedom for all, America's religious history is not taught much in the classroom. If one does not know the origins of freedom of religion, and to trace how religious practices have shaped the modern United States, citizens both present and future will not only fail to achieve the intent and purposes of the original framers of the Declaration of Independence, they will also lose their sense of identity. 

My Thoughts

This is indeed a very fascinating look into the early beginnings of America has inherited the nature of religious freedom and the complexity and challenges of uniting a very diverse nation. While there are differences in faith persuasions on the outside, there are many well-intentioned desires on the inside. For example, some use "purity of religion" as their motivation, like the Quakers. Others adopt a fear of becoming pagans in a promised land, like the early settlers.  Some colonies like Rhode Island became most tolerant as a reaction against an intolerant Massachusetts in the mid 17th century. Yet, framing the Declaration is one thing. Interpreting and practicing it is another. In a pluralistic society, it is common to see opposing viewpoints can come from all directions. In heated debates, there is also a danger of putting words into the mouths of the original writers of the Declaration. That is why Meyerson spends substantial amount of time to make sure readers are aware of the ORIGINAL intent of the founders. That respecting one another's differences does not mean the rejection of one's own beliefs.

Meyerson has made a very powerful case for the need to go back to the beginnings of where democracy and freedom of religious beliefs and practices come from. The foundation of our present state is unabashedly from movements that are Christian. Those who fail to understand the history of freedom and democracy may very well be dislodging the foundation they are standing on. That said, it does not mean we all need to start painting all our institutional structures with explicitly Christian symbols or labels. God's influence is much wider than that. For if God is Creator of all, there are a lot more common ground for all people. Peace. Prosperity. Progress. Fruitfulness. Goodness. Faithfulness. Virtues. Is there any problem in embracing these even though they are "Christian?"

We cannot interpret too narrowly into any one legislation that is meant to be broadly applied. Neither can we interpret too broadly on something that is meant for a narrow and specific context. Determining and discerning which is which requires lots of wisdom, patience, and understanding. Such an enlightened position can only come when parties come together regularly to discuss honestly, debate earnestly, and to challenge one another with the primary goal of making the land a better nation for all. Maybe, the wisdom of the original Declaration of Independence is this: To make the words as clear as possible so as to invite people to agree on a common goal. At the same time, they are as as ambiguous as possible to invite more participation, discussion, and valuable interactions because the common goal has not been fulfilled yet. 

Finally, what I appreciate in this book is that we cannot be overly partisan in our own interpretation of our desires or our self-seeking mentalities. Sometimes, those of us who claim to fight for a certain group of people, are actually using such parties to prop up our own opinions. When going back to the origins of religious freedom, we need to recognize that freedom is something endowed by our Creator. Meyerson has cleverly employed a double meaning on what "Creator" means. Does it refer to the original framers of the Declaration of Independence or the interpretations of it? Or does it really refer to a Higher Deity from Whom all blessings flow? The book of this nature prefers to let readers decide for themselves. That said, there is a good chance, that Meyerson is saying that both meanings are plausible.

Rating: 4.5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me free by Yale University Press without any obligation for a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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