As with other elections in the years past, next month’s contest between Obama and Romney will be influenced by vexed issues relating to religion. Health care and citizens’ access to contraception; same-sex marriage; hate speech; the list goes on. The election is furthermore complicated by the two candidates’ religious beliefs (or, in Obama’s case, people’s perceptions of them)—a poll by the Pew Forum on Religious and Public Life earlier this year showed that religion (perceived or otherwise) may be a liability for both candidates.
In a country which has grown more and more religiously pluralistic over the years, discussions of religious liberty are becoming increasingly imperative. But instead of referring solely to the current landscape, perhaps it’s also worthwhile to look to history for guidance. In his new book, Endowed by Our Creator: The Birth of Religious Freedom in America, Michael Meyerson scrutinizes the Founding Fathers’ vision of the role of religion and government to show how historical understanding can provide us new perspective on contemporary issues.
Such historical knowledge is important today because “the present intellectual environment,” Meyerson writes, “limits discussion to a false dichotomy.” He continues, “In one camp are the “strict separatists,” who believe that any form of governmental support of religion, either financial or symbolic, is prohibited by the First Amendment. Opposing them are the “accommodationists,” who think that the Constitution permits the government to actively assist and endorse a wide range of religious activities.”
But do we really have to choose between the two camps? Meyerson argues that the Founding Fathers struck a subtler balance:
“[T]he framers decided that the American government should not acknowledge religion in a way that favored any particular creed, denomination, or group of denominations. They did not insist on a godless government, and their religious statements were not empty “ceremonial deism.” They were not afraid of the public offering of truly religious expression. Yet they strove to find a civil vocabulary that could encompass all people, regardless of faith.”
In this light, it is both dangerous and misleading for accommodationists and separatists to twist the Constitution to fit their respective agendas. And it would be ill-advised for us to remain trapped by a false dichotomy. Instead, the nuanced approach of the Founding Fathers is a worthier aspiration:
“We must recognize that one may be deeply religious, like John Leland, and still believe that a close tie between church and state degrades all religion and threatens the freedom of those not belonging to the majority denominations. 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.”
As Meyerson concludes, the roles of religion and government are not easy to reconcile, but history remains an invaluable guide in our negotiation between the two: “[B]y 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.”