‘An Act for establishing religious Freedom’

This statute, written by Thomas Jefferson, was passed 226 years ago today by the Virginia General Assembly. Jefferson was rightly proud of that.

The evangelical Christian voting bloc, influenced by lying con artists like David Barton, may cite the first line here as evidence that Jefferson believed in an Almighty God and creator. And influenced by folks like Francis Schaeffer and Charles Colson, the members of that voting bloc may further cite that first line in support of the notion that their own sectarian religious perspective is the sole legitimate basis for all civil and human rights.

But anyone who reads beyond that first line will encounter powerful arguments and evidence against those notions.

It is difficult to read Jefferson’s entire statute in America today without being reminded of that evangelical Christian voting bloc and the way it has come to embody so many of the things he warned against in all those whereas clauses accelerating toward his conclusion.

More than two centuries later, Jefferson’s warning that the establishment or privileging of any sect serves only “to corrupt the principles of that very 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” seems remarkably timely as not just a warning, but a description of American evangelicalism — a religious tradition corrupted and bribed into becoming a mere voting bloc.

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 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 endeavouring to impose them on others, hath established and maintained false religions over the greatest part of the world and through all time;

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;

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

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 very 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;

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:

Be it enacted by 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 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 constituted with powers equal to our own, and that therefore to declare this act 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 will be an infringement of natural right.


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  • That last paragraph neatly sums up the principle of religious freedom that the US Constitution so aspires to in theory, but that the US government so imperfectly puts into practice.

  • Powerful stuff. 

  • Lori

    Everyone who trots out the faux clever argument that the Constitutional right to freedom of religion was never intended to be freedom from religion needs to read this very, very carefully. 

  • FangsFirst

    Hell. You could read this pretty carelessly and still have difficulty making that claim.

    About a paragraph in I whistled aloud. Even knowing Jefferson’s general thoughts. To have (and have been ignorant of!) such an explicit discussion…wow.

    Really kind of a punch in the gut to those “wall between church and state is out of context” nutters. Which people have actually said–by which I mean, people refer to the letter it actually appears in and say the letter does not support that idea at all, and the phrase is taken out of context by evil secular people. No, really. I’ve seen that claimed.

  • FangsFirst

    Then again, I just mistakenly stumbled into an argument with a friend of a friend telling me how Focus on the Family is an “amazing” organization. Which led to “homosexuality is explicitly wrong according to the Bible.” And of course that’s not news as an interpretation.

    But I started to think about how creepy it is that apparently some people remain unconcerned with the reasons for laws they believe are divinely inspired. Just, “God said it was bad. I don’t know why, but that’s enough for me.” I was running this through with my mother, and suggested that people like herself (or Fred, or my SGF, or plenty of the Christians here) probably see rational basis to support their beliefs about divine morality, as it were. You know, “Yeah, I see why God would be against murder, because people being dead before they would be without intervention is pretty clearly a bad thing, because I do not wish to be dead, nor do I want my friends, family or even acquaintances to be dead.”

    But evidence would suggest that some–like the person I got entangled with–simply say, “Well, the Bible told me, and that’s all I need to know.” Gives me the heebie-jeebies. To be so devoted to an ideology that depends SOLELY on your religious text (with no underlying emotional understanding of why your deity/ies might feel that way)…well, if we just took that away, your entire crusade to destroy the rights of others dissipates? That’s ALL you had behind it? Is that all you have behind not stealing from people or beating or murdering them? If we took the Bible from *you* you’d abandon your asinine homophobia? …and possibly the rest of your “morals”? What kind of basis is this?

    Which, I guess, is why some folks of that persuasion are convinced atheists can’t have morals I guess…

    Still. Creepy.

  • Anonymous

    I have no illusions about my father.  He’s among the “atheists can’t have morals” crowd…and knowing him, I am disturbingly certain that if he, specifically, were an atheist, he wouldn’t let little things like morality get in the way of whatever he wanted to do.

  • renniejoy

     I don’t think that a person can be free to practice their religion if they are not also free from practicing all the other religions.

  • P J Evans

    Yeah, there are a lot of people who confuse morals and ethics with religious beliefs. (They probably never think about their own religious beliefs, except for considering how Christian their church is, and how others are not.)

  • Hawker40

    “My religious belief is that God doesn’t like to be bothered, ever, so I spend no time at all praising Her, or asking for anything, and therefor cannot partipate in any religious ceremony, even a non-denominational one, without violating my beliefs.
    I also believe that setting up monuments honoring God, even indirectly, bothers Her, and therefor do not approve of the government doing so.  So please do not spend tax money on such things, because bothering God is bad, and can make bad things happen.”

  • Lori

    Then again, I just mistakenly stumbled into an argument with a friend of a friend telling me how Focus on the Family is an “amazing” organization.  


    I totally agree with this statement. Focus on the Family is amazing. They amaze me on a regular basis. Why just the other day I was totally blown away by that Tebow-inspired Children of the Cornesque ad they ran to let people know what John 3:16 says. 

    I guess that’s not the way your friend’s friend was using “amazing”, huh? 

  • P J Evans

     It’s astonishing how many people think no one in the US has ever heard of Jeebus and need to be converted.

  • Matri

    Those people have yet to demonstrate any reading comprehension whatsoever.

  • FangsFirst

    I guess that’s not the way your friend’s friend was using “amazing”, huh?

    Unfortunately, you are absolutely correct. It was a stupidly circular and ridiculous conversation.

    Those people have yet to demonstrate any reading comprehension whatsoever.

    Unfortunately, this was also true.

    It didn’t matter who I posted saying that the “Day of Dialogue” (neé “Truth”) was founded in opposition to a day of respect for victims of bullying. I even quoted the words of FotF’s own spokesperson, as well as the ADF folks who created it.
    “No, it’s about loving and respectful discussion of something the Bible clearly states is wrong!”
    “But…why place it the same day? Or the day after that it later became?”
    “Actually it’s the day before…but it’s still about loving and respect”
    “Okay…it’s before. Why is it so close?”
    “Lol. Did I create it?? I don’t know”

    Well, if you read any of the links I just gave you, including some from your lovely little group you would know. But you aren’t interested in tarnishing your image of them.

    Then the “Oh, poor ‘Christians,’ THEIR voice is not allowed alongside the pro-gay ones!”

    I said I couldn’t do anything about willful ignorance and was not getting into the “How do you persecute the majority? And how is it persecution when half the people calling you jerks are from the ‘same’ group, ie, Christians?” conversation *again* and so my end of the conversation was over.

    I really can’t fathom why it is I insist on trying to have sane, rational, reasonable and civil discussions with people like that. Yet I keep doing it…

    (perhaps this is why my mother advertises me as a good Christian atheist)

  • Don Gisselbeck

    It’s unlikely righties could even understand Mr. Jefferson, what with his big words and complex sentence structure.

  • Ajax0602

    absolutely dead on. jefferson was not religious. He believed in a seperation of church and state. Along with other like minded peers, Jefferson realized the unscrupulous nature of some preachers and how they.can use it to coerce persons.

  • P J Evans

    Jefferson was probably more worried about unscrupulous (or power-hungry) politicians.