Last week’s Wall Street Journal features a column from Michael Meyerson detailing the religious perspective of the Declaration of Independence. With questions of religious liberty occupying a sizable space in the public square, the article is especially timely. According to Meyerson, the Declaration’s brilliance lies in the “theologically bilingual” language of the Framers. Phrases like “endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights” employ what he calls a nondenominational inclusivism, a show of rhetoric that neither endorses nor rejects any particular religious ideology. The underlying implication of this statement, which captures the broader thrust of Meyerson’s article, is that the Framers recognized religion’s intrinsic value in a democratic state. He goes on to argue that the Framers’ understood religious expression as not only permissible, but desirable, for a budding nation. This is especially evident in two oft-forgotten but explicitly religious passages of the Declaration. First, the Framers’ acknowledged their own “appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions.” They also professed a “firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence.” Such phraseology, Meyerson argues, testifies to the value that the Framers’–among them some staunch supporters of church-state separation–placed on religious freedom:
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.
Similar sentiments are found in the writings of Michael Novak, an American Catholic philosopher and lecturer at 2012’s Acton University. Novak’x 2001 book, On Two Wings: Humble Faith and Common Sense at the American Founding, even addresses many of the same themes as Meyerson’s article. To listen to Novak’s Acton University Lecture’s click here. For a copy of On Two Wings, click here.