On this of all Fourths of July, two things about the American tradition of religious liberty are worthy of note. First, the American conception of religious liberty is a tradition unto itself; it is exceptional, with “no model on the face of the globe” (Federalist 14). Second, it is framed in universal terms so that it belongs not just to Americans, but to all humans — and not just to Christians, but to believers of all stripes and kinds. In his autobiography, Thomas Jefferson wrote about the Virginia Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom (enacted in 1786):
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 “Jesus Christ,” so that it would read “A departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion”; the insertion was rejected by the great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mohammedan, the Hindoo and Infidel of every denomination.
The crux of the original American argument for religious liberty is found in three documents of the Founding period: the Virginia Declaration of Rights (1776), the aforementioned Bill, and James Madison’s Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments (1785).
The Virginia Declaration of Rights defines religion as “the duty which we owe to our Creator, and the manner of discharging it.” This was the definition used throughout the Founding period, codified in Webster’s dictionary in 1828. This definition was held to be self-evident. For anyone who understands herself as a creature, it is self-evident that she owes her Creator at least gratitude; and then, upon contemplating the immensity of his creation, the worship due to a being of a higher, indeed altogether other, order. Furthermore, this duty “can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence.”
Thomas Jefferson adds two further notes to this conception. The first is this: “Almighty God hath created the mind free, and manifested his Supreme will that free it shall remain.” And second, human persons exercise this freedom, not by caprice, but only by a personal understanding and reasoned grasp of the facts present to them. As the opening line of the Bill notes: “the opinions and belief of men depend not on their own will, but follow involuntarily the evidence proposed to their minds.”
It is worth lingering on this point about the role of reason. Pope Benedict makes so much of it in his Regensberg lecture (2006) that he condemns violence done in the name of religion for its unreason: “not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God’s nature.” Benedict’s reprise of this Jeffersonian vein of thought is further proof that the American claim is universal and not peculiar to America.
As James Madison makes clear in his Remonstrance, the right to fulfill one’s duty of gratitude and worship is not only self-evident, but “unalienable,” and in two senses. First, it is unalienable because this duty “must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man.” For “the opinions of men, depending only on the evidence contemplated by their own minds, cannot follow the dictates of other men.” Thus, this duty inheres singly in each person, and cannot be shucked off onto any other, not mother or father or other loved one, nor any other human being whatsoever. It is inescapably a personal responsibility.
Second, it is unalienable precisely insofar as it is a duty written into human nature, prior to the conventions and obligations of civil society. Madison writes: “This duty is precedent, both in order of time and in degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society. Before any man can be considered as a member of Civil Society, he must be considered as a subject of the Governour of the Universe.” This duty to God cannot be interfered with by any lesser authority. Even to attempt to do so would be an abuse both of the Creator and of the individual.
On this Fourth of July, religious people of every American tradition are meditating as never before on the foundations of the American practice of religious liberty. On this Fourth of July, as on every other, we celebrate those sacred words of our Founding: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” And we celebrate also, as implied in that affirmation, the first clause of the First Amendment to our Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”