Religious Freedom Day 2009

By presidential decree, today is Religious Freedom Day. President Bush issued a proclamation three days ago to create this day of observance. The date was apparently chosen to honor the passage of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, passed on this day in 1786. I’m sure the fact that President Bush has less than a week left in office had nothing to do with the date.

I’m embarrassed to say that I was unfamiliar with the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, but I’m very happy to have it called to my attention. Thomas Jefferson apparently proposed the law in 1779, but it wasn’t passed until 1786. The document is a bit difficult to read, with more than 700 words crammed into two colossal sentences, but it is worth the effort. I find three things particularly interesting about the Statute. The first is how familiar it sounds:

. . . Be it enacted by 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 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 opinions in matters of Religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge or affect their civil capacities.

I think the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom articulates the same American ideals that found home in the Eleventh Article of Faith. It certainly seems to be in harmony with the Mormon Church’s teachings on the matter.

The second thing I noticed was how the concept of agency was referenced throughout the text. The Statute begins:

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, who being Lord, both of body and mind yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as was in his Almighty power to do . . .

 The Virginia legislators essentially explained the necessity of free agency in the Plan of Salvation. I think this is fascinating, and I wonder if this was a commonly held belief at the time.

The third and final observation I have is how the drafters of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom weren’t reluctant to invoke Deity in their legislation. Presumably the legislators subscribed to different denominations or ways of thought — Jefferson himself apparently subscribed to a deist philosophy — but that didn’t preclude any references to God in the Statute. This sort of language also makes it fairly clear that the concept of freedom of religion held by the so-called Founding Fathers was distinct from the views of many today.

I occasionally hear members of the Mormon Church (often around the 4th of July) express the patriotic notion that American was founded on “just and holy principles.” If you were to argue, as many have done before, that America was founded by inspired men, the Virginia Statute for Religions Freedom would be a good starting point.