The True Jeffersonian Face of Religious Freedom

Thomas-JeffersonChristian conservatives in America like to talk about something called religious freedom. But what they mean by this is not the freedom of each and every American to worship (or not) as they please, but their own freedom to persecute everyone different than themselves as an inferior sort of person, not a “real” American and indeed, hardly a citizen at all.

The Supreme Court’s DOMA ruling has even caused right wing organizations to call for secession (here and here) as though, somehow, magically, the basis of our union is somehow bound to so-called Judeo-Christian principles.

Our union is bound by the United States Constitution, which does not prohibit marriage equality is which cannot ever, thanks to the First Amendment, make biblical law American law.

Their logic, if it can be called that, runs as follows:

  1. They worship the one true God; therefore,
  2. They have unique access to the capital-T truth; therefore
  3. No matter what the Constitution guarantees, all religions are not equal; and,
  4. Truth trumps tolerance. According to their belief in what the Bible says, they have a transcendent right and obligation to force their “Truth” down everybody’s throat; thus,
  5. No matter what the Constitution says, it actually says something else and what it does not say (God, Ten Commandments, Bible) it actually says them quite a lot.

But that is not at all what the Founding Fathers intended, or even the 17th century’s Evangelicals, who were not only strongly suspicious of state-sponsored religion but even religious authorities higher than the local minister.

There is a reason we have a First Amendment. Not only secularists wanted it, but also Evangelicals. They saw a wall of separation as essential to their religious freedoms being trampled by those of other denominations.

It is certainly not what Thomas Jefferson understood by religious freedom, despite David Barton’s best efforts to the contrary. In his 1786 Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom Jefferson delivered a timeless broadside to the forces of theocracy in America, one that is as relevant today as the 1770s, when it was penned.

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 it was in his Almighty power to do; that the impious presumption of legislators and rulers, civil as well as ecclesiastical, who being themselves but fallible and uninspired men, have assumed dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible, and as such endeavouring to impose them on others, hath established and maintained false religions over the greatest part of the world, and through all time;

Notice here what Jefferson says bout hypocrisy and meanness. And that such behavior is a departure from what Jesus intended. A simple reading of the Gospels ought to prove Jefferson was right. Notice also what he says about propagating that religion through coercion by “fallible and uninspired men” who have said their own opinions are the “only true and infallible.” This description should speak loudly to Americans today, suffering at the hands of the Religious Right. Jefferson rightly calls these false religions and if the Religious Right fails to see itself in this description it is only because they are being willfully ignorant.

that to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves, is sinful and tyrannical; that even the forcing him to support this or that teacher of his own religious persuasion, is depriving him of the comfortable liberty of giving his contributions to the particular pastor, whose morals he would make his pattern, and whose powers he feels most persuasive to righteousness, and is withdrawing from the ministry those temporary rewards, which proceeding from an approbation of their personal conduct, are an additional incitement to earnest and unremitting labours for the instruction of mankind;

Jefferson says it is sinful and tyrannical to force the taxpayer to support the Church. As he pointed out, people are more than capable of supporting the church of their choice should they so desire. Yet the Religious Right insists all Americans pay their way and George W. Bush’s Faith-Based Initiatives re-imposed this sin Jefferson and Madison fought so hard to end. You cannot enlist Jefferson to your cause when you so earnestly oppose his will in this.

More significantly yet, Jefferson points out,

that our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions, any more than our opinions in physics or geometry;

Our civil rights. The rights from which derive that specific right of religious freedom. Religious freedom comes not from the Church. Not out of Judaism or Christianity, which has at their heart an insistence that there is only one god and that he must be obeyed.

