Being at the inaugural events this past weekend, including the the inaugural ceremony itself which is held on the south portico of the Virginia Capitol, it is hard not to feel the history of the ceremonies and, of course, the role of the Founding Fathers from Virginia. Among those is Thomas Jefferson who designed the Capitol building, founded the University of Virginia, and authored the Declaration of Independence. But Jefferson was equally proud of his authorship of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which in many ways lay the ground work for the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. As evangelical Christians - the Christofascists - seek to exempt themselves from laws binding on the citizenry on the duplicitous claim that to do otherwise deprives them of "religious freedom," it is important to understand what Jefferson and his fellows understood religious freedom to be and that it is the exact opposite of what is now being put forth by Christofascists whom I suspect Jefferson would have loathed. Indeed, the exemplify some of the evils of religion that Jefferson and the Founders decried. A piece in Religion Dispatches by a legitimate historian (as opposed to faux historians favored by the "godly folk") reminds us of what religious freedom means and that it does not grant licences to discriminate. Here are excerpts:
To listen to the Christian Right, which has been busy seeking religious exemptions from laws governing reproductive rights and LGBTQ rights, one might think that armies of secularists are swarming like locusts over the land, seeking to snuff out the light of religious freedom and ultimately, of faith itself.
Informed people on all sides also tend to agree that the taproot of religious freedom in the United States is the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, originally drafted by Thomas Jefferson in 1777 and shepherded through the Virginia legislature by James Madison in 1786. The following year, Madison served as the principal (but certainly not the only) author of the Constitution, and in 1789, as the principal author of the First Amendment.
Historian John Ragosta, author of Religious Freedom: Jefferson’s Legacy, America’s Creed (University of Virginia Press, 2013), has been writing about the origins of the U.S. approach to religious freedom, particularly the Virginia Statute, the circumstances that gave rise to it and what it means for understanding religion, law and politics in our time.
What exactly is the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom and how did it come to be?
The Virginia Statute is probably the most robust and certainly the most poetic statement of religious freedom in our history. . . . . it played a critical role in development of the First Amendment and in the way the states defined religious freedom. It was far better known in the nineteenth century when historians, students, newspaper editors and politicians regularly turned to the Statute to understand religious liberty.
Its history is equally important: After the American Revolution there was an effort to impose taxes to support all Christian religions; this was seen as an improvement over colonial laws which had favored specific Christian sects, e.g. Anglican or Congregational. If that effort had succeeded, we could say that America was somehow officially or legally a “Christian Nation.” Fortunately, James Madison and a broad coalition of evangelicals rose up to oppose state interference with religion, even support for religion, and instead managed to have Jefferson’s Statute enacted.
Thomas Jefferson . . . wanted to be remembered as author of the Declaration of Independence, “Father of the University of Virginia,” and author of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom.
Jefferson saw these three things as the great accomplishments of his life: political freedom, religious freedom, and educational freedom and opportunity. Of the three, he thought religious freedom was the foundation because without freedom to think and believe, you could not have the other two. A republic could not work if government and church officials (what Jefferson referred to as an alliance of “kings, nobles, and priests”) were trying to control what we think or prescribe what was the “best” religion or which people were the “best” citizens based upon their religious beliefs. If people were to make informed political choices themselves, they had to be free to think for themselves, especially about religion. For Jefferson and his supporters, religious freedom for all was central to our democracy.
Jefferson emphasized that the bill was meant to protect everyone, including as he later wrote, “the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and Infidel of every denomination.” This idea–that one’s religious identity should be neither an advantage nor a disadvantage under the law–seems to be as relevant today as it was then.
The Statute was intended to create a free market of ideas, including religious ideas. Religion would thrive based not on government decisions but on what people believed and chose to support–the “voluntary principle.” The result was an explosion in religious ideas and denominations, and religious leaders were held responsible to their congregants rather than the government.
At the same time, while belief is completely free from government regulation and government cannot directly regulate the free exercise of religion, government can pass “neutral” laws (not targeted at religion) which may happen to be inconsistent with a person’s beliefs.
The best modern example is laws against racial discrimination: While many people insisted that interracial dating or marriage violated their religion, the Supreme Court, in the 1983 case of Bob Jones University v. United States, rightly refused to grant an exemption to anti-discrimination laws based on religion.
This is exactly what is at issue in the claims for exemptions from laws dealing with LGBTQ rights. Government cannot tell a church that it must marry gay people (that would be a direct regulation of religion), but government can say that if you want to run a business (using public streets, public utilities, police and fire protection, etc.), you cannot discriminate against customers based on race, gender, or sexual orientation. Of course, if people don’t like particular laws, they can be changed, but Jefferson was very clear that you can’t use religion or religious freedom to claim an exemption from an otherwise valid law.
During a crisis, President Jefferson was asked to make an official proclamation calling on people to pray for the country; he refused, saying that it would violate the Constitution. Even if there was no criminal penalty or fine for not praying, Jefferson said that he believed the proclamation would give the erroneous idea that “good” citizens would join in prayer. This was the “tyranny over the mind of man” that Jefferson fought against.
The Declaration of Independence includes very broad and general language about a “creator,” but it is telling that the only reference to God or religion in the Constitution is Article VI which mandates that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust.” This was not a mistake. These religious people decided that it would be better for the country, for both government and religion, to keep them separated.
Jefferson once suggested that perhaps the only thing that we should require of anyone to be tolerated in our society is their commitment to tolerate others.
Eighteenth century Presbyterians and Baptists would often note that if government could discriminate in favor of any religion, even all Christian religions, it also had the authority to attack a particular religion or all religions. They realized that complete separation of church and state was the best way to promote true religion.