By MICHAEL I. MEYERSON
Americans of all political stripes invoked the Declaration of Independence this Fourth of July week. Some read the document and found, as Harvard Prof. Alan Dershowitz has, that it "rejected Christianity, along with other organized religions, as a basis for governance." Others saw the same language proving the opposite, that our nation was founded on "Judeo- Christian values." Such definitive statements do not tell the full story. The American Framers, in their desire to unite a nation, were theologically bilingual—not only in the Declaration of Independence but beyond.
That document was the work of many hands. As is well known, the first draft was written by Thomas Jefferson. That version began with a religious reference that largely remained in the final version, stating that the United States were assuming the independent status, "to which the laws of nature and of nature's god entitle them."
The phrase "Nature's God" is not a product of traditional religious denominations, but is generally associated with 18th-century Deism. That philosophy centered on what has been called "natural theology," a belief that while a "Creator" started the universe and established the laws of nature, the modern world saw no divine intervention or miracles.
The most famous religious phrase in the Declaration—that people are "endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights"—was not included in Jefferson's original draft. He had written that people derive inherent rights form their "equal Creation." The iconic language was added by a small committee, including Benjamin Franklin and John Adams.
"Creator" was a theologically ambiguous word. Most Deists used it, but it was also commonly spoken by the most orthodox religions of the day. Timothy Dwight, a Congregational minister who served as president of Yale College from 1795-1817, delivered a sermon stating that the Bible contained "as full a proof, that Christ is the Creator, as that . . . the Creator is God."
Often overlooked in discussing the Declaration of Independence are two more religious references, both added to its closing paragraph by other delegates in the Continental Congress. The delegates described themselves as "appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions," and they affirmed their "firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence."
These phrases were widely regarded as being far more traditionally religious than the earlier language. Ashbel Green, a Presbyterian minister and Jefferson critic who served as chaplain of the House of Representatives in the 1790s, cited these sections to assert that had they not been added, Jefferson would have permitted the American call for independence to be "made without any recognition of the superintending and all disposing providence of God."
But even after the congressional editing, the language of the Declaration wasn't limited to a particular faith. Deliberately designed to be as inclusive as possible, it was a quintessentially American achievement—specific enough to be embraceable by those with orthodox religious views but broad enough to permit each American to feel fully included and equally respected.
George Washington maintained this adroit balance when he became president. In his first inaugural address, written with the assistance of James Madison, Washington declared that it would be "peculiarly improper to omit in this first official Act, my fervent supplications to that Almighty Being who rules over the Universe."
Even Jefferson and Madison, often described as believing in a total separation of religion and government, continued the practice of using inclusive religious language. Jefferson urged in his first inaugural, "May that infinite power, which rules the destinies of the universe, lead our councils to what is best," while Madison stated that, "my confidence will under every difficulty be best placed . . . in the guardianship and guidance of that Almighty Being whose power regulates the destiny of nations."
The Framers didn't see such nondenominational language as divisive. They believed it was possible—in fact desirable—to have a public expression of religion that is devout, as long as it recognizes and affirms the variety of belief systems that exist in our pluralistic nation. Mr. Meyerson, a professor of law at the University of Baltimore School of Law, is author of "Endowed by Our Creator: The Birth of Religious Freedom in America," recently published by Yale University Press.
By DAVID GELERNTER
Presidential elections are America's season for serious chats around the national dinner table. The sick economy, health care and the scope of government are the main issues. But another is even more important. Who are we? What is the United States? Recently Gov. Mitt Romney urged us to return to "the principles that made America, America." But too many of us don't know what those are, or think they can't work.
Yes, Americanism evolves, and by all means let's change our minds when we ought to. We should always be marching toward the American ideals of freedom, equality and democracy, as we did when we ended slavery, granted women the right to vote, and finally buried Jim Crow. But if we forget our basic ideals or shrug them off, as we are doing today, we no longer deserve to be great. Without our history and culture, we have no identity.
