JANUARY 14, 2002
-- Martin E. Marty
This Wednesday, January 16, is the 216th anniversary of the Virginia General Assembly's 1786 adoption of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. This weekend the Council for America's First Freedom held its annual celebration of the event. (I am writing this before leaving for Richmond. "I have an interest:" I was originally an adviser, have shown up for the observance before, and am being honored this year for contributions to reflection on the "religious freedom" Statute and cause.) Scheduled to be there is noted architect Michael Graves, who has designed a structure the Council is building, in Richmond of course, to house exhibits and stage events connected with the Declaration.
In preparing five-minutes of response it occurred to me to say: the terrorist fundamentalists from the Islamic world, and other enemies of freedom, have it exactly right when they oppose "the West," and especially America, for the invention of religious freedom. James Madison was right: it is the first freedom. Realize it and other freedoms follow. Crimp it and the others are in jeopardy.
So when the enemies of our way of life target as "infidels" those who believe with Jefferson, Madison, and other founders that religion should not be coerced, they are aiming in the right direction. Those of us who celebrate the chaos of religious pluralism as we know it in America, and as we will never satisfyingly address its ramifications in courts, classrooms, or sanctuaries, differ widely on what the freedom means. Friend Azizah Y. al-Hibri, also scheduled to be at the event, uses three categories: strict separationism, endorsement, and accommodationism. For all their differences, those who represent these three approaches agree on the role the First Amendment must play.
All students of the First Amendment would do well to reread the Virginia Statute, the Magna Carta for what became America's address to the forever unstable relation of religion to regime, church and state. I reread it, as well as Merrill D. Peterson and Robert C. Vaughn's edited work, The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom (Cambridge, 1988) to prepare for the weekend. One's pulse races, I hope, upon reading words such as those in the Enactment "that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, etc. . . ." Far from killing, or even hurting, religion by removing state provisions, establishment, and even implied coercion and privilege, the authors of the Virginia Statute and those who followed them in legislatures and courts ever since enhanced and enriched it, as the American record shows. It is well worth celebrating.
Correction: "In Sightings 12/31/01, "Stories of the Year and of History," Stephen Prothero's new book was mentioned as Purified by Fire: A History of Creation in America, when it is actually Purified by Fire: A History of Cremation in America. Having read the book, we can recommend it. We apologize, and hope that we have not launched the first round of the "Evolutionist/Cremationist" controversy.