Religious Freedom Day, 16 January 2012
Update: Read 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 Monday yet, 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. First,
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. [emphasis added]
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. Those civil roles would likely include those who serve in the military, though the concept of a standing military was foreign to the US at the time.
The rights hereby asserted are of the natural rights of mankind…
Jefferson’s statute, written before the US Constitution, reminds us religious freedom does not come from any document written by the hand of man. As President Obama once said himself:
[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; it is a human liberty. Despite the claims of some critics, the US Constitution, awesome document though it is, is not the source of religious freedom (or any other liberty, for that matter). The Constitution simply attempts to protect man’s natural right of religious freedom (from the federal government). Thus, though Jefferson is often lauded for his call for a “separation of church and state,” his statute indicates even he believed in a moral concept greater than the Constitution.
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.