Almost no one believes that our public schools are doing a passable job of teaching American and Western civilization. Modern humanities education starts from the bizarre premise that students must be cured of the Europe-centered, misogynist, bigoted ideas of the past. Many American children have never heard a good word for the United States, the West, Judaism or Christianity their whole lives.
Who are we? Dawdling time is over. We have failed a whole generation of children. As of fall 2012, let all public schools be charter schools, competing for each tax dollar and student with every other school in the country. Of course this is a local issue—but a president's or would-be president's job is to lead. There are wonderful teachers, principals and schools out there, and a new public-school system based on the American ideal of achievement will know how to value them.
No principle is more American than equality. Every generation has strained closer to the ideal. We have seen the near eradication of race prejudice in a mere two generations—an astounding achievement. We are a nation of equal citizens, not of races or privileged cliques. Affirmative action has always been a misfit in this country. A system that elevates individuals because of the color of their skin, their race or their sex has no place in America.
Yet a boy born yesterday is destined to atone (if he happens to be the wrong color) for prejudice against black women 50 years ago. Modern America is a world where a future Supreme Court justice, Sonia Sotomayor, can say publicly in 2001, "I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion [on the bench] than a white male who hasn't lived that life."
Once a justice has intuited, by dint of sheer racial brilliance, which party to a lawsuit is more simpatico and deserving, what then? Invite him to lunch? Friend him on Facebook? This is not justice as America knows it.
Next Independence Day let's celebrate the long-overdue end of affirmative action, and our triumphant return to the American ideal of equality.
Modern American culture is in the hands of intellectuals—unfortunates born with high IQ and low common sense. Witness ObamaCare, a health-care policy, now somehow deemed constitutional, that forces millions of Americans to buy something they don't want.
Bilingualism was the intellectuals' response to one of the best breaks America ever got, a common language to unite its uncommon people. Resolved: The federal government will henceforth conduct its business and publish its statements in English, period. There is plenty of room in this country for new immigrants of all races and religions who want to learn America's culture and be part of this people; none for those who dislike all things American except dollars. Resolved: The federal government will henceforth enforce its own immigration laws.
America's creed is blessedly simple. Freedom, equality, democracy and America as the promised land, the new Jerusalem. What Thomas Jefferson had in mind when he invoked "the favor of that Being in whose hands we are, who led our fathers, as Israel of old, from their native land and planted them in a country flowing with all the necessaries and comforts of life."
President Obama rejects this creed. He doesn't buy the city-on-a-hill stuff. He sees particular nations as a blur; only the global community is big enough for him. He is at home on the exalted level of whole races and peoples and the vast, paternal power of central governments.
The president has revealed no sense of America's mission to move constantly forward "with malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right." Lincoln's sublime biblical English uses the parallel stanzas of ancient Hebrew poetry. That is who we are: a biblical republic, striving to live up to its creed. The dominion of ignorance will pass away like smoke and we will know and be ourselves again the moment we choose to be. Why not now? Mr. Gelernter, a professor of computer science at Yale, is the author of "America-Lite," out on July 4 by Encounter Books.
A version of this article appeared July 2, 2012, on page A11 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: What Is the American Creed?.
By RAYMOND ZHONG
The Calvinist pilgrims who founded the New England colonies had rebelled against England by leaving it, but they were certainly not rebels against a firm social order or against the idea of authority itself. In England, laws against adultery were not enforced; in New England, adulterers might be executed, or whipped and forced to wear scarlet letters. The town of Hartford required its residents to rise from bed at the same hour in the morning. Massachusetts spurned "heathenish" practices to such a degree that it stopped using names for the days of the week, referring to them only by numbers.
Roger Williams, an early resident of Massachusetts who would go on to found the colony of Rhode Island, was uneasy about forced conformity to the Puritan mold, though not because he didn't like the mold. Williams agreed with the Massachusetts governors on most points of theology. He objected to the way in which the colonial government legislated what he felt was properly God's to dictate. Forced worship "stinks in God's nostrils," he wrote.
