The Williamsburg Charter
Keenly aware of the high national purpose of commemorating the
bicentennial of the United States Constitution, we who sign
this Charter seek to celebrate the Constitution's greatness,
and to call for a bold reaffirmation and reappraisal of its
vision and guiding principles. In particular, we call for a
fresh consideration of religious liberty in our time, and of
the place of the First Amendment Religious Liberty clauses in
our national life.
We gratefully acknowledge that the Constitution has been hailed
as America's "chief export" and "the most wonderful work ever
struck off at a given time by the brain and purpose of man."
Today, two hundred years after its signing, the Constitution is
not only the world's oldest, still-effective written
constitution, but the admired pattern of ordered liberty for
countless people in many lands.
In spite of its enduring and universal qualities, however, some
provisions of the Constitution are now the subject of
widespread controversy in the United States. One area of
intense controversy concerns the First Amendment Religious
Liberty clauses, whose mutually reinforcing provisions act as a
double guarantee of religious liberty, one part barring the
making of any law "respecting an establishment of religion" and
the other barring any law "prohibiting the free exercise
The First Amendment Religious Liberty provisions epitomize the
Constitution's visionary realism. They were, as James Madison
said, the "true remedy" to the predicament of religious
conflict they originally addressed, and they well express the
responsibilities and limits of the state with respect to
liberty and justice.
Our commemoration of the Constitution's bicentennial must
therefore go beyond celebration to rededication. Unless this is
done, an irreplaceable part of national life will be
endangered, and a remarkable opportunity for the expansion of
liberty will be lost.
For we judge that the present controversies over religion in
public life pose both a danger and an opportunity. There is
evident danger in the fact that certain forms of politically
reassertive religion in parts of the world are, in principle,
enemies of democratic freedom and a source of deep social
antagonism. There is also evident opportunity in the growing
philosophical and cultural awareness that all people live by
commitments and ideals, that value-neutrality is impossible in
the ordering of society, and that we are on the edge of a
promising moment for a fresh assessment of pluralism and
liberty. 1 It is with an eye to both the promise and the peril
that we publish this Charter and pledge ourselves to its
We readily acknowledge our continuing differences. Signing this
Charter implies no pretense that we believe the same things or
that our differences over policy proposals, legal
interpretations and philosophical groundings do not ultimately
matter. The truth is not even that what unites us is deeper
than what divides us, for differences over belief are the
deepest and least easily negotiated of all.
The Charter sets forth a renewed national compact, in the sense
of a solemn mutual agreement between parties, on how we view
the place of religion in American life and how we should
contend with each other's deepest differences in the public
sphere. It is a call to a vision of public life that will allow
conflict to lead to consensus, religious commitment to
reinforce political civility. In this way, diversity is not a
point of weakness but a source of strength.
The term "pluralism" is ambiguous.
It is sometimes used to refer to religious diversity. Other times, it refers
to the belief that all religions are true.