With the Supreme Court recently agreeing to hear a case addressing the free exercise of religion, Hobby Lobby (and Conestoga Wood) v Sebelius, I could not help but think back to Thomas Jefferson.
Before he died on July 4th 1826, exactly fifty years after the Declaration of Independence was written, he would direct only three things to be inscribed on his tombstone -- the creator of that very same Declaration, the founder of the University of Virginia, and the author of the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom. Many Americans today would know the first, some know the second, but few know the last. No doubt more than a small number, who have visited Monticello and looked upon his grave marker, have thought, “No mention of President? What was that Virginia statute about?”
You see, Jefferson was a free thinker. Living in the waning days of authoritarian civil and religious authority, he was among those who would feel the wrath of nonconformity. Often accused of being an atheist or deist(charges that remarkably persist to this day), he was in fact neither. He lived a long life and his thoughts changed through the years as he searched for truth. Toward the end of his days, he anticipated his death and looked past it. On April 11th, 1823, writing to his old friend John Adams, he said, “I join you cordially and await his [God’s] time and will with more readiness than reluctance. May we meet there again, in Congress, with our ancient colleagues, and receive with them the seal of approbation, “Well done, good and faithful servants.” Jefferson repeatedly claimed to be a Christian, believed in the resurrection and looked forward to it. He, however, held what was and still are considered unorthodox even heretical views on various positions. He tried to keep these views secret as it caused him much grief whenever the public became aware of his real or perceived views.
Which brings me back to his tombstone and that law he helped create as a young man in Virginia. Being greatly concerned with obtaining the freedom of conscience, the freedom to think and believe and act on those without fear of retribution, he pressed hard for this law. This was not just a man-made temporary law. It was natural law. A God given law. Listen to the words Jefferson wrote as a 34 year old man in 1777. Words that he would carry with him to his grave:
An Act for establishing religious Freedom.
Whereas, Almighty God hath created the mind free;
That all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burdens, or by civil incapacitations tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and therefore 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 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 endeavoring to impose them on others, hath established and maintained false religions over the greatest part of the world and through all time;
Be it enacted by General Assembly that no man shall be …enforced, restrained, molested, or burdened 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. 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…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 will be an infringement of a natural right.
Today, out of the thousands of letters he wrote, we remember only one of Jefferson’s quotes and it being misunderstood. The quote was from a letter to the Danbury Baptists in 1802, where Jefferson mentioned a “wall of separation of church and state”. We have forgotten the law he helped pass and had engraved on his tombstone.
The Supreme Court hears the latest assault on the freedom of religion next year. I wonder, will they be the succeeding assembly that declares this right null and void? If they do, like Jefferson I declare:
“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 will be an infringement of a natural right.”
A right, I must say, that is tombstone worthy.
#Thomas Jefferson #Hobby Lobby#religousfreedom