Michael I. Meyerson

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Endowed by Our Creator

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“A very fine examination of the role that religion, and religious conflict, has played in our American story. Artfully blending history and narrative, Meyerson breathes life into an often misunderstood story, examining the beliefs of our founders, and showing how those beliefs did not always determine their policy decisions... This is a wonderful book, a needed corrective to the heat that often defines the current debate.”

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Endowed by Our Creator Reviews

Baltimore Jewish Times
November 30, 2012

ENDOWED BY OUR CREATOR: Local author explores the origins of
religious freedom in the United States

By Ron Snyder
Click to read the article in pdf format »

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Deseret News
Saturday, November 17 2012

Book review: 'Endowed by Our Creator' offers insights to Founding Fathers

By Rosemarie Howard

The Constitutional role and influence of government on religion and religion on government are the focus of Michael I. Meyerson’s book, “Endowed by Our Creator: The Birth of Religious Freedom in America.”

Beginning with the pre-Revolutionary War period Meyerson takes the reader on a non-linear journey through the development of religious freedom in the United States that includes present-day insights.

In well-written, easy-to-understand prose, he describes the religious and political differences that influenced the creation and implementation of the concept of religious freedom contained in the Constitution.

Rather than reinterpreting contemporary notions of what the founding fathers intended as they struggled to define and implement religious freedom, the author quotes directly from original sources and describes the context in which the ideas were developed.

He makes it clear that separating church from government, but not God from government was the aim of the founders of our nation, and argues that America’s religious history should be included in our schools.

In his concluding statements, the author writes, “We must understand that one may care deeply about religious liberty, like George Washington, and still believe that public acknowledgment of religion does not threaten the rights of others … by learning the lessons of those who helped create the American understanding of freedom of religion, we can begin to move closer to a more perfect union.”

The book would make an excellent text for classroom or group study of the Constitution and religious freedom. It should be on the reading list of anyone who wants to learn more about the role of religion in a free nation.

Almost a third of the book, 87 pages, contains extensive endnotes, a bibliography and an index, with an eBook version available online.

Meyerson, who has written extensively on the Constitution, lives in Ellicott City, Md. He is the Wilson H. Elkins Professor of Law and Piper & Marbury Faculty Fellow at the University of Baltimore School of Law, where he specializes in constitutional law and American legal history.

Rosemarie Howard lives in a 100-year-old house on Main Street, Springville. She enjoys creating multimedia projects. Her website is at dramaticdimensions.com.

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Christianity Today
15 September, 2012

Give Church-State Peace a Chance: Michael Meyerson charts a historical path between the extremes of our church-state debates.

Review by Jeff Haanen [posted 9/13/2012]

The line between religion and government may be vague, but Americans revolt when they sense it's being crossed. Take the current controversy surrounding the contraception mandate in the Affordable Care Act, popularly known as Obamacare. In April, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops released a statement, "Our First, Most Cherished Liberty," warning against unprecedented threats to religious freedom from the government. Evangelicals and Catholics Together—an ecumenical group of pastors, theologians, and educators—published its own manifesto in First Things, calling for the renewal of religious freedom "in the greatest period of persecution in the history of Christianity." Of course, several women's rights groups responded by accusing the church of conducting a war on women. In case we needed a reminder, the culture wars continue to blaze.

But occasionally in times of war, peacemakers emerge. Michael Meyerson, a legal scholar at the University of Baltimore School of Law, is just such a peacemaker. His latest work, Endowed by Our Creator: The Birth of Religious Freedom in America (Yale University Press), seeks a sane middle ground between those who believe the First Amendment prohibits any type of support for religion (whether symbolic or financial) and "accommodationists" who believe the Constitution permits government to assist and even endorse religion. For Meyerson, the way to mediate this controversy is through re-examining American history. He asks, "What did the framers of the Constitution believe about religious freedom?" In this meticulously researched book devoid of the usual partisan bickering, Meyerson argues it's possible to protect both individual liberty and public religious expression, and he emerges with a strikingly balanced perspective on one of America's most hotly debated issues.

