In the colonial period of our history, Baptists played a prominent role in promoting religious toleration. Their efforts gave birth to the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom in 1786, which disestablished the Anglican Church. The statute rejected the government's preference for any specific religion or denomination, encouraged all believers to worship as they pleased and established the rights of citizens to participate fully in the political process regardless of their religious affiliation. The purpose of the statute was to eliminate discrimination and promote inclusion and integration with respect to religion.
Since those early days when churches were favored and protected, society has become more antagonistic in its treatment of religious people. The government has grown much larger; the culture has grown more secular; and religion has lost much of its standing, sometimes subsisting on the outskirts of public life and serving as a mere addendum to a week filled with other concerns. Neither the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom as Jefferson penned it nor the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution ever intended this.
While a number of factors may be responsible for this shift, much of the responsibility falls upon the U.S. Supreme Court and its power to interpret the Constitution according to the perspectives of the justices. In law schools a more liberal interpretive philosophy arose in the first half of the 20th century and allowed the Court to read the simple letter of the law in a more creative manner, providing more room for judicial activism through the process of interpretation.
In the watershed case of Everson v. the Board of Education (1947), the Court decided for the first time and through its own power to erect a “wall of separation between church and state,” declaring our government to be a secular institution and relegating religious people with their ideas and symbols to the private (and shrinking) realm of society. Secular jurists like Hugo Black and Felix Frankfurter used their new interpretive power to make religion irrelevant to public life and to declare the wall of separation “high and impregnable.”
Even before this decision, secular forces had tried to erect this wall by amending the Constitution,1 but the Court made the legislative process unnecessary through its judicial fiat.
The decision makes religion irrelevant to our corporate lives de facto; and worse than that, it maintains that religion exerts an evil influence when represented and empowered in the state. The wall contains an implicit commission to remember and emphasize all the wicked moments in church history — the Dark Ages, the Crusades, the Inquisitions, and the religious wars — in order to eliminate the ill effects of religious dogma on society and justify its exclusion from the public domain. The wall summons the nation to ignore any positive effect of faith upon society and forget the religious heritage of America and its government.
This mentality has carried over into our nation's public schools and textbooks, all of which highlight the times of the Enlightenment in the 18th century as founding the American way of life and the civil government. Modern secular textbooks invariably ignore the simple fact that when Puritans, Quakers, and Baptists arrived on these shores they spread the message of liberty, democracy, mixed and federal government — all the basic elements of the American Constitution — long before the 18th century and the Founding Fathers.
One needs to possess only a basic understanding of congregationalism and its history to refute the secular bias. The government of congregational churches, which first arose in the 16th and 17th centuries, led the civil governments of Britain and America to change wherever these churches and their people grew in number and power.2
Baptists had a special place in this history, changing the Anglican-dominated, authoritarian and hierarchical structures of Virginia decades before the Revolution. But this history is no longer a part of public consciousness or secular education. Some might say it doesn't matter who receives credit in the eyes of the world, but I think it does matter in this case. Why wouldn't Baptists and other religious people find some sense of pride in their history?
Are secular educators afraid to acknowledge the debt owed Baptists and other religious groups for many of the freedoms we enjoy? Isn't it important who receives honor and credit in the public consciousness and teaching of a people? Can religion survive without a public place of honor in the affections of the people?
The decision of 1947 dishonored the legacy of religious groups in our history, but worse, it also deprecated the place of God in our lives. The decision left the impression that a nation without God is possible and necessary to unify a people, divided by religious disputes. But can a nation live without God?
Without God there is no ground for believing life has any purpose, meaning, or value — only the happenstance from which it arises and the way in which it happens to be. Without divine revelation, there is no “ought” or standard to tell us how we should live our lives or conduct civil policy — nothing absolute that really exists and embodies the perfect ideal.3 Without God, government would lose all moral authority and depend upon the arbitrary decisions of those who happen to be in power. “If God did not exist, all things would be possible” (Dostoyevsky). There would be no basis for determining what is right and wrong in our public or private lives.
Since Everson v. the Board of Education, the Supreme Court has tried to eliminate religion from the public domain, but its decisions have lacked consistency. The Court breached its own wall so many times that it decided to change the barrier between church and state to a “line” that is “blurred, indistinct, and variable” (Lemon v. Kurtzman, 1971).
This embarrassing ruling has not prevented the Court from its basic goal of eliminating the influence of religion on the government and separating it from our public life, but the justices are clearly wrong in this matter. They are caught in an unworkable doctrine of separation, based on a pure prejudice against religion, by attempting to untangle what is bound together in culture. They clearly need direction from the people in order to understand the essential nature of religion to human beings as an inevitable, indelible, and inseparable aspect of all our lives.
This is why I am calling for a New Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. This is why I am calling for Baptists and the state of Virginia, along with all people of faith and all those who love freedom to lead the nation once again in the cause of liberty. The new statute fully supports its predecessor and even wants to extend the provision for inclusion, but it also recognizes that the times have changed. Specific religious groups are no longer the great enemies of liberty, claiming a special right to rule over others. Today the concern is more secular forces who want to usurp power by sentencing all religious people to the margins of society. The purpose of the new statute is to update the old and extend its inclusive language to a new era by insuring the just representation of religious people with their ideas and symbols. There is no attempt to substitute a “theocracy” for the current “atheocracy,” where only secular people are permitted to participate in the civil process. I am calling for the inclusion of all citizens, religious and non-religious alike. I am calling for the privileges of real citizenship, not the patronizing and pacifying policies of toleration toward the disenfranchised. Without representation, religion will have no real significance in the hearts of the people or the future of our nation. If we continue on the present course, faith will lose more and more respect and eventually die out — not today or tomorrow, but soon enough — not “with a bang but a whimper” (T.S. Eliot). Its voice will die out through the growing and expanding power of a god-less state.
This is why the people of God can no longer live as a remnant in society and watch secular forces denigrate the faith. They must demand from their elected officials, beginning in this state, a platform and a voice. It is their right as tax-paying citizens to have their ideas aired within the public domain in accordance with their rightful place in society. Taxation and representation are linked together within the revolutionary spirit of Americans and their sense of fair play. They believe it is unconscionable “to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves” (Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom). It is time for this state and this country to heed these words in respect to religious and non-religious people alike.
1. In December of 1875, President U. S. Grant went to Congress and urged the passing of a new constitutional amendment that would make “Church and State for ever separate and distinct.” His proposal showed a special interest in requiring states to provide funds for secular education and prevent religious schools from sharing any of these sources. The senate ended up rejecting a revised version of the bill, the so-called Blaine Amendment, which aimed its policy of discrimination at the Catholic minority and its parochial schools.
2. Strehle, Stephen, The Egalitarian Spirit of Christianity: The Sacred Roots of American and British Government (New Brunswick, N.J., and London: Transaction Publishers, 2008).
3. A. Einstein, Ideas and Opinions (New York: The Modern Library, 1994) 33, 45, 48, 54.
Stephen Strehle is associate professor of philosophy and religious studies at Christopher Newport University in Newport News.