Sunday is “Religious Freedom Day” in the United States. The celebration commemorates the same day in 1786 when Virginia passed its “Statute of Religious Freedom.” Written by Thomas Jefferson, it protected what would later be enshrined in the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights. Government should neither “establish” a religion nor “prohibit the free exercise” of religion.
Today, most Americans value religion, but they differ considerably in their understanding of it. You can be a Baptist or a Mennonite, a Catholic or a Protestant, a Christian or a Hindu — and it's OK. It's wonderful that we can mostly get along.
A recent book, “American Grace,” by Robert Putnam and David Campbell, sheds light on this topic by focusing on the last 60 years of American cultural history. But I want to commend here another book to your reading: “From Tyndale to Madison,” by Michael Farris.
The author makes the point that religious freedom is not something we should take for granted; it is rare within the scope of world history. We properly are concerned with Muslim countries where religion is enforced through social and legal pressures and violence. We rightly criticize China for persecuting those in “house churches.” But the historical norm — even in Europe and the American colonies — was the use of government power to grant monopoly power to a religious sect in each country.
The work covers the amazing history of religious intolerance and the tenacious battle for religious freedom in Europe (especially England) and America. Farris starts with William Tyndale's martyrdom in his quest to publish his translation of the Bible in the 1520s and concludes with work of James Madison through the 1780s.
Farris details brutal repression over religious differences — even in America, but especially in England. Pastors were required to divorce their wives and leave their children. The authorities would burn Bibles and “heretical” books. They would punish people for owning a Bible, preaching or meeting in a home church. Early in the time period, those who had alternative beliefs and practices were put to death.
Later, the government used regulation to limit competition for the “established” church — with fines and prison to discourage dissent. Even into the Revolutionary War, one needed a license from the government to preach as a Baptist in Virginia.
The book describes some of the steppingstones to religious competition. Some of these steps were economic: Practically, getting the Bible to laypeople required an increase in literacy, the invention of the printing press and the work of translators. Literacy increased steadily over this period; Johannes Gutenberg's press changed the world; and Tyndale led the charge to translate the Bible into English.
From there, the concerns are political. Why would one fear alternative religions? Concerns ranged from doctrinal (a desire to limit and punish heresy) to political (a unified religion would promote a unified State) and economic (the established church did not want competition).
In the face of this, how does one gain and maintain the right to hold religious beliefs and engage in religious practices — for example, to obtain a Bible, to talk about it with others and to gather in groups of like-minded believers? These are the basic and vital freedoms enumerated in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution: freedom of the press, of speech and of assembly.
The politics were driven — over a long period of time and through much effort, courage and sacrifice — by the ideas of the Enlightenment and by Scripture. Although most of the credit is typically given to the secular enlightenment, Farris makes the case for the primary place of Scripture, especially in the America context.
As religious “tolerance” became more prevalent, some argued that it was sufficient, even with a government-established religion. Others prevailed, in what became the First Amendment, arguing that laws based on tolerance could be revoked. These rights were not to be given — and thus perhaps taken in a less-tolerant time — by government. Freedom of conscience in religious matters was seen as endowed to us by God, rather than granted to us by a government.
As Patrick Henry put it: “You are not to inquire how your trade may be increased, nor how you are to become a great and powerful people, but how your liberties can be secured; for liberty ought to be the direct end of your government.” And these liberties extend to religion.
We owe a lot to those who were persecuted and even martyred — that we can believe and practice religion (or not) according to our convictions. Whether you are a Methodist in Maine, a Catholic in California or an atheist in Arkansas, say a little prayer today, expressing thanks for those who made the effort — “from Tyndale to Madison” — so we could have religious freedom.