Williams felt that a society based on free religious exercise, uncompelled by earthly law, was truer to the vision of society in Scripture. As he clashed with the magistrates of Massachusetts, it became clear to him that, for such a society to exist, he would have to create it.
John Barry's "Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul" establishes Williams as a brave thinker and also a deft political actor—not a rare type in early American history but one we usually associate with the American Revolution, not the Puritan colonies.
Roger Williams was born in London around 1603. His suspicion of the excesses of political power was formed early on. He apprenticed with Sir Edward Coke, the jurist who told King James I that a monarch could make laws only through Parliament, not by royal prerogative. Williams left England for the New World in 1631, equipped with a Cambridge degree and, Mr. Barry writes, "the charm of great promise."
Williams was banished from Boston almost immediately. Gov. John Winthrop had offered him the position of assistant minister, but Williams turned it down, believing the Massachusetts church to be corrupt and insufficiently pious. Cast out, Williams spent time with New England's Indian tribes, learning their languages and befriending their chiefs. He took the peace he made with the Narragansetts and the Wampanoags as a sign that God had shown "merciful providence" to him in his distress.
By the time Williams co-founded Providence Plantation, in 1636, it had become clear to him that any sort of manmade stricture on worship was untenable, amounting to an unreasonable infringement on man's God-given conscience. The argument for religious toleration was not new, but it had mostly been made by persecuted sects, for the sake of self-preservation. Williams transformed toleration into a matter of principle.
Providence Plantation came into existence at a difficult period in New England history, when the colonists were waging a war against the Pequot tribe and England itself was lurching toward civil war. Still, Williams's convictions endured. When at last, in 1644, he secured a land patent to unite the separate colonies of Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island had been firmly established as a haven for religious outcasts, for those "troubled by conscience."
This vision of the New Jerusalem was at odds with the one on which previous English colonies had been founded. Winthrop had imagined America as a "city upon a hill," where men could flourish in God's image. But Winthrop's idea of liberty was "liberty to that only which is good," requiring individuals to "quietly and cheerfully submit, unto that Authority which is set over you." The "natural liberty" that Williams advocated was, to Winthrop's mind, a recipe for anarchy.
But Williams did not desire total permissiveness in his experimental society. Using words that Thomas Jefferson would echo more than a century later, Williams argued merely for a "hedge or wall of Separation between the Garden of the Church and the Wilderness of the world." Williams saw God's garden as too precious to be contaminated by the profanity of human politics. Williams's "wall of Separation" was meant to protect the church from the state, not the other way around. Even so, Mr. Barry puts Williams squarely among our great political thinkers, crediting him with bringing liberal democracy to the American colonies.
Why, then, does Williams languish in history's margins? The Rhode Island attitude toward religion did not catch fire right away, Mr. Barry notes. When Williams died in 1683, he was mourned in Rhode Island but not in the rest of New England. Jefferson and Madison got their liberalism mostly through Locke and the Enlightenment, though historians consider Williams to have influenced Locke's work to some degree.
There is another reason why Williams's place in the public imagination is small. Despite his forward-thinking ideas, his conception of the state was still by no means a modern, secular one. He assumed that public life required a religious core. For better or worse, neither Williams nor Winthrop would recognize his vision of a New Jerusalem in the United States today.
—Mr. Zhong is an editorial-page writer for The Wall Street Journal Europe.
A Shining Target on a Hill That Nobody Tries to Hill By EUGENE KONTOROVICH
The First Amendment prohibits any "law respecting an establishment of religion," and in recent years the Supreme Court's Establishment Clause cases have focused on religiously themed public displays. Yet the court has failed to develop clear rules for deciding such cases, ensuring further litigation. There is something picayune about these disputes, over courthouse Ten Commandments displays or school-yard crèches. In this term's Establishment Clause case, Salazar v. Bruno
, for instance, the justices will soon decide whether an eight-foot cruciform war memorial in a park in the Mojave Desert violates the Constitution.
