Meyerson: ‘Cherry-pickers’ misrepresent Founders’ church-state views
2014 Shurden Lectures
Two days of lectures at Baylor University shined a spotlight on the relationship between church and state and those who would misrepresent history to serve their own purposes.
University of Baltimore professor Michael Meyerson delivered two lectures on the campus of Baylor University in Waco, Texas, on April 1-2 as part of the 2014 Walter B. and Kay W. Shurden Lectures on Religious Liberty and Separation of Church and State.
Before Meyerson delivered his first lecture, Baptist Joint Committee Executive Director Brent Walker preached in a chapel service at Baylor’s Truett Theological Seminary, warning against the dangers of government-promoted religion. He reminded the audience that, in spite of Baptists’ diversity and disagreements on some issues, a historically grounded, biblically based commitment to religious liberty for all people has united Baptists for four centuries.
“We have taken seriously the liberty for which Jesus himself broke the yoke of slavery and set us free. This was our birthright in the 17th century, our rallying cry today and, I pray, our legacy four centuries from now,” he said. “Our understanding of religious liberty involves no less than the freedom to worship God and to follow Jesus without efforts by government to advance or inhibit religion — someone else’s or our own.”
However, Baptists likewise have recognized the limits of freedom, particularly responsibility to others and duty to the government, Walker added.
First Amendment freedoms “are not absolute,” he said, pointing out religion cannot be exercised in a way that harms others, free speech does not include inciting riots or falsely defaming someone, and the right to assemble is subject to reasonable restrictions on time, place and manner.
“These twin pillars of our constitutional architecture — no establishment and free exercise (of religion) — require that government neither help nor hurt religion,” he said. “Rather, government must be neutral toward religion, turning it loose to flourish or flounder on its own.
“The best thing government can do for religion is simply to leave it alone,” Walker said.
Meyerson made two presentations for the Shurden Lectures, speaking at an event sponsored by the Baylor Department of Religion and another at the Baylor Law School. A professor of law and Piper and Marbury Faculty Fellow at the University of Baltimore, Meyerson stressed the point that contemporary Americans who cite isolated quotes by the nation’s Founders to buttress arguments in favor of a Christian nation or a secular society without religious influences misinterpret history and do injustice to those who framed the U.S. Constitution.
He said America’s Founders sought to strike an equilibrium in the relationship of church to state. “The cherry-pickers have forced people into camps” and created a false division the Founders never intended, said Meyerson, author of Endowed by Our Creator: The Birth of Religious Freedom in America.
While some early American patriots, such as Patrick Henry, advocated state support for religion, the key Founders — George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison — held a sophisticated view that saw the value of religious commitment by citizens but the danger of sectarian division that would emerge from a wedding of church and state, he noted.
The Founders sought to strike a balance on the issue and compromised to produce a solution that avoided partisanship.
“They understood the complexity of this issue better than we do,” Meyerson said. “They understood the solution had to be nuanced and had to be complicated — not beyond understanding, but not a simple ‘never or always.’ And that’s what they worked on — that compromise.”
Founders of the nation agreed on a respectful vision that religion is scarred with unbelievable evil, yet also graced with equally unbelievable good, he noted. Their goal was to formulate a standard on the issue of church and state relations that united the nation, rather than creating a mandate that brought division.
“They wanted to separate church and state but not necessarily God and state,” he said. “They were most afraid of sectarianism, but they never intended to eliminate all discussion of God and religion from the public sphere.”
Furthermore, deeply religious Americans — such as Virginia Baptist preacher John Leland — voiced strongest support for separation of church and state as the best way to protect liberty of conscience, Meyerson said.
Leland possessed an “extraordinarily inclusive” vision of religious liberty for all people, including those with whom he disagreed, and an aversion to receiving any benefits from government to advance his own religious views, he said.
During a controversy in Virginia over a bill to levy a general assessment to support teachers of religion, two key petitions circulated to rally opposition to the tax. About 1,500 people signed Madison’s “Memorial and Remonstrance.” A Baptist-generated petition Leland spearheaded drew about 5,000 signatures, Meyerson noted.
When Madison ran for the first Congress, Leland strongly supported his candidacy, but not until he secured from Madison what Meyerson called “the most important campaign promise ever — and not just because it was kept.”
Madison pledged to introduce a constitutional amendment to protect liberty of conscience — the First Amendment, which begins, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
Later, after he moved back to his home in Cheshire, Mass., Leland delivered the celebrated “Cheshire Mammoth Cheese” as a gift to President Thomas Jefferson, celebrating the victory of the advocate of church-state separation. Stamped across the top of the 1,200-pound block of cheese was the slogan: “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.”
Leland — and other religious leaders who shared his perspective — “didn’t want the combination of church and state, but they didn’t mind the combination of church and politics,” Meyerson observed.
Neither Baptists like Leland nor the Framers of the Constitution wanted the government involved in either advancing or inhibiting religion, he insisted.
“They knew their religion and their religious freedom depended on full liberty of conscience and the government not rooting for, not helping, not manipulating and not controlling the religion of individuals,” he said.
Meyerson noted the fathers of the Constitution concurred with Thomas Jefferson’s stance that “no man should be propelled to frequent or support religious worship, suffer on the account of religious opinions, and your religious opinions should not diminish, enlarge or affect your civil rights.”
At the time the Constitution was drafted, Congregationalists made up 71 percent of the population in Massachusetts, but outside Massachusetts, religious diversity was the standard in the nation, Meyerson said. Congregationalists were only 20 percent of the total population, and there were many powerful mid-sized religious groups, he said. Additionally, 3 percent adhered to Judaism.
The multiplicity of religious groups forced the Founders to view religion through a different lens, Meyerson noted.
“The United States was so religiously diverse that if you wanted to unite the nation, you had to view religion and government very differently,” he said.
With the national imperative of how to unite a nation on the basis of government and religion in mind, the Founders worked diligently to avoid in their writing language specific to any one religion.
“To Jefferson, a word like ‘God’ could be ambiguous or have multiple meanings,” Meyerson said. “He understood that language had multiple meanings and that was not only fine, but it was preferable.”
This year marked the 9th installment of the annual Shurden Lectures, which were endowed by Dr. Walter B. Shurden and Dr. Kay W. Shurden of Macon, Ga., with a gift to the BJC. Above all, the Shurden Lecturer is someone who can inspire and call others to an ardent commitment to religious freedom and the separation of church and state.
During the event, Baptist Joint Committee staff members also spoke at other special events on Baylor’s campus, including at student and faculty luncheons and in classrooms, and staff later traveled to churches and schools in other areas of Texas.
Designed to enhance the ministry and programs of the Baptist Joint Committee, the Shurden Lectures are held at Mercer University every three years and at another seminary, college or university the other years. In 2015, the series will return to Mercer.Listen to the podcast Return to main Shurden Lectures page