Marking Religious Freedom Day: A Lesson for the Religious Right

Today is Religious Freedom Day, marking the anniversary of the passage of the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom. Authored by Thomas Jefferson, the statute served as a model for other states. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution also includes the principle of religious freedom protected by the Virginia statute.

The statute reads, in part:

“Be it enacted by General Assembly that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief, but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of Religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge or affect their civil capacities.”

Writing about the statute in 1994, the late historian and Jefferson scholar Merrill D. Peterson of the University of Virginia noted the modern debate over religious freedom in America:

“Present-day neoconservatives and spokesmen for the religious right argue, for essentially political reasons, that a common religion is the necessary glue of the nation, that we began as a Christian people, and that however pluralist we may have become, the survival of the republic rests upon the foundation of Christian or perhaps Judeo-Christian belief. God forbid, they say, that the government should regulate our economic behavior, but it ought to regulate moral and religious belief. Again, the whole thrust of Jefferson’s philosophy was to reject that position, to reject any idea that a shared community of religious beliefs or of moral values, other than the value of freedom itself, was necessary to society. He sought to raise the republic on the inalienable rights of man, allowing every citizen sovereignty over his own mind and conscience.”

He continues:

“Nowhere in the world today is there more genuine freedom of conscience, and more respect for the separateness of Church and State, than in the United States. It is a precious legacy. Nevertheless there are powerful voices in the land which would rewrite history and undermine these revolutionary principles.”

Those voices seeking to rewrite history are just as powerful, perhaps more so, 20 years after Peterson wrote his essay.

His full essay is worth the read. Religious-righters who scream so loudly about supposed “threats” to religious freedom today could learn much from it — if they were willing.

One thought on “Marking Religious Freedom Day: A Lesson for the Religious Right

  1. It might be fair to say that the RR would prefer that we all just take their word for it and NOT read Thomas Jefferson’s words. They might “muddy the waters,” so to speak. Jefferson obviously didn’t want his new experiment in government to be a theocracy.