Saturday, April 07, 2007


An Infidel of Every Denomination

The Virginia Act For Establishing Religious Freedom, authored by Thomas Jefferson, was the likely inspiration for the inclusion of the Establishment clause in the First Amendment. The Act contains a most interesting preamble. It suffers a bit from the habit we in the legal trade have of sayingitallatonceinonesentence, so I have broken it up a little to make it, I hope, easier to understand.

It begins with an invocation of divinely given freedom of conscience:

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 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 it was in his Almighty power to do ...

Jefferson's discussion of the Act in his Autobiography helps in an understanding of this passage. After noting that the opposition that there was to the Act was overcome through "some mutilations in the preamble," Jefferson notes:

Where the preamble declares that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed, by inserting the word "Jesus Christ," so that it should read "a departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion." The insertion was rejected by a great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of it's protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and infidel of every denomination.

Thus the "great majority" of the best men of Virginia, the largest and most influential of the states, did not consider this a "Christian nation." Returning to the Act:

... 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 endeavouring to impose them on others, hath established and maintained false religions over the greatest part of the world, and through all time ...

Here the Act is in the process of managing the neat trick of not only denying the state the power to force any religion on its citizens, but, at the same time, having the state declare that it is impious to even attempt to do so. As noted by Jefferson, the rejection of the amendment clearly showed that these legislators, at least, understood that Christianity stands equally among the possible "false religions" of the world.

Next follows a list of the evils of enforced religion that are, presumptively, forbidden to the state by the Act:

... to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves ...

... even the forcing him to support this or that teacher of his own religious persuasion ...

... 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 ...

... to restrain the profession or propagation of principles on supposition of their ill tendency ...

At the end of the list of evils comes this statement of the Enlightenment sensibilities of the authors of the Act:

... truth is great and will prevail if left to herself, ... she is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error, and has nothing to fear from the conflict, unless by human interposition [she is] disarmed of her natural weapons, free argument and debate ...

Then comes the actual proscription of the Act:

[N]o man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened 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 opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.

Jefferson, prescient as always, knew that there would be small minds snapping at the heels of any freedom. He ended his proposal with these words:

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 to be 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 shall be an infringement of natural right.

There are few better statements against theocracy than this. I'm proud to be an infidel and to include every denomination within my scorn of doctrine. That may not be quite what Jefferson meant, but I do not doubt, if he were here, that his sympathies ... and his best efforts to secure everyone's freedom to believe or not as they choose ... would be on my side. .
For this Blog Against Theocracy weekend, go visit First Freedom First.


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