All the while, the court has never come to grips with the existence of a literal established church on a hill just across town—the National Cathedral. Although the Cathedral helps put issues like those in Salazar
in proper perspective, it seems the court can't see the Cathedral for the crosses.
The Cathedral's parent body, the Protestant Episcopal Cathedral Foundation, was "constituted" by an act of Congress in 1893, and the cornerstone was laid in the presence of President Theodore Roosevelt in 1907. The charter Congress issued on the Feast of the Epiphany called on the Foundation to "establish…within the District of Columbia a cathedral . . . for the promotion of religion" and other worthwhile causes.
No one has ever challenged the constitutionality of the Cathedral, and rightly not. The Establishment Clause, as understood for most of the nation's history, does not concern itself with such passive ceremonial nods to religion.
The Cathedral is a private entity. It stands on private land and no public money has ever been used for its construction, maintenance or for any other expenses. Congress has no say in its operations (although the first board of trustees, named in the charter, included the sitting vice president and chief justice). The Cathedral has no formal governmental role.
Yet the chartering had clear religious dimensions. The recognition of the Cathedral's special status has since been abundantly confirmed in practice, with it hosting the inauguration of four out of five of the latest presidents, as well as state funerals, memorial services and, under FDR, "annual national patriotic services." At the Cathedral's final dedication in 1990—private funds take a long time to raise—President George H. W. Bush called it "a house of prayer for the nation."
To be sure, the Cathedral's charter gives it no special prerogatives. Yet its generally undisputed status as the "national" cathedral is owed to the charter, and to its subsequent use for official ceremony. By contrast, when a Washington synagogue dubbed itself the "National Synagogue" several years ago, its claim was not accepted by others and it enjoys no particular distinction.
This setup—official recognition, private management and funding—was arrived at specifically because neither Congress nor the clerics of the time wanted an established church. As Bishop Henry Satterlee, the first head of the Cathedral, put it: "The Framers of the Constitution . . . held, from religious conviction, the necessity of the separation of Church and State. . .Unlike the Medieval Cathedrals of Europe. . .Washington Cathedral will stand on the firm foundation of a Free Church in a Free State—free from any entangling alliance with the government; free to declare the whole Word of God without fear or favor of any political party."
The Cathedral's presumptive constitutionality suggests some broader points about Establishment doctrine. When the Supreme Court attempts to reconcile its increasingly broad prohibition against Establishment with the ubiquity of religious symbolism in public life, it resorts to some dubious distinctions. When the court sustains a particular religious display, it says that the symbols in question do not "endorse" religion, or are denatured—essentially "secular." Yet the governmental use of religious symbols, from among all possible symbols, necessarily reflects a favorable view of faith. To call such displays secular either trivializes the faith of those for whom they are meaningful, or simply underscores that their spiritual message is widely subscribed to.
The existence of the Cathedral illustrates the weaknesses of these tests. "Religious and patriotic associations have [always] been intertwined," Satterlee wrote, and thus some public religious forum is needed to give full scope to peoples' national feeling. (Consider the national motto, or the Pledge of Allegiance.) The Cathedral's charter suggests Congress agreed. It would be hard to pass off a working cathedral as predominantly secular.
While the ACLU and other plaintiffs have scoured public spaces for religious symbols to challenge under the First Amendment, no suit has questioned the Cathedral's constitutionality. That in 120 years Americans of all and no creeds have not found it obnoxious is excellent evidence that it is not. In deciding Salazar
, the court would do well to be aware of the full extent and rich history of governmental use of religious symbols, such as the Cathedral. A decision against the Mojave cross could have larger implications than the justices might desire. Mr. Kontorovich is a professor at Northwestern University School of Law.