The Birth of Religious Freedom
Meyerson masterfully traces the historical development of religious freedom in America from the 1600s through the end of James Madison's presidency in 1817. Ironically, religious freedom was born in a context of religious hostility. Early Puritans such as John Winthrop sought to establish a "city on a hill" free from the persecutions waged by the Church of England. Yet in Winthrop's Massachusetts, Baptists were arrested, Catholics were excluded from public office, and Quakers were hanged. Over the course of a century, distaste for sectarian strife slowly began to change public attitudes. James Madison denounced religious persecution as "diabolical and hell-conceived," and although George Whitefield and Benjamin Franklin couldn't agree on doctrine, they were unified in their distaste for religious antagonism.

Despite growing religious toleration, through the 1700s most states had no scruples with formally establishing Protestant Christianity at the expense of other faiths. Maryland permitted a tax to benefit Christian churches, while Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Hampshire particularly favored Congregationalists. Six of the original colonies barred Catholics, Jews, and other non-Protestants from serving in public office. However, as religiously homogenous states began to see the need for cooperation to form a new nation, protecting religious freedom took center stage.

The turning point came on June 12, 1776, as the Virginia Colonial Convention adopted Article 16 of its Declaration of Rights. In a colony where Anglicans enjoyed official support, Baptists (who had previously been jailed for preaching) petitioned the Colonial Convention for equal rights, citing their faithful service in the army. Unable to refuse their request, the Convention adopted Article 16:

That religion, or the duty which we owe our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence, and therefore all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion … and that it is the mutual duty of all to practice Christian forbearance, love and charity towards each other.

This declaration set the tone for all subsequent conversations. Religious language would be allowed ("Creator"), and religious convictions invited into the public sphere ("Christian forbearance, love and charity"), but no longer would one religion be privileged at the expense of others. And although Anglicanism wasn't officially disestablished in Virginia, James Madison edited a previous version to ensure that language of "free exercise" won out over mere "toleration of religion," effectively removing one group's right to grant permission of worship to another. For the first time, Anglicans, Baptists, Roman Catholics, and Jews stood on equal civil footing.

The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution delicately balance both public religious expression and the restriction of government in religious affairs. The Declaration references "the Supreme Judge of the world" and "the protection of divine Providence," yet the Constitution lacks any specific religious reference and forbids religious tests for office. Yet the Constitution, Meyerson says, wasn't "godless." Congress simply had no authority to legislate on religious matters. The religion clauses of the First Amendment—"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof"—balanced the refusal to create a national church with the protection of religious liberty for all.

Truth in History
The strength of Meyerson's book is its attempt at impartiality; in spite of polarizing contemporary debates, he goes where the evidence takes him. For example, today many deride Thomas Jefferson as the patron saint of secularism. Yet this is the same Jefferson who proposed biblical imagery for a national seal and once approved federal funding for a Catholic priest to minister to a Native American tribe. And it's quickly forgotten that Jefferson wrote that most famous American metaphor—"the separation of church and state"—in defense of Baptist rights in Connecticut, not to banish "that Infinite Power" (even Jefferson referenced God) from the public lexicon.

On the other side, many evangelicals claim figures like George Washington as proof that America is a Christian nation. They cite his first inaugural address, replete with references to God, and his public declarations of days for prayer and fasting. But Washington refused to publicly endorse Christianity. When a group of New England ministers once complained that the Constitution lacked any specific "acknowledgment of the only true God and Jesus Christ," he reminded them it wasn't the government's role to instruct people in the "path of true piety." It is "to the guidance of the ministers of the gospel," he suggested, that "this important object is, perhaps, more properly committed." Instead of publicly confessing the gospel, Washington endeavored to create a "religiously inclusive language" to unify a religiously diverse nation, setting a precedent for all subsequent American presidents.

