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Happy Religious Freedom Day

Today is Religious Freedom Day, which celebrates the passage of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, passed in 1786. There’s a very interesting story behind the law, which was originally written by Thomas Jefferson and pushed through to passage by James Madison.

Jefferson first drafted the bill in 1777, but did not submit it to the Virginia Assembly until 1779, where it originally failed. It was that bill that first brought Jefferson and Madison together because Madison strongly agreed with the need to separate church and state. Jefferson quickly became something of a mentor to him. In 1784, Jefferson left for France as the American ambassador to that country, leaving Madison to take up the task of getting the official Anglican church in Virginia disestablished.

The bill was submitted in response to a bill by Patrick Henry that would have established a church tax on all Virginia residents, with the revenue from the tax being divided up among several churches. Madison led the fight against that legislation and submitted Jefferson’s act as a replacement, writing his famous Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments in support of both actions. Jefferson’s bill said, in part:

Be it therefore 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 burdened 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 opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in nowise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.

This was a radical idea at the time, when most states restricted public service to those of a certain religion, or who could profess a particular Christian creed. This then became a model for other states as they gradually disestablished their own official churches and also was the model for the religion clauses of the First Amendment.

And one very important note: This legislation passed in large part because the clergy of many minority sects — Baptists, Quakers, Presbyterians — lobbied in its favor. Baptist ministers had previously been put in jail in Virginia under its Anglican establishment and ministers like John Leland and Isaac Backus were among the most vocal supporters of church/state separation.

Comments

  1. anubisprime says

    Seems to most quasi-religio dimbats the constitution ‘reads’ the same as the wholly babble’.
    They certainly abuse it to the limit of reality and mostly beyond.

    They read into it exactly and precisely what they want and need at any given moment.
    They then twist the passage, meaning and spirit of the text to fit, (sometimes breaking it in their ardour), and prop it up out of context usually and quote mined to extinction…then plead all shiny wide eyed ’tis what the document says!’

  2. says

    Oh yes, he has. The statute begins with a statement that “almighty god hath created the mind free.” To the wingnuts, that means that religious freedom only applies to Christians and is subject to any limitations stated in the Bible about what people can and cannot do.

  3. F [nucular nyandrothol] says

    A radical idea indeed. Especially for people who didn’t really yet grasp democracy and freedom, were willing to appoint a king in America, and who really only wanted a revolution to avoid some taxes a seriously rude behavior on the part of the motherland, dragged kicking and screaming away from authoritarianism by the children of the Enlightenment. And they have been kicking and screaming every damned step of the way since, all the while proclaiming the magic incantations of their new additional religion, “democracy”. (Looks like the other word democracy in print, but is largely dissimilar, not involving things like minority rights.)

  4. matty1 says

    @4 Out of interest what do you mean by democracy that the word covers minority rights? Historically it meant that ‘citizens’ (which was free-born men only from ancient Athens until the 20th Century) could vote on either the laws or who gets to make the laws. Having a government that responds to the people is generally a good thing but it is not the only good thing in a government and I’d suggest willingness to protect minority rights is another separate one.

  5. Michael Heath says

    Jefferson:

    . . . no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burdened 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 opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in nowise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.

    Ed writes:

    This was a radical idea at the time . . .

    Unfortunately, it remains a radical idea; at least when it comes to the premises people use to determine a person’s qualifications for elected office.

    The grandfather of the U.S.’s religious freedom, Roger Williams, who is also the founder of religious freedom in Rhode Island and co-founder of the First Baptist Church in America, was the first American I’ve encountered who made this argument; 130+ years prior to Mr. Jefferson. To the point Williams argued that knowing whether a person was an atheist or devout Christian provided no utility in determining who was better fit for office. That’s an idea which is unfortunately still rejected to this day.

  6. martinc says

    Matty @ 5, I’m no expert on this, but the ‘demo’ part of ‘democracy’ means ‘people’. My understanding is that the underlying principle of Greek democracy in comparison to what had gone before was that the party in power was suppsed to rule on behalf of all the people, not just the faction they represented, even if that faction were a majority. Under that definition, ‘democracy’ would inherently include minority rights.

  7. Michael Heath says

    martinc writes:

    My understanding is that the underlying principle of Greek democracy in comparison to what had gone before was that the party in power was suppsed to rule on behalf of all the people, not just the faction they represented, even if that faction were a majority.
    [emphasis here only - MH]

    Citation requested on your assertion which I emphasize above in italics.

  8. bradleybetts says

    @comments 4 – 8; if i may weigh in:

    Democracy, from the Greek “Demokratos”, Demo meaning “the people/ the common people” and Kratos meaning “rule/strength”; literally “People’s rule” or “Rule by the People”, generally understood in modern parlance to mean “a form of government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised directly by them or by their elected agents under a free electoral system”.

    I’m not sure protection of minority rights is an inherent part of the definition of Democracy, and indeed history would seem to lend weight to that opinion in so far as no Greek or Roman society ever allowed anyone other than free, male citizens of the state to vote. However, to paraphrase that old quote, any society can be judged on how it treats it’s weakest members and it is, IMHO, an intrinsic part of the definition of a modern, enlightened society that minority rights be protected and since Democracy claims to be the most enlightened form of Government (an assessment I agree with) I feel any modern Democracy has a moral imperitive to protect it’s most vulnerable citizens. Well, all of it’s citizens, in fact, but special attention must be paid to those who are most vulnerable precisely because they are most vulnerable.

  9. bradleybetts says

    Hmm, apologies for the rather wordy second-to-last sentence. I feel a bit more punctuation may not have gone amiss :)

  10. Michael Heath says

    bradleybetts,

    I’m skeptical of martinc’s claim that Greek democracies governed for all rater than the majority with voting power because of my reading of James Madison. He studied various forms of government to propose an architect at the Constitutional Convention; those studies convinced him convinced the failure of some past democracies was the tyranny of the majority. He even equated such forms as potentially bad as a monarchy.

    In addition I hear the experts always carefully qualifying ours as a liberal democracy but not for the more famous democracies in and around Greece. That the liberal qualifier notes the referenced democracy also protects individual rights, which we do via our Constitution and the checks and balances of a republic.

    bradleybetts writes:

    I’m not sure protection of minority rights is an inherent part of the definition of Democracy, and indeed history would seem to lend weight to that opinion in so far as no Greek or Roman society ever allowed anyone other than free, male citizens of the state to vote.

    I don’t think this addresses why we can’t claim the Greeks practiced a liberal democracy. If they had a form of government where those who enjoyed the privilege of voting and enjoying other forms of political power had their individual rights protected, then they’d have the same moral authority to claim theirs as a liberal democracy as we had in 1789, In spite of females, slaves, and others inside the jurisdiction of the U.S. not enjoying the equal exercise and protection either.

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