Stephen Strehle is way off base in his Dec. 18 Religious Herald essay calling for the repeal of Thomas Jefferson's Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom and substituting a new one.
The U. S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights were founded on the principles underlying the law penned by Thomas Jefferson, lobbied for passage by James Madison and applauded by Baptists like John Leland. To tamper with it is to impugn the constitutional scheme that has created greater protection for religious liberty in Virginia and in the United States than any other place in the world.
Jefferson's statute disestablished the Anglican Church and served as a harbinger of the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment when it provides: “To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions with which he disbelieves is sinful and tyrannical.” It also foreshadowed the First Amendment's Free Exercise Clause when it says: “No man shall … be restrained, molested or burdened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or beliefs; but that all men shall be free to profess … their opinions in matters of religion…” Jefferson's statute goes on to honor the “Holy Author of our religion” and acknowledges the “natural rights of mankind.”
Strehle says that the statute worked fine 220 years ago when our country was religious, but now that the country has become secular, it no longer works. He's wrong on both counts.
Historians tell us that religion in this country was at a low ebb between 1750 and 1790 — at least when measured by church attendance (estimated to have been about 17 percent). After Jefferson's bill was adopted in Virginia and the Bill of Rights ratified by the entire country, weekly church attendance increased steadily over the years to a high of 47 percent today. Almost 60 percent say religion is very important to them, and people professing faith in some religious tradition currently equals about 85 percent.
No, it's not so much that we have become more secular; it's that we have become more religiously diverse and fluid. The First Amendment requires, and we should be happy to embrace, a secular government to the extent that it is prohibited from promoting religion or taking sides in religious disputes, favoring one over another. It should and must be neutral toward religion.
Strehle suggests that a secular government is hostile to religion. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The institutional separation of church and state does not mean the segregation of religion from politics nor does it strip the right of people of faith to speak forcefully in the public square. It means only that government cannot pass laws that have a primary purpose or effect that advances religion. Religious speech in public is commonplace. I could cite a litany of examples, but one needs only look to the recent inaugural activities to belie Strehle's assertion. A prayer was said before the “We Are One” concert at the Lincoln Memorial on Sunday, an invocation and benediction bracketed the inaugural ceremony, including President Obama's speech that contained spiritual and biblical references. All of this was followed by a televised worship service at the National Cathedral attended by 3,500 people. Are you kidding me? That doesn't sound like religion is getting short shrift or that the public square is naked. Actually, it is dressed to the nines.
Yes, our culture can be crude and some people don't like religion. But the answer is not to do away with religious freedom and to give government the job of promoting religion. It is for us — people of faith and religious institutions, like the church — to take up the task of being the salt and light in the world and count on government to do no more than to protect our right to do so.
In her final opinion in a church-state case before retiring, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote:
“The goal of the [religion] clauses [in the First Amendment] is clear: to carry out the Founders' plan of preserving religious liberty in a pluralistic society. By enforcing the clauses, we have kept religion a matter for the individual conscience, not for the prosecutor or bureaucrat. At a time when we see around the world the violent consequences of the assumption of religious authority by government, Americans may count themselves fortunate: our regard for constitutional boundaries has protected us from similar travails, while allowing private religious exercise to flourish …. Those who would renegotiate the boundaries between church and state must answer a difficult question: Why would we trade a system that has served us so well for one that has served others so poorly?” (emphasis supplied).
That's the question I would like to ask those who would be foolish enough to fiddle with Mr. Jefferson's statute. Let's not try to fix something that is not broken.
J. Brent Walker is executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty.