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. 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 highlight just three things on the monument that marks his grave–and “not a word more.” Although his remarkable life included being President, Ambassador to France, and Secretary of State, he 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.But he and his evangelical supporters wanted a strict wall of separation between church and state–and yet [they] believed that there would be a vibrant religion on the “other” (non-government) side of the wall.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.There are close cases, but a specific example may help: 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.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.How do we simultaneously draw on our religious (and non-religious) beliefs and values in public life while also adhering to Jeffersonian values regarding religious pluralism and separation of church and state?
The Virginia Statute is probably the most robust and certainly the most poetic statement of religious freedom in our history.
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.
Others starkly cast the Christian Right’s campaign as one pitting the religious freedom of some against the civil rights of others, thus effectively ceding the very idea of religious freedom to people whose commitment to the principle may be shaky at best.
This was the “tyranny over the mind of man” that Jefferson fought against.
Yet, government officials are still people and, when acting as private persons, can engage in religious activities; so Jefferson said a prayer (a very non-denominational prayer) at his inaugurations and attended church while president. Many proponents of Christian nationalism seize on the religious language to ascribe religious intention to the Constitution and the First Amendment.
Such complexities notwithstanding, most would agree that religious freedom is a good thing even if we can’t agree on exactly what it means.