On this day in 1786, the Virginia General Assembly passed the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. Authored by Thomas Jefferson, it foreshadowed the First Amendment and the principle of separation of church and state. To wit:
We the General Assembly of Virginia do enact that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burdened 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.
The Statute is really remarkable for its naked secularity. Even as it begins by invoking the authority of “Nature’s God,” it takes civil and ecclesiastical authorities to task for their “impious presumption” and “hypocrisy” in assuming dominion over personal beliefs. According to this brilliant piece of legislation, no one should be compelled to give money to religious authorities not of his choosing, civil rights do not depend on adhering to a particular religion, and to insist otherwise is gravely injurious to religious liberty. It’s worth a read, and deserves commemoration.
It’s also a far cry from the variety of “religious freedom” we’ve become all too accustomed to hearing about in recent years. For some people, it seems religious freedom means freedom for me, not for thee. Claiming a right to discriminate on the basis of religious beliefs, deny basic services, and (more recently) demanding Federal money to rebuild churches are just a few examples of how “religious freedom” has come to mean something very different from the kind understood by the Framers.
Perhaps not surprisingly, this corrupted notion of religious freedom today infects the highest office in the land.
Every year, the President commemorates the Virginia Statute by declaring January 16th Religious Freedom Day. From President Bush in 1993 up until today, almost every Proclamation extols the virtues of religious tolerance and diversity while denouncing bigotry and other forms of abuse. One might even say it’s empty pap; fodder for those seeking Presidential affirmations. This year, however, the President’s proclamation is of a decidedly different character:
“Unfortunately, not all have recognized the importance of religious freedom, whether by threatening tax consequences for particular forms of religious speech, or forcing people to comply with laws that violate their core religious beliefs without sufficient justification. These incursions, little by little, can destroy the fundamental freedom underlying our democracy…No American — whether a nun, nurse, baker, or business owner — should be forced to choose between the tenets of faith or adherence to the law.”
Allusions to the Johnson Amendment and recent cases involving health care and business owners who deny services to gay couples sends a clear, unambiguous signal to the zealots: “President Trump has your back.” Rarely has a President so blatantly declared his allegiance to a special interest group, but there it is.
Now, whether this turns out to be consequential remains to be seen. I’m inclined to think it’s an aberration in American politics; an example of how the Trump administration does business, and that it represents a departure from a norm to which we’ll return in 2020. But whatever the case may be, I value the original meaning of religious freedom, and look forward to future opportunities to vote for candidates willing to honor the Framer’s intent.
What do you think?