EVERY year, Fredericksburg celebrates a remarkable document, the drafting of which was begun right here in 1777, and which then became the essence of the First Amendment to the Constitution.
So it is fitting that we review the content and the meaning of that document, and be clear what we’re celebrating. From what Thomas Jefferson says in his autobiography, the Virginia Statute is not intended to specifically defend the rights of Christians or the place of Christianity in Virginia. It does not state or imply that Virginia is a Christian state or that Christianity gets priority over other religions.
The Statute does not even assert the need to maintain faith in any religion at all. It defends all people against being coerced to think the same way that others think –specifically in the matter of religion—and it claims this in support of an unalienable right: because we are free from the start.
Freedom with respect to religion is a remarkable step forward in human history, promised by American democracy. This is what we are celebrating.
There is no better way to begin reflections on Jefferson’s Statute than to read it in full, and to be reminded of its beauty, succinctness, and clarity:
“Be it enacted by the General Assembly, That 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 opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.”
In his autobiography, Jefferson reports on the attempt to pass the Statute into law in the General Assembly. He writes:
“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 its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and infidel of every denomination.”
What does “infidel of every denomination” mean? Clearly he means “unbelievers of any and all sorts.” This would include unbelievers of Christianity, as well as unbelievers of Islam, or any and all religions. So it clearly includes atheists, not only people who have a different faith from the magistrates, .
For Jefferson, people of religious faith –Jews, Gentiles, Hindus, Muslims—have something important in common with infidels or atheists. Jefferson understood both groups to be protected by the Virginia Statute, as the following line from the preamble states: “Our civil rights have no dependance [sic] on our religious opinions, any more than our opinions in physics or geometry.”
Opinions in physics or geometry depend on evidence and reason. They do not depend solely on what other people have told us or claims of revelation.
If we want to determine whether our opinions in physics or geometry are true, it is possible in principle to pursue, find, and examine the relevant evidence. On the other hand, most opinions in religion depend largely on texts and the testimony of others. For Jefferson himself, his religious opinions depended on evidence and reason, not claims of revelation.
Despite this difference, these two groups have something in common. They both have religious opinions about the meaning of life, how to live, right and wrong, God, what it is to be human, and a concern for the big picture.
Believers and non-believers share concern with what is right and what is true although they do not share the same opinions about these, and they do not arrive at their opinions about them in the same way. This is why Jefferson explicitly includes atheists to be protected by the Statute as well as believers.
All people have the right to pursue or find a way to come to terms with their concern about the big picture without coercion or being forced to hold the opinions of others. Our very dignity as human beings may well reside in this ability.
The wonderful experiment in government that began as the United States was founded on the recognition that truth is the most important thing to value, and that reason and free argument are the means to achieve it. It is not founded on any religious faith in a God, unless we choose to think that truth itself is God.
Craig R. Vasey is a professor of philosophy & chair of the Department of Classics, Philosophy, & Religious Studies at the University of Mary Washington.