Though careful to balance his argument, Meyerson is unafraid to take on dicey debates. "Is America a Christian nation?" he asks. For Meyerson, the question is not simply demographic (the majority of Americans self identify as Christians). Nor is it about founding principles (early America is full of Christian influence, including ministers like John Leland who influenced Jefferson's concept of religious freedom). Instead, the question is about identity. That is to say, do you have to be Christian to be a "real" American? Washington, Jefferson, and Madison would all say no. Because America has always been a country of religious diversity, framing America as a Christian nation treads the path back to religious establishment and tends to exclude minority views from public life.

Being a peacemaker, however, has limits. Throughout the book there's a tendency to lump all religions into one shapeless pile. Meyerson says that the "framers' [spiritual] language was designed to communicate to all, including Deistic, agnostic and atheist," and that phrases like "Almighty God" and "holy author of our religion" encompassed the beliefs of groups like Hindus—and even unbelievers. Although the founders certainly valued religious inclusion, it's unclear how atheists (there is no God) and Hindus (there are many gods) could both acknowledge one Almighty God. Talk like this leads to religious illiteracy—an ignorance of the basic tenets of world religions. Better to admit, as Meyerson does in the introduction, that America was born in a broadly theistic framework. There is no danger in admitting the overtly Protestant roots of the framing period, while simultaneously protecting the rights of minority religions to speak with the liberty Christians demand for themselves.

Hearing Both Sides
Both sides of the church-state debate will probably be aggravated by this book—and that's precisely why they should read it. Those who adamantly portray America as a Christian nation should heed the voice of colonial ministers who warned of making "their church a mere political machine, which the State may regulate at pleasure." The problem with establishing Christianity as a national religion is that it may, either explicitly or implicitly, come to depend upon the state for legitimacy, and often lapses into using Christianity for political ends—a practice all too common in a political culture where evangelicals are primarily seen as votes to be won in November.

Yet those who believe religious conviction in American politics is constitutionally prohibited would be wise to re-examine the actual words of the founders who often referred, among other divine designations, to "the Great Parent and Sovereign of the Universe." Washington, Jefferson, and Madison intended to protect freedom for religious conviction and not banish it from public life.

Peacemakers are rarely heroes, and occasionally they are caught in the crossfire. But perhaps Michael Meyerson will dodge enough partisan criticism to emerge as a voice of balance and truth on an issue in desperate need of civility. At bare minimum, this book should inspire a new reverence for that most cherished liberty endowed upon us by our Creator.

Jeff Haanen is a freelance writer living in Denver, Colorado, and a graduate of Denver Seminary.

Copyright © 2012 Christianity Today.

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Public Discourse
Early Religious Freedom in America
by Justin Dyer
June 7, 2012

The Founders’ nuanced views of religion and politics prevent us from reading modern concerns about the separation of church and state into their words.

“Whatever we once were,” Barack Obama insisted in a 2006 keynote address on religion and politics, “we are no longer just a Christian nation; we are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, a Buddhist nation, a Hindu nation, and a nation of nonbelievers.” Although the future president’s claim drew criticism during the 2008 campaign, his contention that the religious landscape of American politics has changed dramatically since the late eighteenth century is undoubtedly correct. Obama is, after all, the product of Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ—a congregation that bills itself as “Unapologetically Black”—and he, along with our Catholic vice president, is now engaged in a presidential campaign against a devout Mormon.

Of course, blacks, Catholics, and Mormons have been disfavored and stigmatized by white Protestants at different junctures in American history—at times even restricted in their eligibility for state offices by custom or the force of law—and the current presidential campaign thus marks a significant era in America’s civic and religious life. Indeed, whatever we once were as a nation with respect to church and state, we are no longer. But this is to state a mere truism, and the historical question of what America once was is the subject of a long-running academic debate.

