Thursday, July 31st, 2008...7:56 am

Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom

Jump to Comments

One of the handful of points of pride that Thomas Jefferson specified as his epitaph was that he was the author of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. Famously in Query 17 of the only book he published in his lifetime, Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson wrote:

The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg. If it be said, his testimony in a court of justice cannot be relied on, reject it then, and be the stigma on him. Constraint may make him worse by making him a hypocrite, but it will never make him a truer man. It may fix him obstinately in his errors, but will not cure them. Reason and free enquiry are the only effectual agents against error.

After Jefferson authored the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom late in the 1770s, the Virginia General Assembly passed the statute in 1786. The Statute begins with a lengthy discussion of the philosophical underpinnings of the statute (“Whereas Almighty God hath created the mind free; that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burthens, or by civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and are a departure from the plan of the Holy author of our religion . . .”) before articulating the prescriptions of the statute itself, namely:

. . . 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.

 and that

. . . therefore to declare this act to be irrevocable would be of no effect in law; yet we are free to declare, and do declare, that the rights hereby asserted are of the natural rights of mankind, and that if any act shall be hereafter passed to repeal the present, or to narrow its operation, such act shall be an infringement of natural right.

Now a college professor in Virginia is calling for a “New Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom.” The professor offers as his rationale for a “new” statute:

Since those days [the Early Republic], the society has lapsed in its treatment of religious people. The government has grown much larger; the culture has grown more secular; and religion has lost much of its standing, subsisting at the outskirts of public life and serving as a mere footnote during a week filled with other concerns. This development in our society finds a number of causes, but the government must bear considerable responsibility for much of it by developing policies that create and forward secularity in the modern world. . . . I am calling for the inclusion of all citizens, religious and non-religious alike. I am calling for the privileges of real citizenship, not the patronizing and pacifying policies of toleration toward the disenfranchised. Without representation, religion will have no real significance in the hearts of the people or the future of our nation. If we continue on the present course, faith will lose more and more respect and eventually die out . . . This is why the people of God can no longer live as a remnant in society and watch secular forces denigrate the faith. They must demand from their elected officials, beginning in this state, a platform and a voice. It is their right as tax-paying citizens to have their ideas aired within the public domain in accordance with their rightful place in society.

The “new” statute offers the following resolution:

Be it enacted by the General Assembly, That the state of Virginia welcomes the participation of religion and its people within the public square and provides a space for its just representation, as it does for any other opinion or group. The state finds it appropriate to represent the faith of the people by affording them access to public institutions and inviting them to interpret their faith and provide spiritual and moral guidance in determining its laws and actions. It also finds it appropriate to represent the faith of the people through public symbols and ceremonies, acknowledging the basic views of the people as they change over time, respecting the rights of minority views to dissent or abstain, and recognizing the serious limitations placed upon the government to impose any ideology on a free society.

The proposed “New Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom” appears to me to be yet another misguided and unfortunate attempt to privilege religious expression and religious institutions within the civic sphere in the guise of claiming that religious expression and religious institutions in the US are threatened or discriminated against. The purveyors of that falsehood are either delusional or cynical. When preachers and politicians attempt that scam, check your wallet.

Among all the Western industrialized countries, the US has the largest percentage of citizens professing to believe in God, professing religious practice (the vast majority of whom claim to be Christian), and professing a belief in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. There is a degree of “God talk” in American public life and in American public institutions that astonishes our fellow citizens of the West (Canada, England, and Europe) who find Americans’ civic piety puzzling at best and alarming at worst. In other words, this statute is a response to a fraudulent, fictional “problem.”

In fact, one can reasonably argue that the robustness of religious life in the US (in comparison to its virtual absence in the rest of the Western industrialized world) is the product of the clear separation of personal religious convictions and the official functions of government. This separation has permitted our secular institutions to function on democratic principles, without the intrusion of sects’ faith claims, which are inevitably based on someone’s interpretation of a “revelation” (and therefore not subject to empirical testing and subsequent reasoned debate). Read Paine’s The Age of Reason and Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” and “Divinity School Address” for a classic American view of the issue.

Over the past eight years we have endured one of the most religious national administrations in living memory. What have we to show for it? Lies, corruption, a national debt that would have enraged the Hebrew prophets, a war (that also would have appalled the prophets) without justification that has cost hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives, thousands of American lives, and tens of thousands of Americans damaged (physically and mentally) beyond repair, not to mention the damage inflicted on international conventions of human rights and the American Constitution (as ably defended by the Supreme Court).

The pulpits have been usurped either by politipreachers who have become addicted to politicaine (a highly addicting substance that produces delusions of grandeur and delusions of self-righteousness) or by motivational speakers who convey something called the prosperity gospel (in which God is Santa Claus: He knows when you are sleeping, He knows when you’re awake. If you are good to Him, He will be good to you for goodness sake, and you can be good to Him by sending your tithe to our ministry). Jesus said, “Give us this day our daily bread” not “Give us this day our BMW and our McMansion.”

On the matter of public demonstrations of religiosity, this is what that itinerant Jewish teacher had to say: “And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

Am I just being a fundamentalist, biblical literalist? Amen.

Leave a Reply