Wednesday, April 17, 2019

The Gift of Religious Freedom

Thomas Jefferson Letter to Danbury Baptists
The week of Passover and Easter is a good time to reflect on what a gift our founders gave us in America when it comes to freedom of religion.

Before America, people in a nation had to believe the same religion as the ruling authorities or risk being ostracized. Or worse.

Socrates of ancient Athens was sentenced for misleading the youth of Athens. He was offered exile or suicide by drinking hemlock poison.

His crime? He believed in a single God which threatened the polytheistic belief in the Olympian Gods by the Athenians.

He chose the hemlock. Leaving the city he loved was worse than death to Socrates.

Martin Luther risked being burned at the stake when he famously hung his “95 Theses” on the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church on October 31, 1517.  He questioned the authority of the Pope and the Catholic Church and took dead aim at the practice of indulgences whereby people could essentially “purchase” the salvation of loved ones into heaven.

He was brought to trial before the Diet of Worms (pronounced “Varmes”) where he said these famous words in his final defense: “I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I can do no other, so help me God. Amen.”

Somehow he avoided the burning stake and the Reformation began.

In England, Henry VIII famously and incongruously took over control of the Catholic Church because they wouldn’t grant him a divorce from Catherine of Aragon so he could marry Anne Boleyn. He ordered her head chopped off 3 years later.

The King of England was thereafter the Supreme Authority of the Anglican Church in addition to being monarch.

Talk about the need for a true “separation of church and state”. Can anyone imagine President Barack Obama or Donald Trump also being the “Supreme Authority of All Things Religious in America”?

When English people migrated to colonial Virginia to escape such abuse of power, they reverted to the norm and set up the Anglican Church of Virginia which received support from the Commonwealth of Virginia. Taxpayer money was used to support the Anglican Church of Virginia for much of their colonial era.

Virginia was so Anglican that a Baptist or Methodist could not hold public office. Only Anglicans could file to run for election.

Ever heard of the word “antidisestablishmentarianism”, the longest word in the English language? It came from the debate over whether or not to “dis-establish” the Anglican Church from the government of Virginia.

On the tombstone of Thomas Jefferson is a list of the 3 things for which he wished to be remembered: Author of the Declaration of Independence, Founder of the University of Virginia and Author of the Virginia Statutes of Religious Freedom of 1786.

Those statutes led to the inclusion of freedom of religion in the First Amendment to the Constitution.

The Virginia statutes and the First Amendment guarantee your freedom to worship any religious deity you choose. It also guarantees your freedom not to worship anything if you so desire.

Nothing in the First Amendment guarantees the “separation of church and state”. Those words came from a letter President Thomas Jefferson wrote to the Danbury Baptist congregation in Connecticut in 1801 who worried that President Jefferson might institute a national government-sponsored religion. 

The First Amendment and Mr. Jefferson guaranteed that the Danbury Baptists had nothing to worry about because it was not going to happen again.

As you celebrate Passover or Easter this week, or Ramadan in May, or nothing every day of the year, give the Founders of this country full credit for freeing us from elected officials with the coercive 
power of government at their disposal telling you what to believe and when to believe it.

Freedom of worship is one of the greatest freedoms mankind has ever had. If we can keep it, that is.

(first published in North State Journal 4/17/19)

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