Virginia’s role in the advance of American freedom has been significant, of course. A crucial component, the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, written by Thomas Jefferson, passed the General Assembly on January 16, 1786. A shortened version became the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, the basis of the Bill Rights, in 1789.
Since the two-hundredth anniversary of the Virginia Statute, the First Freedom Center has sought to educate the public about religious freedom and to honor those who have advanced it globally. Now affiliated with the Valentine, the First Freedom Center maintains an exhibit at the corner of South 14th and East Cary Streets in Richmond.
Why is education about religious freedom necessary? The meaning of freedom seems clear: religious freedom, and the other freedoms enshrined in the Bill of Rights, is freedom from unwanted influence by any institution. The ideal of freedom from extends to religious groups. The separation of church and state protects religions of all sorts from government interference. As citizens, we are free to pursue any religious affiliation, or none, as we choose.
The Virginia Statute did not reject religion. Nor does the First Amendment mean that religion is excluded from social influence. Jefferson’s draft of the Statute includes reference to God as the “holy author” of human freedom. Jefferson was less concerned with divine than with human intrusion into the right to believe. The subtle message of the Statute concerns not merely freedom from, but freedom for flourishing of faith. Freedom must be active, including religious initiative in society.
The Virginia Statute eradicated government restrictions on the practice of religion. Less than fifty years after the Statute’s passage, an astute French observer cited religion’s pivotal role in American life. Alexis de Tocqueville assessed American life in his book, Democracy in America. There Tocqueville cited religion as the basis of American society’s strength.
The meaning of religious freedom is two-fold, Tocqueville concluded. On the one hand, religion encourages morality and order. All religions, regardless of their beliefs, equip people to be good citizens. Faith prompts people to come together in local gatherings. There people deepen in belief and grow in social cooperation. Local faith communities form the basis of democratic life: freedom from restraint must inspire freedom for social good.
The annual observance of the Virginia Statute, January 16, follows observance of Martin Luther King’s birthday, January 15. A minister, King embodied the ideal of religious freedom. Regardless of who we are or what we believe, we can work together for the betterment of all. Freedom’s possibility lies in our hands.
William L. Sachs is the Priest Associate at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Richmond.
|Authors||William L. Sachs|
|Work Title||Religious Freedom’s Possibility|
|Published||October 12, 2023|
|Updated||November 17, 2023|
|Copyright||© 2023 The Valentine Museum|