The religious freedom to hold ‘a monopoly of worldly honors and emoluments’

The religious freedom to hold ‘a monopoly of worldly honors and emoluments’ January 16, 2020

Today is National Religious Freedom Day because this was the day in 1786 that the General Assembly of Virginia adopted its Statute for Religious Freedom written by Thomas Jefferson.

That statute remains a blistering good read. It’s got the kind of grand, sweeping statements Jefferson included in the Declaration of Independence, but where that document sprawls into a laundry list of grievances, the Virginia statute sticks to pithy, compelling arguments that reinforce each other. :

An Act for establishing religious Freedom.

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 endeavoring 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 labors 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 honors 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 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 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.

Everything there builds toward the conclusion: religious compulsion and coercion is wrong. It perverts public morality, corrupts religion itself, invites abuses of power, diminishes truth, empowers lies, and violates the natural rights of every individual. Phew.

That’s not just a powerful statute, it’s also — incidentally — a better short summary of Baptist theology than I ever heard in the classes my Baptist church offered prior to my own baptism.

But even though this statute is the specific reason for our National Religious Freedom Day and even though it was intended and has long been understood to explain the meaning of the “religious freedom” we’re invited to celebrate today, neither the Virginia statute itself nor the general idea of religious freedom it describes is usually invoked any more when politicians and politicized religious leaders ramble on these days about “religious freedom.”

What is usually meant, instead, is pretty much the opposite of what that statute provides. It is the idea that I cannot be free to exercise my religion unless that freedom affords me the right to “assume dominion over the faith of others, setting up my own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible, and as such endeavoring to impose them on others.”

“Religious freedom” — when spoken of by the fundraisers of the religious right or the Federalist Society bishops of the Catholic hierarchy — means the freedom to secure a “monopoly of worldly honors and emoluments for those who will externally profess and conform to” particular forms of religious expression. Even though, as Jefferson noted, such a monopoly will always, inevitably, “corrupt the principles of that very Religion it is meant to encourage.”

It is, in other words, the same perverse notion of “freedom” that Lester Maddox spoke of when he insisted on his “freedom” to refuse service to non-white customers at his restaurant.

The cry of “religious freedom” arises from the religious right in situations that are almost always analogous to Maddox’s failed and immoral argument. But their cause of “religious freedom” is almost always more than simply analogous — it’s mostly the exact same fight for the exact same lost cause, driven by the exact same motive.


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