Wednesday, August 11, 2004
When talking religious freedom, remember Thomas Jefferson
Last weekend I visited Monticello, the Charlottesville residence of Thomas Jefferson. As I walked through that historic home, I couldn’t help but think about all his great contributions to our society. One contribution that few people remember from their history books is his creation of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom in 1779.
Mr. Jefferson believed that religion and government should be separated, while many of his contemporaries believed that the state should levy taxes to support teachers of Christian religions. (In the earlier times of the Colonies, taxes were used to support the official church of state, the Anglican Church).
Part of Jefferson’s original statute states, “Be it enacted by the 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 ...”
Many people of his day called Jefferson an atheist and the devil for writing such a law. History shows us he was neither an atheist nor the devil. He was a very religious man who gave God a great deal of credit for all the good fortune of the newly-birthed United States of America.
The law was and is meant to protect the citizenry from a government-endorsed and forced religion, to protect citizens from having to pay taxes to support churches, and to protect religions from the always-encroaching control of government.
Jefferson’s friend and political ally, James Madison, finally got Jefferson’s statute adopted by the Virginia General Assembly in 1786. When the legislature passed the statute, it guaranteed people’s religious rights for the first time in history, and protected them from government interference.
This law is still part of Virginia's constitution, and it also provided the framework for the religious freedom clauses in the Bill of Rights.
Madison said, “The religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate.”
Madison said that the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom “extinguished forever the ambitious hope of making laws for the human mind.” What a noble cause -- to make sure that the government couldn’t dictate what you thought, or how you expressed that thought.
Today, the rhetoric from both the extremes of the religious right and the politically-correct left leave the average person confused about the separation of church and state, both at the state and federal levels. These are the basics:
Some examples of the extreme rhetoric that people throw around in debating this issue include children not being able to pray in public schools. This is not true. Children can pray by themselves or in private groups, and often do. School officials just can’t organize the prayer. Unfortunately, in some rare instances, overly cautious teachers and administrators have illegally stopped students from praying, and these instances have made headlines.
Other examples: some say religious groups aren’t allowed to meet in public buildings such as schools and government meeting halls. The fact is if other private groups such as sports or civic clubs are allowed to use the facilities, so are religious groups. Again, unfortunately, some public administrators don’t understand this, and they illegally restrict religious groups from using public facilities.
People also argue that we are a Christian nation founded on Christian principles. Yes, our Founding Fathers were Christians, and they referenced God often; but they also understood religious freedom. So much so that they explicitly made provisions for it in the Bill of Rights. And, yes, clearly a majority of Americans claim to be Christian (I say “claim to be” because many say they are Christian, but do not actively attend church). But that doesn’t mean we are a “Christian nation.”
Will you argue 30 years from now that the United States is an “Islamic nation” when enough blacks and other Americans convert to Islam to combine with immigrating Muslims to form a group larger than Christians? Will you call for the tenets of the Koran to be taught in public schools then, just as you call for the Ten Commandments to be displayed in schools today?
If you are a Christian, would you be content to allow your taxes to be taken up to fund public schools that taught your children to pray to Allah rather than Jesus? Or to Jesus rather than Allah, if you are a Muslim?
We can’t even get straight among Christians (Baptists, Catholics, Methodists, Presbyterians, etc.) what our standards should be. Whose version of Christian teachings should we use as the standard? If we use one denomination’s, then that may mean we have to outlaw dancing, another denomination’s standard might mean alcohol consumption is illegal, still another denomination’s standard might mean that we don’t use motorized vehicles. Is that really acceptable in a free society?
God himself doesn’t even impose religion on us, as Christians and others profess that he gives us free will to believe in him or not. If God is willing to give people that choice, what right is it of man to overrule God’s will, and to force others who don’t believe to use their taxes to fund schools that teach prayer and city halls that display Christmas trees?
What most people don’t seem to understand is that laws against mixing religion and government are in place to protect religious freedom, not deny it. Many people say that the purpose is to chase God out of the classroom or the public square. What these people fail to realize is that if you give government the power to endorse religion (by organizing public prayer, by posting the Ten Commandments in public buildings, etc.), you also give government the power to CONTROL religion.
Fortunately, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and the General Assembly understood this in 1786.
Yet, the current round of court battles, legislative volleys and hate speech on both sides of the issue leads me to believe we need to make a better attempt to understand it in 2004.