What complicates the issue is that historical questions are often tied up with contemporary concerns. As Michael Meyerson contends, our current debate about the role of religion in American history has been shaped largely by modern politics, and this tends to limit “discussion to a false dichotomy.” In one camp are secularists who believe that the wall separating church and state must, as Thomas Jefferson famously maintained, remain “high and impregnable.” In another camp are those who point, as Supreme Court Justice David Brewer did in 1892, to the “mass of organic utterances that this is a Christian nation” while contending that the government may rightfully endorse or financially support a range of religious activities—from national days of prayer to public displays of the Decalogue to government grants for religious social service organizations. Each side reads contemporary concerns back into the historical record to establish that the American founders were either secularists or accommodationists in a modern sense.

In his book Endowed by Our Creator: The Birth of Religious Freedom in America, Meyerson endeavors to craft an account of “religion and the early American government” that “does not fit neatly into the narratives of either those who argue that the framers created a secular nation that prohibits governmental involvement with religion or those who are convinced history proves that the United States is not merely a religious country but a ‘Christian’ or ‘Judeo-Christian’ nation.” For this task, Meyerson looks in particular to George Washington, the man “who probably did the most to create popular support for the national ideal of religious liberty” and whose nuanced understanding of the relationship between religion and politics offers a challenge to both of the dominant frameworks today.

Consider Washington’s celebrated Farewell Address: “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity,” the first president counseled his countrymen upon leaving office, “religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens.” Washington here spoke from the perspective of the civil authority, and his appeal was to the believer and unbeliever alike. “The mere politician, equally with the pious man,” he claimed, “ought to respect and to cherish them.” The reason the mere politician and the pious man ought both to respect and cherish religion and morality, Washington further suggested, is that religion—or at least a particular kind of religion—provides the basis for morality, and morality the basis for republican self-government. “And let us with caution indulge the supposition,” he warned, “that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of education on minds of a peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”

Over the course of his presidency, Washington combined this utilitarian case for government support of religion with a vigorous defense of religious liberty and a denial that the United States was, in any official or legal capacity, a Christian nation. Writing to the Swedenborgian New Jerusalem Church of Baltimore, Washington declared that in “this Enlightened Age and in this Land of equal Liberty it is our boast, that a man’s religious tenets will not forfeit the protection of the Laws, nor deprive him of the right of attaining and holding the highest Offices that are known in the United States.” Additionally, as Meyerson notes, Washington “was frequently urged to express his support for a religious interpretation of the national government, and each time he refused.”
George Washington’s was not the only influential view, however, and a battle over a religious assessment bill in Virginia in the 1780s highlights “three distinct, though related strands of thought that contributed to the American concept of freedom of religion, none of which were hostile or opposed to religion.” When Patrick Henry introduced a bill that would tax property to fund Christian clergy of all denominations within the commonwealth of Virginia, detractors of the bill raised “religious, philosophical, and political concerns” that were not “mutually exclusive” and which provided “separate insights into the principles underlying religious liberty in America.”

The first concern was religious—or more specifically, Christian—and it was “epitomized by John Leland,” a Baptist minister who “contended that the biblical admonition ‘my kingdom is not of this world’ meant that ‘religion, in all its parts, is distinct from civil government.’” The separation of church and state was, for Leland, rooted in the teachings of Jesus, who urged his followers to “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s.” The religious community was, in other words, something distinct and separate from the political community, and the civil authority erred when it meddled with the practices and voluntary organizations of religious believers.

A second line of argument, articulated in different ways by James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, offered philosophical reasons why “‘religion is essentially distinct from government, and exempt from its cognizance.’” As Madison wrote in his famous Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments, the religion of “every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man, and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate.” Madison’s argument was rooted in eighteenth-century natural rights liberalism, which held that the right to religious liberty was “in its nature an unalienable right” that a man did not forfeit by entering into civil society. Jefferson, relatedly, saw religious liberty as a central aspect of the natural right to freedom of thought and belief. As the preamble to the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom—a bill Jefferson took particular pride in drafting—declared: “Almighty God hath made the mind free.”
Finally, a “third strand” of thought was “best exemplified by George Washington, who strove to ensure that the combination of religion and government would not ‘rankle, & perhaps convulse the State.’” If Jefferson and Madison “can be said to have had primarily philosophical objections to the assessment bill,” Meyerson contends, “Washington’s objections might be described as political.” Although not opposed to a religious tax in principle, Washington confided in a letter to George Mason that he hoped Henry’s bill would “die an easy death” since its defeat would be “productive of more quiet to the State, than by enacting it into law.” As in his Farewell Address, Washington was attentive to religion’s power to unite and divide civil society, and his concern was rooted less in philosophical principle than practical politics.

