Religious Freedom – More Than an Epitaph

Religious Freedom – More Than an Epitaph

2021 | Week of January 11 | Radio Transcript #1394

I’ve been to Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home in Charlottesville, Virginia, a couple of times. Each time I’ve visited, I’ve walked to the family cemetery where I always stand in front of the obelisk monument marking Jefferson’s grave and marveled at what Jefferson himself wrote for his epitaph:  “Here was buried/Thomas Jefferson/Author of the Declaration of American Independence/of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom/& Father of the University of Virginia.” Jefferson said he wrote these words “because by these as testimonials that I have lived, I wish to be most remembered.”

Sadly, many today do not know about Jefferson’s work on religious freedom and therefore cannot remember him for it.  In 1777, Jefferson wrote the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. James Madison championed it in the Virginia General Assembly where it passed on January 16, 1786.

The opening words of this statute are “Whereas, Almighty God hath created the mind free,” making it clear what Jefferson thought about the freedom of conscience. The Statute made it clear that the Church of England was no longer the state church of Virginia, a situation that had carried over from England.

The drafters of the US Constitution just a year later relied heavily on Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom as they drafted the First Amendment which protects our religious freedom in the form of an Establishment clause and a Free Exercise Clause.

National Religious Freedom Day began with Congress in 1992 issuing a joint resolution designating January 16, 1993, as Religious Freedom Day and authorizing and requesting that the President issue a Religious Freedom Day proclamation and call upon all Americans “to join together to celebrate their religious freedom and to observe the day with appropriate ceremonies and activities.” And every year on January 16, in commemoration of the Virginia General Assembly’s adoption of Jefferson’s Statute of Religious Freedom, the president has issued a proclamation.  I expect this year to be no different.

Religious freedom in our country was highly prized from the beginning. Recall that the Pilgrims and Puritans came to the New World for freedom of conscience and religion, not for a better economy, better jobs or better crops.

One hundred and fifty years after the landing of the Mayflower, our founders called recognized religious freedom as the “first freedom” because it is so foundational to our other freedoms.  Many of the founders were quite vocal about the importance of religious freedom in the newly formed country. John Adams declared, “Let the pulpit resound with the doctrine and sentiments of religious liberty. Let us hear of the dignity of man’s nature, and the noble rank he holds among the works of God….”  James Monroe in an address to the Virginia General Assembly in 1785, said, ““We hold it for a fundamental and inalienable truth that religion and the manner of discharging it can be directed only by reason and conviction not by force and violence. The religion, then, of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate.”

In 1848 when our state constitution was ratified, it contained significant religious freedom language which is still in effect today. In part that section reads, “The right of every person to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of conscience shall never be infringed…nor shall any control of, or interference with, the rights of conscience be permitted….”

It is altogether fitting that we recognize Religious Freedom Day, especially when attacks on our religious freedom are numerous and frequent. Too often today we are told religious freedom as our founders fought for it is bigotry, hate, discrimination and intolerance. That’s not true, but too often when so-called civil liberties clash with religious freedom, it’s constitutionally protected religious freedom that has taken it on the chops.  Religious freedom requires and deserves the very best of protection and defense—and education.

This year, January 16 is Saturday. I would like to think schools will, during the week, give proper time and deference to this nationally recognized day, telling students the truth about this vital freedom. But what I really hope is that families and churches will spend some time over the next few days making sure the next generation understands what religion freedom really is and praying that God will enable us to protect that which is the undergirding to our other rights and freedoms.  Like Jefferson, may we want to be remembered for defending our first freedom.

This is Julaine Appling for Wisconsin Family Council reminding you the prophet Hosea said, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge.”

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