Religious freedom was a thing lost to the West with European polytheism during the centuries of persecution following the reign of Constantine in the early fourth century. It was found again only by the secularists of the European Enlightenment. True religious freedom is the freedom not of one religion to impose its will on all others, but the freedom – guaranteed by the United States Constitution – of all religions to have equal standing before the law.

that therefore the proscribing any citizen as unworthy the public confidence by laying upon him an incapacity of being called to offices of trust and emolument, unless he profess or renounce this or that religious opinion, is depriving him injuriously of those privileges and advantages to which in common with his fellow-citizens he has a natural right; that it tends only to corrupt the principles of that religion it is meant to encourage, by bribing with a monopoly of worldly honours and emoluments, those who will externally profess and conform to it;

The Religious Right insists only Christians are really Americans and that only Christians ought to hold political office. This is not only a violation of the spirit of United States Constitution, which forbids religious tests, but an action abhorred by Jefferson as corrupting. True religious freedom means the same civil rights for everyone, regardless of religion.

that though indeed these are criminal who do not withstand such temptation, yet neither are those innocent who lay the bait in their way; that to suffer the civil magistrate to intrude his powers into the field of opinion, and to restrain the profession or propagation of principles on supposition of their ill tendency, is a dangerous fallacy, which at once destroys all religious liberty, because he being of course judge of that tendency will make his opinions the rule of judgment, and approve or condemn the sentiments of others only as they shall square with or differ from his own; that it is time enough for the rightful purposes of civil government, for its officers to interfere when principles break out into overt acts against peace and good order; and finally, that truth is great and will prevail if left to herself, that she is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error, and has nothing to fear from the conflict, unless by human interposition disarmed of her natural weapons, free argument and debate, errors ceasing to be dangerous when it is permitted freely to contradict them:

A note to Republican governors and legislators everywhere: do not intrude your powers into the field of opinion. it does not defend religious liberty, as you claim, but destroys it. Errors, he says, are no longer dangerous where people are free to argue and debate and to contradict. Rick Perry might wish to take notice of these Jeffersonian truths before he begins another Texas for Christians tirade.

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

The Republicans – and significantly, David Barton – take the opposite view, that the taxpayer ought to be burdened by the support of religious worship, place, and ministry. But there is a reason Jefferson was ecstatic when Connecticut did away with established religion, rejoicing that every young man then living would die a Unitarian. Not, it might be noted, a Lutheran or a Catholic or a Methodist or a Presbyterian or Episcopalian or Baptist.

And though we well know that this assembly elected by the people for the ordinary purposes of legislation only, have no power to restrain the acts of succeeding assemblies, constituted with powers equal to our own, and that therefore to declare this act to be irrevocable would be of no effect in law; yet we are free to declare, and do declare, that the rights hereby asserted are of the natural rights of mankind, and that if any act shall be hereafter passed to repeal the present, or to narrow its operation, such act shall be an infringement of natural right.

For Jefferson, therefore, the natural right of mankind was to be free of such burdens, whereas the Religious Right asserts that it is our obligation to be so burdened. True religion for Jefferson, after all, was not religious dogma but moral precepts “innate in man” – which is hardly the same thing as what Christianity teaches through “revealed religion.”

It is with good reason that under the category of religion, Jefferson included such authors as Locke, Xenophon, Epictetus, Antoninus, Seneca, Cicero, Bolingbroke, Hume, Kames, Sterne and others.

These are not authors you will find on any Religious Right bookshelf unless the purpose is to twist and misrepresent the author’s words to support their agenda, as Barton has done with Jefferson. According to Jefferson, Jesus had not perfected his ideas. According to the Religious Right, Jesus and all his words and deeds were perfect, even if they ignore 90 percent of them in the pursuit of their big business-friendly culture war agenda.

Bigots like Matt Barber might claim that marriage equality means supporters of so-called “traditional marriage” are now persecuted and Bryan Fischer can insist that supporters of so-called “traditional marriage” are now second-class citizens, but they are blowing hot air out of places we don’t mention in polite discourse.

Supporters of traditional marriage are being told they have no more rights than anyone else and possess no right to persecute people because they disagree with or disapprove of them. These “traditionalists” would be second class citizens if they in turn were forbidden to marry but that is hardly the case. Men and women are still free to marry each other. All that is lost is the right to impose your particular beliefs on all other people. Equal Rights for all cannot ever be persecution. More rights cannot ever equal less rights.

For Thomas Jefferson, religious freedom was neither freedom to coerce nor a coerced mind, as the Religious Right insists, but rather a free mind

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