Jan. 16 is officially “Religious Freedom Day.” I know this because the president of the United States dutifully proclaims it so every year.
If this is news to you, don’t feel too bad. Presidential proclamations are a dime a dozen. In fact, 110 were issued in 2004 alone, ranging from the obvious (Independence Day) to the obscure (Leif Erikson Day, Oct. 9).
But if I could nominate just one of these many proclaimed days to join the pantheon of major American holidays, Jan. 16 would be it. Why? Because on that fateful date in 1786, the Virginia Assembly passed the Statute for Religious Freedom — the first legislation in history to guarantee religious liberty for every citizen.
Drafted by Thomas Jefferson and guided to enactment by James Madison, the Virginia Statute broke with the precedents of history to disestablish the established church, prohibit government funding of religion, and ensure that all people “shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.”
This revolutionary advance for religious freedom in 1786 set the stage for ratification of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1791 with its guarantee of “no establishment” and “free exercise” on the federal level.
Today, more than 200 years later, religious freedom remains high on the list of what most Americans say they value most about their country. According to a survey released last fall by the Council for America’s First Freedom, 84% of us think religious freedom is as important or more important than it was when Jefferson’s bill was enacted.
But the same survey suggests that many Americans may have forgotten what Jefferson and Madison meant by “religious freedom.” Forty-nine percent of respondents said there was either no need for separation of church and state in the U.S. or that it should be less strictly interpreted.
Part of the problem may be widespread confusion about the expression “separation of church and state” — an image used first by Roger Williams and later by Thomas Jefferson to describe the necessary condition in any society dedicated to full religious freedom.
After decades of hearing some televangelists declare that “separation of church and state isn’t in the First Amendment,” many people now reject the words — if not the principle.
To be sure, some secularists have also poisoned the well for “separation” by misusing the term to fight for removal of any religious expression from the public square.
As a matter of history, both extremes are wrong. Jefferson’s bill — and later the First Amendment — does indeed separate church from state. What else could “no establishment” mean?
But neither the Virginia Statute nor the First Amendment is intended to separate religion from politics or public life. The aim of both is to keep the government from involvement in religion while protecting the right of every person to follow the dictates of conscience in matters of faith.
To recover the “separation” principle behind these founding documents, we only need recall the fight that led to passage of the Virginia Statute. In 1784, Patrick Henry proposed “A Bill for Establishing a Provision for Teachers of the Christian Religion,” a general assessment providing tax support for clergy of all the various Christian denominations (and an alternative option for those, such as Quakers, who had no formal clergy).
Though it was a step toward ending the favored status of the Anglican Church, Henry’s bill was grounded in the centuries-old conviction that state support for religion was necessary for the moral and spiritual welfare of the people.
Because Jefferson was ambassador to France in 1784, the task of opposing Henry’s bill — and then championing Jefferson’s alternative — fell to Jefferson’s close friend James Madison. Through his powerful “Memorial and Remonstrance,” Madison helped sway public opinion against state support (establishment) of religion.
It didn’t matter that many denominations were given aid under Henry’s bill — or that the amount of money wasn’t great. Madison opposed any government entanglement with religion as a “dangerous abuse of power.” Who does not see, he wrote, “that the same authority which can force a citizen to contribute three pence only of his property for the support of any one establishment, may force him to conform to any other establishment in all cases whatsoever?”
Moreover, Madison contended, the fruits of ecclesiastical establishments throughout history have been “pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity, in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution.” Confusing government and religion, in other words, is also bad for religion.
Forgive the history lesson. But with more and more churches lining up these days to get government dollars for social services, and growing numbers of Americans calling for more government endorsement of religion, it is worth remembering what many of us seem to have forgotten: Religious freedom in America means keeping the government out of religion and protecting the right of all people to follow the dictates of conscience in matters of faith.
Proclaiming “Religious Freedom Day” isn’t enough — only an abiding commitment to the principles enacted on Jan. 16, 1786, will keep us free.