Meyerson on the Founders’ “Spiritual Public Vocabulary”

The last little period of lack of light has brought with it the consolation of catching up on some overdue reading.  One of the books I’ve been enjoying, and learning from, is Michael Meyerson’s recent book, Endowed by Our Creator: The Birth of Religious Freedom in America (2012).  Professor Meyerson focuses in large measure on Establishment Clause-related questions.  Here is an interesting passage toward the end:

…Washington was not content to use religious speech merely because it “was recognized across . . . a broad and diverse range of the population.”  His vision for the nation was far more inclusive.  “The bosom of America is open,” he wrote, “to receive the oppressed and persecuted of all nations and religions; whom we shall welcome to a participation of all our rights and privileges, if by decency and propriety of conduct, they appear to merit the enjoyment.”

Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to treat the religious language employed by Washington, Jefferson, and Madison as empty formality.  Their words were carefully chosen to be devout as well as inclusive.  Those in the framing generation were not trying to establish a ‘civil religion.’ . . . . Certainly, the framers never evinced a desire to construct a public religion that was distinct from traditional religions.  They were trying to create a spiritual public vocabulary that could be appreciated by the full range of individuals in a diverse population.  Those from orthodox religions could hear this language not merely as consistent with their prayers but as part of them.  They could recite the official religious language along with that of their own faith and not feel as if they had left their religion behind.

But the framers’ language was expansive enough to permit those who belonged to minority religions, along with those outside the mainstream of religious belief, to join in the experience of a conscientious communion with the rest of their nation.  Some will always decline this invitation, and that is their right.  But the framers’ language was designed to communicate to all, including the Deistic, agnostic, and atheistic, that they were valued members of the political community.  (269-70)

It’s a well-done passage, I thought, inasmuch as it tries to describe accurately the nuances in play in the historical use of religious language and symbolism in the American public context.

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