Monday, January 17, 2011

Religious Freedom Day, 2011

January 16 is Religious Freedom Day, which honors Virginia's 1786 Statute for Religious Freedom. Thomas Jefferson wrote the statute, which was a precursor to the First Amendment. According to Jefferson's document, 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.

Noteworthy is  Jefferson's focus on individual freedom. In the opening section of the document, Jefferson warned against civil as well as ecclesiastical rulers who try to set limits on the free mind, recognizing that the impious presumption of legislators and rulers, civil as well as ecclesiastical, who, being themselves but fallible and uninspired men, have assumed dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible, and as such endeavoring to impose them on others, hath established and maintained false religions over the greatest part of the world, and through all time.

In the age of government aid to faith-based organizations, championed by George W. Bush as well as Barack Obama, it is worth reconsidering how we should interpret Jefferson's strong criticism of forcing individuals to support religions that they oppose: to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves, is sinful and tyrannical; that even the forcing him to support this or that teacher of his own religious persuasion, is depriving him of the comfortable liberty of giving his contributions to the particular pastor whose morals he would make his pattern, and whose powers he feels most persuasive to righteousness. 

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