Thomas Jefferson for Today: Why Religious Liberty is a 21st Century Cause

In the tumultuous period ahead, we should remember that our Founders had it right: religion is a matter of choice, not coercion.

It is, admittedly, no July 4 or December 7 or November 22. Still, the just-passed January 16 is a day that deserves more than it gets in the collective American memory, for it was on that date in 1786—a distant Monday—that Virginia adopted Thomas Jefferson’s Statute for Religious Freedom, a document as profound in its way as Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. The American tradition of religious liberty is one of our greatest strengths, one that will only grow in significance as the demographics and customs of the nation continue to shift.

And so it is that the intellectual and political achievements of the 18th century are rising rather than diminishing in relevance in the 21st.

The White House may be one of the few places where January 16 is kept as a kind of feast day, for the president—whoever he happens to be at any given moment—traditionally issues an unread proclamation on that date commemorating what’s known (insofar as it’s known at all) as National Religious Freedom Day. “Today, America embraces people of all faiths and of no faith,” President Obama said in last week’s proclamation. “We are Christians and Jews, Muslims and Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs, atheists and agnostics. Our religious diversity enriches our cultural fabric and reminds us that what binds us as one is not the tenets of our faiths, the colors of our skin, or the origins of our names. What makes us American is our adherence to shared ideals—freedom, equality, justice, and our right as a people to set our own course.”

These remarks are quintessentially Jeffersonian. The Virginia statute, Jefferson said, was “meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and Infidel of every denomination.” For him religious liberty was as an inherent right, and, understanding that he was writing for a predominantly religious (in the case of Virginia in those years, predominantly Protestant) public, he made the case for his defense of freedom of conscience in theological, not secular, terms.

The statute begins with the assertion that “Almighty God hath created the mind free,” and continues: “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.” Jefferson argued, essentially, that if God Himself did not compel obedience, then no man should try to enforce what the Lord chose to leave as matters of free will. The “Holy Author of our religion,” wrote Jefferson, as “Lord both of body and mind . . . chose not to propagate it by coercions on either.”

Religious liberty was therefore good public policy and sound theology. The most fervent of believers should in fact be the most fervent defenders of freedom of conscience, for the “wall of separation” of which Jefferson spoke in his letter to the Danbury Baptist Association on New Year’s Day 1802 was historically designed to protect the church from the state as the state from the church. And the gradual disestablishment of American churches in the years of the early republic helped create the conditions for the Second Great Awakening—a case, one could argue, of deregulation working quite well.

President Obama is governing in an age of undeniable cultural and religious transition. According to the Pew Research Center, a fifth of the U.S. public—and a third of adults under 30—are religiously unaffiliated. “In the last five years alone, the unaffiliated have increased from just over 15% to just under 20% of all U.S. adults,” says Pew. “Their ranks now include more than 13 million self-described atheists and agnostics (nearly 6% of the U.S. public), as well as nearly 33 million people who say they have no particular religious affiliation (14%).”

Such statistics have vast implications. For the religious, reaching the “unaffiliated” is an evangelical task, and how different faith traditions choose to present themselves and their messages to a generation (or generations) of skeptics will be fascinating to watch. And I suspect that some among the strongly religious will be tempted to see the findings of surveys like the Pew study as disorienting rather than bracing. At the same time, I suspect that some among the strongly secular will be tempted to see such findings as triumphant proof the alleged superiority of their own worldview. The thing about liberty, alas, is that you have to accept the result even when you don’t like it—otherwise it’s not liberty.

In what is likely to be a tumultuous period ahead, it seems important to remember that our Founders had it right: religion is a matter of choice, not coercion. Believers should be on guard against self-righteousness; secularists should take care not to fall prey to smugness. “America proudly stands with people of every nation who seek to think, believe, and practice their faiths as they choose,” Obama said last week. “We urge every country to recognize religious freedom as both a universal right and a key to a stable, prosperous, and peaceful future.” That’s a message worth heeding not only on January 16, but every day.

Jon Meacham
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  • Doug Wilkening

    In his 2000 book, Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam documented the steady decline, since about the 1950’s, in the rate of participation by Americans in all sorts of membership-based organizations, from civic associations to churches to sports leagues. The decline in church attendance coincides with a similar long-term decline in organizations as diverse as Rotary clubs and bowling leagues (hence the book’s title).

    I wonder what the trend in the rates of religious affiliation would look like if they were normalized to the rate of Americans’ participation in organizations in general? Are churches declining more rapidly, less rapidly, or at about the same rate as secular organizations? Is the apparent change in Americans’ religious affiliations part of a larger phenomenon that has to do with how we organize our lives overall? Do we just not like being members of anything anymore?

  • Michael Miscoski

    While Mr. Meacham acknowledges that “our Founders had it right: religion is a matter of choice, not coercion”, he still make the assumptive statement: “For the religious, reaching the “unaffiliated” is an evangelical task”. Why? Why should they? What makes them even think that they have the right to do this?

    • Surprise123

      “What makes them even think that they have the right to do this?” Uh…the free marketplace of ideas? Religious freedom? The 1st amendment? Look, if Victoria’s Secret and Calvin Klein can bombard young people in public with messages promoting licentiousness and lack of sexual impulse control, certainly religions can attempt to bombard us with messages of the need for restraint.

      • Michael Miscoski

        Yikes! Imagine this – I, an atheist, have higher expectations of religion and faith than skivvies. I venture to guess that the ones up to the ‘evangelical tasks’ for conversion of the “unaffiliated”, do not think of their efforts to be quite that commercial and crass.