Henry’s bill did eventually die in the Virginia legislature, and, as Meyerson maintains, the idea of religious liberty during this episode found reinforcing support in religion, philosophy, and the demands of political life. Yet Meyerson also concedes that the relationship between religion and government during the founding era was more complex than the combined views of these influential Virginians. Although “broad-minded, tolerant, and pluralistic,” Patrick Henry’s proposed tax to fund teachers of the Christian religion was itself part of a larger tradition of state establishments of religion, which persisted well into the nineteenth century. A streak of anti-Catholicism and anti-Semitism, combined with intramural squabbles among Protestant denominations, made religious politics particularly rancorous at the state level during this period. However, under the leadership of Washington and his successors, Meyerson argues, “the national government was able ‘to begin the world anew’ and create a revolutionary new understanding of religious liberty,” with the states eventually following “the national model.”

Although Meyerson’s history does not offer easy solutions to our pressing church-state issues, it does offer two broad challenges to contemporary judges, academics, and pundits. The first challenge is leveled at those who would interpret every religious statement uttered by one of the American founders in some public capacity as an example of “ceremonial deism,” a kind of pro forma tradition rooted in a distant past and long detached from any actual theological content. The second challenge is aimed at those who overreach in the other direction by highlighting the theological aspects of early American politics while ignoring the complexity of the founders’ views of the relationship between church and state. By “including the good and the bad and the complicated balances created by the framing generation,” Endowed by Our Creator issues a timely invitation to reflect on the creation of religious liberty in the United States and the principles that are necessary for its maintenance.

Justin Dyer is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Missouri and author of Natural Law and the Antislavery Constitutional Tradition (Cambridge University Press).

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Engaging look at religious freedom’s beginnings is timely today
Reviewed by Brother Jeffrey Gros, FSC, Catholic News Service

Michael Meyerson’s “Endowed by Our Creator,” an engaging volume on a timely issue, outlines a history that should inform the minds of all Americans, religious or not. The carefully researched study of the drafting, religious intent and historical context of the First Amendment language — “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof …” — is both well documented and easy reading.

The thesis of the author is that those who characterized the United States in its origins as a secularist state rigidly excluding religion, as did post-revolutionary France, and those who saw it as a Christian or even Protestant nation in its original intent both are historically incorrect.

Of course, these positions and dozens of others existed in the 18th-century colonies, but the compromise reached was crafted by religious people intent on providing a context for the peaceful development of pluralism in religion, protection of human dignity of all and freedom from federal intervention in religious affairs. In fact, some of the Founding Fathers mention Muslims and Hindus among the groups protected by this freedom and the bar to any religious test for public office.

Catholic John Carroll, soon to be the first bishop for the small Catholic minority in the fledgling nation, was able to say: “The establishment of the American empire was not the work of this or that religion, but arose from a generous exertion of all her citizens to redress their wrongs, to assert their rights, and lay its foundation on the soundest principles of justice and equal liberty.”

Some 175 years later, his own Catholic Church was to take this position as its own, rooted in the dignity of the human person and the freedom of the Gospel. There were a variety of concerns that brought the fathers of the Second Vatican Council to this development, but the American Catholic experience was an important voice. Neither in the U.S. experience nor in the Declaration on Religious Freedom were all the issues foreseen or resolved, but a new era was opened by these two historic moments.

