Two weeks from today, the nation will celebrate Religious Freedom Day.
Don’t feel bad if you were not aware of that. Most people aren’t. Religious Freedom Day, which is celebrated every Jan. 16, tends to be somewhat obscure. My desk calendar, which includes Groundhog Day, Armed Forces Day and Benito Juarez’s Birthday, does not list Religious Freedom Day.
That’s a shame. The holiday commemorates the Virginia General Assembly’s passage of Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom on Jan. 16, 1786. This pioneering legislation, regarded as a precursor to the Constitution’s First Amendment, ended the state-established church in Virginia and went on to guarantee religious liberty for all.
The statute reads in part, “Be it enacted by the General Assembly, That no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men 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.”
Frederick Clarkson, a journalist and long-time critic of the Religious Right, recently penned a column suggesting that advocates of church-state separation need to do more to promote Religious Freedom Day. Clarkson rightly points out that the Virginia Statute rebukes Religious Right notions of an officially “Christian America.”
A little background is helpful: In Virginia, the Anglican Church was established by law. Dissenters, which included Presbyterians, Baptists and Enlightenment-era Deists, spent years pushing for change.
Jefferson had originally introduced his religious liberty bill in 1779, but it went nowhere. But during the post-Revolution era, the issue of religious freedom was hotly debated again in Virginia. Patrick Henry had proposed a bill that would have required all citizens to pay a tax “for the support of the Christian religion, or of some Christian church, denomination or communion of Christians, or for some form of Christian worship.”
James Madison was no fan of this proposal – he called it “obnoxious” and “dishonorable.” Madison was determined to see the Henry bill die, and he penned the classic “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments” in 1785, which rallied opposition to the measure.
Madison’s eloquent arguments did the trick: Henry’s bill was defeated. But Madison didn’t stop there. He also resurrected Jefferson’s religious liberty bill and pushed it through the legislature. As noted, it became law on Jan. 16, 1786.
Jefferson was representing U.S. interests in France while much of this was going on. But Madison wrote to him regularly and kept him informed about developments. Years later, Jefferson noted that after Madison re-introduced the Virginia Statute, some legislators attempted to amend it so that it protected Christians only.
The effort failed. The amendment, Jefferson noted, “was rejected by a great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and the Mahometan, the Hindoo, the infidel of every denomination.”
Considering the times, this was nothing short of remarkable. Within the space of a few years, Virginia went from having an established church to a system that protected the rights of everyone – even Muslims, Hindus and infidels!
I think you can see why the Religious Right is not very fond of this history. It explodes their phony “Christian nation” vision of America.
Americans United and other groups are working with Clarkson to get the word out about Religious Freedom Day. What can you do to help?
Lots of things. Encourage local media to write about the day. Send a letter to the editor of your local newspaper. If you’re active on social media, post about the day on Facebook and issue tweets about.
If you blog or know bloggers who write about church-state issues, religious liberty, freethought issues or related topics, use those platforms to spread the word about Religious Freedom Day.
Are of you of an artistic bent? Think up some clever graphics and share them online. Don’t overlook the power of visual material. A clever graphic or video can go viral on social media.
And please don’t hesitate to use the resources linked to in this post, including the text of the Virginia Statute itself. We want this material to be shared.
As Clarkson puts it, “As religious equality advances, so does equal rights for all. So you can see why the Christian Right might not want people – people like us – thinking like Jefferson. And that is why we must.”
Clarkson is right. The rise of true religious freedom in America is an amazing story. It’s one that we must not hesitate to tell over and over. We’ll have an opportunity in the next few weeks to tell that story. Let’s get to work.