January 28, 2008
Virginia and Religious Freedom
— Martin E. Marty
In January of 1777 in Fredericksburg, Virginia, a committee met to revise
Virginia's laws as it was becoming a state. Thomas Jefferson then and
there drafted a "Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom," an
antecedent to the First Amendment of the Constitution. I've been to several
celebrations in Richmond, where the Statute was enacted in 1785, to Charlottesville
in 1985 for a bicentennial conference on the subject, and this year spoke
at an annual forum at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg.
Such occasions lead me to reflect on this—dare I call it 'epochal'—document,
and now will follow up with a comment on a particular point.
While Sightings is dedicated more to framing issues than spreading ideology, ideas and commitments do stand behind the work of historians and reporters who are not trying to make stump speeches. Here, in compressed and summary form, is part of what I get asked at observances like the ones mentioned above—and also in an election year in which religion is so much at issue in society: "While you are not a strict 'separationist' on church and state, why are you so nervous about enactments that prescribe public school prayer and the bannering of religious symbols in public places? Are you on the side of secular humanists who want to banish 'God' and 'religion' from public life?"
Yes, questioners, you are right: I am not a strict separationist, and I do not think that it's the best use of civil energies to try to get "In God We Trust" and similar almost meaningless creeds off our coins, to abolish public funding for military and some other kinds of chaplaincies, or to chase the chaplains out of the legislatures. Yes, you observe correctly: I can get nervous about government prescriptions of religious observance. I am neither on nor off the side of secular humanists, but I am not a would-be banisher of religion. But, in the light of the "Virginia Statute," let me add some positives to my answer.
Jefferson, the Virginia legislators, James Madison, the constitution-drafters and First Amendment inventors, and others, drew a line between what we can call "persuasive" versus "coercive" approaches to religion in public life; or we can draw the line between what is "voluntary" and what is "imposed" or "state-privileged." As for the persuasive and voluntary front: Let all the advertisers sell us God or any other deities if they will. They have a perfect right. Let the presidents of the United States form their piety and policy with their view of God in mind. Let others vote them down and out if they disagree. America was not founded as a Christian nation with a Godly-Constitution. Because it was not, as the Virginia Statute and its follow-ups make clear, there is room for Christian and other expression and energy virtually unmatched anywhere else, and certainly unmatched wherever religion was ever given governmental coercive power, establishment, or law-based formal privilege.
The founders, "fallible" though the Statute says all governing and other people are, did know and say that "all attempts to influence [the free mind] by…civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness." They are departures from the "Lord" who "chose not to propagate [religion] by coercions…" All people "shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion…" "Religion" is more than opinion, to state it more surely than Jefferson did, but with the opinions of free minds is a good place to start—and to stay, two centuries later. Virginia has much to celebrate, as do we all, non-partisanly.
References: The full text of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom is available at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Virginia_Statute_for_Religious_Freedom. For further information, visit The Council for America's First Freedom at http://www.firstfreedom.org.
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.
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