Religious Freedom Day, 16 Jan 2010

Updated with President Obama’s proclamation.

Each year since 1993 the President has declared January 16th to be “Religious Freedom Day,” in order to remember the passage of Thomas Jefferson’s 1786 Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom (see 2009).  President Obama does not appear to have issued his proclamation for tomorrow yet (now available), though the day has been a topic of discussion in varying forums across the internet.

Jefferson’s statute continues to be a strong expression for the value of religious liberty even today.  Though the statute has been discussed in many places and in great depth, there are two important points to take from the statute: 

All men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.

Whether a person is an evangelical Christian or a conservative Muslim, Jefferson believed that religious freedom allowed them to maintain–and profess–those beliefs without impact to their civil roles–for example, those who serve in the military.

The rights hereby asserted are of the natural rights of mankind

Jefferson’s statute, written before the US Constitution, reminds us that religious freedom does not come from any document written by the hand of man.  President Obama repeated this sentiment:

[The statute] was a statement of principle, declaring freedom of religion as the natural right of all humanity — not a privilege for any government to give or take away.

Religious freedom is a natural right.  The Constitution, awesome document though it is, is not the source of religious freedom.  The Constitution simply attempts to protect man’s natural right of religious freedom.  Thus, there is a moral concept outside of–and arguably greater than–the Constitution.

Using Jefferson’s clearly described concept of religious freedom, a Christian who expresses his beliefs while wearing a military uniform does not commit treason, though one military Chaplain has been accused of that very thing by the Military Religious Freedom Foundation.  Likewise, believing in Islam does not disqualify a person from military service, though one commentator suggested that very thing.  These people may disagree with the right of others to their religious freedom, but their disagreement is insufficient to justify the restriction of a person’s human liberty.

Rather than hiding its religious differences to avoid any remote chance of offense, America should be highlighting its differences and proudly displaying the fact that citizens of opposing viewpoints live peacefully together nonetheless.  Within the military, it is a good thing that a Christian and a Muslim can express their exclusive ideologies (and an atheist can disagree with them both), and then all three can go fight side-by-side–risking their lives for each other–despite (perhaps even because of) their ideological differences.  Each is willing to die not only for their comrade, but also to secure the religious freedom of their and their comrade’s like-minded friends back home.  Where else in the world is human liberty so dramatically displayed and so highly valued?

The religious freedom protected by the US Constitution results in an amazing array of public ideological and theological differences.  That’s a good thing, and America should hold that up to the world as a model.

A private organization also regularly promotes Religious Freedom Day.