The book provides seven chapters, with an introduction tracing the explicitly biblical imagery proposed in the first sketches for the Great Seal of the new county, before the more simplified and religiously neutral bald eagle was selected. The author begins with the prehistory of reflection and relationships in the colonies that set the context for religious freedom. Of course, the myth that the early colonists, pilgrims especially, came to plant religious freedom in the colonies has long been dispelled. They rather came to find freedom for their own establishment. Massachusetts was the last state to relinquish its Congregational state-sponsored religion. In colonial days, there were strong religious advocates for religious freedom especially among the Baptists.

The first three chapters outline this prehistory and the debates that made toleration possible in spite of the deep divisions over the role of religion and attitudes toward Catholics, Jews and other non-Protestant minorities. Though we often look back as though Protestantism was one thing, in fact tensions among Quakers, Anglicans, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Baptists and others were as marked as those with Catholics. Tolerance and the move to religious equality before the law on the constitutional level in the new country came slowly. It was only gradually universally received by the citizenry.

Chapters four and five outline the debates that went into the framing of the Constitution, and why religion is given such a minor treatment. Chapter six outlines the reception of the religious freedom in the first few decades of the new republic, through the laws enacted, treaties written and the attitudes of the first four presidents.

Of course, the implications of this important value are clarified in each decade through public debate and judicial decisions as we see in the present context. The churches do well to protect the right to define their ministries and the rights of religion in the public sphere, because they will continue to compete with one another and with more secular concerns, as the pacifist churches did from the very beginning of the republic.

This is an engaging beginning of a long story, the future of which may be as surprising as is this fascinating history. This tale should inform all education for citizenship, whether it occur under public, private or religious auspices. The book would make for lively discussions for ecumenical or parish study groups, especially in the rather charged environment of election-year rhetoric.

Brother Gros, a member of the Brothers of the Christian Schools, is resident scholar in Catholic studies at Lewis University in Romeoville, Ill.

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Association for Mormon Letters
Reviewed by Tim Ballard

The debate over one question has raged for over 200 years in America—what is the meaning of religious freedom within the context of the Constitution? Many conservative religionists interpret the Constitution as a document that permits or encourages government involvement in almost any type of religious exercise, while many on the opposite side of the political spectrum see the Constitution as a godless document, which prohibits any suggestion or even hint of God in politics. Then, of course, there are various American perspectives anywhere and everywhere in between these two extremes. So, what is the truth? Perhaps no book in modern history does more to flesh out these complexities than Michael Meyerson’s "Endowed By Our Creator."

First and foremost, it was refreshing to hear Meyerson reiterate throughout his book that it really is foolish to believe that any one commentator today can claim to have tapped in to the unified and true voice of the Founders. Indeed, we hear it all the time: "What the Founders actually meant was [fill in your favorite political cause]"; "What the Founders intended to say was [fill in your next favorite political cause]". While statements such as these seem highly authoritative and appear to give the commentator all kinds of credibility, they are based in fallacy. For, just like politicians and pundits of today, the Founders expressed a wide—and widely varied—range of political thought and opinion. And, according to Meyerson, there is no exception to this rule when it comes to the debate over what religious freedom means, and what it was meant to mean, within the context of American constitutionalism.

For example, let us consider the First Amendment’s meaning of what we call “the Establishment Clause”—that no establishment of religion is permissible within the nation. Secularists love to hang on—and perhaps over-interpret—the words of Jefferson or Madison, when they talked about things like the great “wall of separation” between church and state. They believe they have found in these statements proof that the government should not even consider mentioning the name “God”, and should definitely not encourage the nation to do something so extreme as to actually pray to Him. (Of course, when invoking these hotly debated words and ideas of Jefferson and Madison, these secularists must contend with the idea that both these founders did both these things in the name of the United States.)

As Meyerson also points out, others would invoke the memory and politics of Founders, such as those in the New England states, who maintained state-sponsored religions well after the establishment of the Establishment Clause. Indeed, they interpreted the Constitution differently (or at least believed they were exempt from having to adhere to the principles of the Constitution) and believed they had the right to do things like demand that every citizen pay taxes to support a religion he or she did not necessarily believe in. John Adams defended this policy, opining that the state should support the majority religion, as it would “demand the indulgence for the tender Consciences of the People of Massachusetts, and allow them to preserve their Laws” (49).

