Thursday, January 16, 2014

Religious Freedom Day

Today is Religious Freedom Day! We pause to reflect on religious freedom on this day because January 16, 1786 brought the passage of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. The legislation laid the groundwork for religious freedom being guaranteed in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The Act, first drafted by Thomas Jefferson, was so important to him that he had it put on his tombstone as one of his accomplishments, but left off being President of the United States. Although Jefferson wrote it, James Madison was the one who worked it through the political system so that it passed. Many people invoke the language of religious freedom/liberty today, but not always in the way Madison and Jefferson envisioned it. Religious freedom does not mean allowing employers to force their religious views regarding contraception on their employees' insurance. Religious freedom does not mean allowing one religion to place its holy objects on public land. Religious freedom does not mean only those of the majority faith get their way. Rather, the radical idea of Madison and Jefferson (and of Baptist leaders like Roger Williams, Isaac Backus, and John Leland) was religious freedom equally for all people.

Sadly, the Madison and Jefferson ideal is not followed or celebrated enough today. Although President Barack Obama issued a presidential proclamation declaring today to be "Religious Freedom Day" and White House officials Melissa Rogers and Eric Treene wrote a nice White House blog about the occasion, little else occurred to mark its importance. This is too bad. The idea of religious liberty for all is a radical idea that seems misunderstood and underappreciated today. Yet, separating church and state to provide full religious liberty is good for both church and state. As Madison wrote years later while explaining the success of the religious efforts he and Jefferson led in Virginia:
It was the Universal opinion of the Century preceding the last, that Civil Govt could not stand without the prop of a Religious establishment, & that the Xn religion itself, would perish if not supported by a legal provision for its Clergy. The experience of Virginia conspicuously corroborates the disproof of both opinions. The Civil Govt, tho' bereft of everything like an associated hierarchy, possesses the requisite stability and performs its functions with complete success, Whilst the number, the industry, and the morality of the Priesthood, & the devotion of the people have been manifestly increased by the total separation of the Church from the State.
Amen! Thanks to Jefferson and Madison (memorialized below) for their work to bring true religious freedom for all.


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