“The framers created a spiritual public vocabulary that could be both appreciated as religious by those from orthodox religions. But they made sure the language was expansive enough to communicate to all, including followers of minority religions.”
And so, contrary to the various colonial charters and state constitutions, the U.S. Constitution omitted any explicit religious language, writes Meyerson, yet “it expresses some important thoughts on the relationship between religion and government.”
Baptist minister John Leland was an influential member of the Constitutional Convention. “His support was critical in James Madison’s election to the Virginia Ratifying Convention in 1788,” writes Meyerson. “He was a close friend of Thomas Jefferson, and he was a leading advocate for amending the Constitution to include provisions protecting religious liberty. Leland combined his deep personal religious faith with a desire ‘to exclude religious opinions from the list of objects of legislation.’ He once wrote that ‘Government should be so fixed, that Pagans, Turks, Jews and Christians should be equally protected in their rights.’
What about Catholics? “Many of the founders were deeply hostile to Roman Catholics,” writes Meyerson. “The Continental Congress described Catholicism as a religion that had ‘dispersed impiety, bigotry, persecution, murder and rebellion through every part of the world.’”
It should be remembered that England had long been divided over its King Henry VIII’s break with the Vatican when the pope refused to sanction his repeated divorces and execution of wives who did not bear him a son. England’s arch-enemies were the devoutly Catholic Spain and France.
“John Jay tried to punish Catholics unless, ‘they renounce and believe to be false and wicked, the dangerous and damnable doctrine, that the pope, or any other earthly authority, have power to absolve men from sins.’
“Sam Adams wrote to the Mohawk tribe that if Catholics came to power their children ‘may be induced, instead of worshipping the only true God, to pay his dues to images made with their own hands.’
“At the end of the Revolutionary war New Jersey, Delaware, North Carolina, Georgia, South Carolina, and Vermont barred Catholics from serving in government.
“Many framers, however, felt no such hostility,” writes Meyerson. ”Benjamin Franklin, in fact, was on such good terms with Pope Pius VI that the pope followed his recommendation that Marylander John Carroll be named America’s first archbishop.
“George Washington similarly admonished his troops to avoid all anti-Catholic activity, stating ‘While we are Contending for our own Liberty, we should be very cautious of violating the Rights of Conscience in others.’”
Were Jews excluded? “Maryland kept its requirement limiting office-holding to Christians until well into the 19th Century,” writes Meyerson. “In 1819, a state assembly committee proposed what was commonly termed the ‘Jew Bill,’ granting Jews the right to hold public office. The ‘Jew Bill’ finally passed in 1826, and Jews were permitted to serve in the legislature. Nonetheless, Maryland government officials were required to declare a ‘belief in the existence of God’ until this provision was ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1961.
“There was no such official discrimination against Jews at the national level. As president, Washington wrote to a Jewish congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, ‘May the children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.’
Washington in prayer at Valley Forge
What about Muslims and Hindus? “When George Washington was describing his view on a local bill to raise taxes to fund Christian teachers,” writes Meyerson, “he stated that any such propose must permit those who ‘declare themselves Jews, Mahomitans or otherwise… [to] obtain proper relief.’ Thomas Jefferson said that the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom was designed ‘to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and infidel of every denomination.’”
Did the Continental Congress print and distribute Bibles? “There was a severe shortage of Bibles in America during the Revolutionary War and, in 1781, a Philadelphia printer, Robert Aitken, decided to print his own copies of the Bible. Aitken, who had previously served as the printer for the Journals of Congress, asked the Continental Congress to endorse his Bible and also to assist him financially by purchasing 2,500 Bibles, Congress declined to purchase his Bibles but did send a copy to its two chaplains, to ensure the books were accurate,” writes Meyerson.