Thomas Jefferson for Today: Why Religious Liberty is a 21st Century Cause
We are certainly passing through a transformational transition stage in which the cultural plurality will transition from what has predominantly been one of Protestant dominance and belief to one that will increasingly erode into an ever diffuse plurality of non-affiliated people who hold some nominal religious belief as well as an increasing percentage of agnostics and atheists.
Even in an age of religious dominance, Jefferson was right to stress religious freedom as a foundational plank of individual liberty – namely the freedom from coercion of government or coercion of fellow man.
As Meacham (who wrote the seminal biography of Thomas Jefferson) notes, Jefferson made his case for religious liberty not only in secular but also in theological terms when he states:
“Almighty God hath created the mind free…no 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 opinions in matters of Religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge or affect their civil capacities.”
Jefferson argued, essentially, that if God Himself did not compel obedience, then no man should try to enforce what the Lord chose to leave as matters of free will. The “Holy Author of our religion,” wrote Jefferson, as “Lord both of body and mind . . . chose not to propagate it by coercions on either.”
I really enjoy the closing points Meachem makes on moderation throughout this transition and to remember the value of liberty and freedom of conscience for both those of a religious bent, like myself, and those of a secular bent:
In what is likely to be a tumultuous period ahead, it seems important to remember that our Founders had it right: religion is a matter of choice, not coercion. Believers should be on guard against self-righteousness; secularists should take care not to fall prey to smugness. “America proudly stands with people of every nation who seek to think, believe, and practice their faiths as they choose,” Obama said last week. “We urge every country to recognize religious freedom as both a universal right and a key to a stable, prosperous, and peaceful future.” That’s a message worth heeding not only on January 16, but every day.