Have you ever read “The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom” written by Thomas Jefferson? Many believe it is the basis for the freedom of religion clause in our Constitution’s Bill of Rights. Amazingly, some have used this notion of freedom of religion to mean that none of us should actually talk about what we believe. Our modern pluralistic society asserts that the only real sin is to discuss, debate, or argue about any point of religion. Amazingly, if Jefferson were to hear that being fostered in the name of his Statute, I believe he would roll over in his grave.
I’m sure someone will count it differently than I, but Jefferson began his Act for Establishing Religious Freedom in Virginia with 14 reasons why no one should be compelled to frequent or support any particular religious establishment or position. As far as I can tell they are very good reasons. They range from the fact that God has created the mind free to the fact that numerous authorities have forced false religions down the throats of their subjects to the notion that it is abominable to force someone to pay or provide for the propagation of religious beliefs they do not hold. If you wish to examine these 14 reasons more closely, find the whole text of the Statute here.
Sadly, some have taken these very ideas and used them to claim that freedom of religion means neither you nor I should be allowed to express what they believe on some religious or moral matter. I know of one friend who is not allowed to bring up any religious conversation at his workplace because it might offend someone. If he does, he’ll be fired. He works for a branch of the federal government by the way.
Today, the concept of religious freedom seems almost universally to be understood as a freedom from ever being offended by someone who disagrees with one’s own religious views. That, however, misses the mark by a long shot that Jefferson was aiming for.
Note his final reason for proclaiming religions freedom:
…that truth is great and will prevail if left to herself, that she is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error, and has nothing to fear from the conflict, unless by human interposition disarmed of her natural weapons, free argument and debate, errors ceasing to be dangerous when it is permitted freely to contradict them.
Did you get what Jefferson said? The purpose of religious freedom is not to suppress the expression of our varying beliefs and notions, but to propagate them. Error is only dangerous when all sides are not allowed to be expressed. Truth wins when everyone is allowed to express their opinions. Jefferson would have scoffed at the bully tactic of hiding behind protecting the feelings of others. I think he would have told folks that they needed to buck up and learn to defend their beliefs and practices to those who disagree rather than run and hide behind the apron of their mother government because they are so sensitive about their beliefs.
Further, note the second clause in Jefferson’s Act. Having stated the reasons for this Act, he moves to express what law ought to be enacted:
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.
Certainly, it declares that no one should be forced to frequent some religious establishment. It also says that no one should be harmed in any way because of their religions beliefs. But it also enacted a third point. All men shall be free to profess and maintain by argument their opinions in religious matters. To Jefferson, the idea of threatening to fire someone if they expressed a religious opinion was anathema to truth. Our civil capacities should not be diminished by the expression of our beliefs.
By the way, Jefferson got a dig in on all who would change this law in the future. The third and final clause of the act pointed out that some assembly in the future might disagree and change this law. But he warned that “if any act shall hereafter passed to repeal the present or to narrow its operation, such act will be an infringement of natural right.” In other words, someone can change the law, but they are not changing our natural rights, they are merely infringing upon them.
Thus, this modern idea that religious freedom means people shouldn’t talk about or try to convince others of their faith through means of verbal argumentation is a violation of our natural rights.
So, let’s get talking.
Let me know what you think about this by commenting below.
PS: The picture above is a medley of pictures. Allow me to attribute properly.
The picture of me preaching and the picture of the open bible were taken by Randy Baughn. You can see his work at Randall’s Photography. The picture in the upper left is by paalia on flickr. The one on the right side is by scjody on flickr.