Perhaps it is appropriate, even providential, that the topic of religious liberty should be so prominently in the news this week — Holy Week. President Bill Clinton, in signing the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 1993, said, “The free exercise of religion has been called the first freedom – that which originally sparked the development of the full range of the Bill of Rights.” He added that the Founders knew that “religion helps give our people a character, without which a democracy cannot survive. They knew there needed to be a space of freedom between government and people of faith that otherwise government might usurp.”
Our nation was founded on the beliefs that there are certain God-given, inalienable rights, among these “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” and that a providential God governs over the affairs of this world. In the Declaration of Independence, the Founders placed their “firm reliance” on God as they pledged their “lives, fortunes, and sacred honor” in the fight to secure America’s freedom.
Abraham Lincoln, who was assassinated on Good Friday 150 years ago, said outside of Independence Hall in Philadelphia, only days before he was to be sworn in as the nation’s 16th president:
I am filled with deep emotion at finding myself standing here, in this place, where were collected together the wisdom, the patriotism, the devotion to principle, from which sprang the institutions under which we live… I have never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence.
On that day, he pledged his life to restoring the nation, and restoring it in a way that is consistent with the ideals of liberty found in the Declaration of Independence. Four years later, in April 1865, with his body lying in state in Independence Hall, those who passed by his coffin who recalled his pledge realized he had done both. With the demise of slavery, “this nation, under God” had experienced “a new birth of freedom” so “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, [would] not perish from the earth.”
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Thomas Jefferson, drafter of the Declaration of Independence, stated at the time of the nation’s founding, “[C]an the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God?”
Both he and James Madison, the father of the Constitution, argued that the freedom of religion was a God-given right, which no government could legitimately deny. Their views did much to shape the discussion of this issue during the early days of the republic. Jefferson wrote in the Virginia Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom:
Whereas, Almighty God hath created the mind free…that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments, or burdens…tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and are a departure from the plan of the holy author of our blessed religion, who being lord of both body and mind, yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as was in his Almighty power to do, but to exalt it by its influence on reason alone…
Similarly, Madison—who in 1789 introduced the Bill of Rights in Congress, which included the language that nearly word-for-word became the First Amendment’s guarantee of the freedom of religion—again argued that this right is God-given. He articulated his views regarding religious liberty in an essay entitled Memorial and Remonstrance:
Religion or the duty which we owe to our Creator and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence… This right is in its nature an unalienable right… It is the duty of every man to render to the Creator such homage and such only as he believes to be acceptable to him.
Madison ended his essay by comparing the right to freedom of conscience to the other fundamental rights that maintain liberty, such as freedom of the press, trial by jury, separation of powers, and the right to vote, and he prayed that “the Supreme Lawgiver of the Universe” would help Virginia’s legislators to see the truth in what he wrote and vote accordingly for religious liberty, which they did.
As many in our nation take time to reflect this Holy Week on the meaning of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, may we also remember that our Founders held sacred the God-given right to worship by the dictates of our own conscience. Any laws that trample on that right cannot hope to elicit the smiles of heaven.
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Portions of this essay are excerpted from the book We Hold These Truths (Xulon Press, 2007)
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