Patrick Henry made a similar argument in his state of Virginia. Much to the chagrin of James Madison (who fought Henry over the issue), Henry also argued for state sponsorship over the Christian religion. Concerned over Anglican dominance of his country, Henry—like Adams—thought that tax dollars given to other Christian churches would promote the minority religions, thus increasing the opportunity for religious freedom altogether. Madison, on the other hand, believed this to be a bad precedent and thought the “clergy tax” (as it was called) would naturally lead to a decrease in freedom. For it would leave to the state the ability to determine which churches were “Christian” enough to merit state money.

LDS readers might ponder whether Henry’s clergy tax would have been offered to Joseph Smith and the early church. Considering the abuse suffered by the Saints in their early days, it is doubtful that such an offer would have been extended. Yet Mormons would still have had to pay the tax in violation of their own religious conscience. Further, with the state sponsoring certain denominations, would this not lead to natural prejudice and discrimination against minority and upstart religions not thus supported? (Again, Mormons would do well to ponder this as they consider the difficulties experienced by the early Church). This was Madison’s argument against Henry, and in the end Madison won the debate. Mormons might be grateful today that Madison was there to set that precedent.

These are but examples of the fascinating exchanges between the Founders of our nation that Meyerson masterfully describes and analyzes throughout his book. He certainly does not stop with Madison and Henry. What about the Pilgrims, Puritans, and other first generation American settlers? Were they all a bunch of closed-minded religionists who persecuted all other religions, as we have been told time and time again? The reader will be surprised to learn that, while these early settlers indeed displayed very prejudicial behavior, they also presented and applied some of the very ideals of religious freedom we enjoy today.

In the end, Meyerson wisely admits that he does not have the answers to how religious freedom was, is, or should be applied in America. He also makes it very plain that nobody has the precise answer; for, since the beginning of America, there has never been a consensus on the meaning of it all. However, religious freedom represents perhaps the greatest achievement and ideal of our nation. So, despite the difficulties in finding a consensus, we should never give up. We must keep seeking for ways to preserve and grow freedom. This is Meyerson’s contention.

Far from being concerned with the complexities surrounding the Founding Fathers' debates over religious freedom, Meyerson argues that the answer for us today begins with these early debates—the answers begin with the Founding Fathers! As he so eloquently states, “Regardless of the approach to constitutional interpretation, creating an accurate picture of what freedom of religion meant at the time of the framing is essential. What individuals do with that information will vary, but our constitutional dialogue will improve if we can create a more accurate and less partisan understanding of this formative period” (236).

Wise council from a religious scholar who understands what is at stake. Any American who loves freedom would do well to take heed; Any American who loves freedom would do well to read this book!

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Publishers Weekly
May 14, 2012

Endowed by Our Creator: The Birth of Religious Freedom in America
Michael I. Meyerson. Yale Univ., $32.50 (384p) ISBN 978-0-300-16632-3

The influential role of religion in American public life is indubitable. From our earliest days, cooperation and conflict between competing religious bodies has played a large part in the formation of our national character. Today, the battle has hardly abated and continues to drive our lawmakers and judiciary, sometimes in alarming directions. Meyerson, a professor of law at the University of Baltimore School of Law, has penned a very fine examination of the role that religion, and religious conflict, has played in our American story. Artfully blending history and narrative, Meyerson breathes life into an often misunderstood story, examining the beliefs of our founders, and showing how those beliefs did not always determine their policy decisions. The author directs our attention to the need for “creating an accurate picture of what freedom of religion meant at the time of the framing” of our Constitution, and that freedom of religion did not mean freedom from religion. This is a wonderful book, a needed corrective to the heat that often defines the current debate. Agent: Elizabeth Shreve, Shreve Williams Public Relations. (June)

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