Today is Religious Freedom Day. Why is this day important? Consider the following story: In 380 A.D., three Roman emperors of the east and west issued a joint edict on religion.
It stated in part, "We desire all people, whom the benign influence of our clemency rules, to turn to the religion which tradition from Peter to the present day declares to have been delivered to the Romans by blessed Peter the Apostle....We order those who follow this doctrine to receive the title of Catholic Christians, but others we judge to be mad, raving and worthy of incurring the disgrace of heretical teaching, nor are their assemblies to receive the name of churches. They are to be punished, not only be Divine retribution but by our own measures, which we have decided in accordance with Divine inspiration."
Not much toleration there! In fact, the edict was designed to stamp out Arianism, an early variant of Christianity that the emperors found offensive. I shudder to think what the "punishment" for Arians was, but, considering the times, we can assume it was rather grim.
Sadly, human history is full of stories like this. It is replete with tales of emperors, kings and magistrates who took it upon themselves to determine true orthodoxy – and to use the raw power of the state to impose it on everyone else and crush rival faiths.
How could the state survive without the prop of the church? For thousands of years it seemed unthinkable. Then along came thinkers like Roger Williams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Leland, Isaac Backus and others who showed that there could be another way. Indeed, they argued that if you want real religious freedom, the first step is to separate church and state. Radical? You bet!
Leland said it well: "Government has no more to do with the religious opinions of men than it has with the principles of mathematics."
Celebrate Religious Freedom Day by reading some of the great documents of religious liberty. Thomas Jefferson's Virginia Statute for Religious Liberty is a good place to start. Many scholars see the Virginia Statute, which ended the established church in Virginia, as the inspiration for the First Amendment.
You might follow that with James Madison's "Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments." This powerful document lists 15 arguments against government-sponsored religion. All remain relevant today.
Of course, Jefferson's letter to the Danbury Baptists is a must-read. Be sure to also read the letter from the Baptists to Jefferson; it will help you understand the context for Jefferson's famous reply. Both are here.
George Washington's eloquent Letter to Touro Synagogue is an important reminder that the founders sought no Christian nation. In the missive, Washington reminds Jews that their religious beliefs and rights will always be respected in America.
Savor these words of freedom. Happy Religious Freedom Day!