June 12 marks the 239th anniversary of the 5th Virginia Convention’s passage of the Declaration of Rights. The document, written by George Mason, was a major influence on the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. It included many of the essential freedoms Americans celebrate today, including freedom of the press, the right to bear arms and protections against unreasonable searches.
Section 16 of the Declaration of Rights guarantees “the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience.”
To observe this important day in Virginia and American history, Colonial Williamsburg sat down with Michael Meyerson to discuss the state of religious freedom in the United States today. Meyerson, a specialist in constitutional law and American legal history at the University of Baltimore School of Law, is the author of Endowed By Our Creator: The Birth of Religious Freedom in America.
CW: What spurred you as a law professor to research the origins of religious freedom in America?
MM: In 2005, the Supreme Court issued two decisions concerning the governmental placement of the Ten Commandments in courthouses, public squares and the like. I read one opinion by Justice [David] Souter striking down putting the Ten Commandments in courthouses and I thought, “brilliant!” And then I read Justice [Antonin] Scalia’s dissent and I thought, “brilliant!”
And there’s something wrong if they were both right about the history and [yet] they both disagreed. I was really troubled by this for quite a while. Then I realized they were each telling half the story. And the more I read, the more I realized nearly everyone today is telling half the story.
So I went back and I read everything. It was both intellectually interesting and morally fascinating, and then I decided it was politically important.
CW: What misconceptions do you see in today’s acrimonious debates about the founders and religion?
MM: It’s hard to say which came first — the misconceptions or the acrimony. Each side cherry picks [their arguments]. So they’ll take a couple of quotes from Washington and say, “See how religious he is?” or a couple of quotes from Jefferson and say, “See how unreligious they are?”
I think the biggest misconception of the left is that the framers wanted a total separation of religion and state. What I like to say is that the framers wanted to separate church and state, but not God and state. They were terrified of sectarian battles. But they all had religious references. They all believed something about divinity, but more importantly they believed that it could be part of a public discourse if and only if it was done respectfully. So I think the left wanting a total wall misses that part of history.
I think the right, when they use the phrase “Christian nation,” is completely wrong. For the framers, Christian certainly didn’t include Catholics. For most of them, it didn’t include Baptists. It included a very narrow group depending on which colony you were in.
I think the right ignores the tremendous religious bigotry of the people they claim to be heroes.
CW: Other than reading your book, what’s the best way to learn about this history?
MM: We are in a golden era because I did not have to travel to Colonial Williamsburg to read what Madison wrote. It’s all available online. It’s all out there if you’re willing to look for it.
The collected works of Washington, Madison, Jefferson, Hamilton are all available free online. Read it! If we teach our students that knowledge is worth getting and original sources are valuable, we are living in a golden age.
What I want readers to do with my book is go to the back, where there are 1,300 end notes, and say, “Read it yourself.” Read everything. Don’t just read one letter from Washington, read 30 or 40 and then you decide. But don’t let anyone tell you what they said. Let them tell you. We can do that now.
Ultimately, rely on your own reading, your own listening to the founders’ voices.
CW: What should citizens do with what they learn?
MM: There is no right answer. That becomes a political and legal question. But everyone needs history and they should get the history accurate.
If you read all the speeches that President Washington and President Jefferson and President Madison are making, can you find patterns? Absolutely, you can. What you can find are references in general to God or to the creator of the universe and not a single Christian reference, not a single sectarian reference.
What you do with that is up to you, but at least make [the history] your first line of analysis. At least we won’t diverge into that same sort of hatred if we have a common core of understanding.
One of the heroes of my book was John Leland, the Virginia Baptist minister who is fighting for religious freedom. He said something which I made the epigraph to the book: “Truth is to history as the soul is to the body.”
CW: So what’s the state of religious freedom today?
MM: I think religious symbols are incredibly dangerous. And largely unnecessary. And certainly sectarian symbols [are dangerous]. So when the Supreme Court said you can’t put the Ten Commandments in the courthouse, they’re saying you can’t communicate that some people are outsiders because of their beliefs.
I would argue that governmental power on a national or local level should never exclude based on liberty of conscience. I think oppression is more dangerous on the national level, but it’s much more likely and from what I understand no less painful, on the local level. If you’re the school kid and you’re being made fun of because you’re Jewish or you’re Muslim or you’re an atheist, I think it’s devastating whether it’s the local government or the national.
But here’s a different case. There was a highway in Virginia where there had been several accidents and people had put up crosses to commemorate the people who had died. On private property. The town in order to expand the highway takes over that property. And so the crosses are now on public property. Do they have to be removed? And I think absolutely not. Those are not symbols communicating a favoritism for Christianity.
I think the question is whether the government is trying to cater to a religious group rather than trying to unite.
Here’s the bottom line: The framers were trying to find a way to have religion unite and not divide a nation. The framers saw religion as both a source of incredible good and a source of unspeakable evil. They were trying to balance. If we acknowledged that duality today I think we’d be a lot closer. But it’s a hard thing to resolve.