The idea of religious liberty has emerged as one of the unique contributions of the American experiment, but where did it originate?
On May 6, 1776, thirty-two “sons of Virginia” representing every county of the state met in Williamsburg to pass a resolution calling for the Virginia delegates at the Continental Congress to move for independence from Great Britain. This Virginia Convention was also tasked with drafting a bill of rights and a constitution for the now independent state of Virginia.
At the age of fifty-one, elder statesman George Mason of Gunston Hall emerged from retirement to represent Fairfax County and agreed to write the first draft of both the Virginia Declaration of Rights and the Virginia Constitution. The Declaration of Rights was read to the entire Convention on May 27, 1776. In section 16 on Religion, Mason, following the thinking of the era, wrote that government must uphold “toleration in the exercise of religion.” Religious tolerance was understood as permission given by the state to individuals and groups to practice religion.
Religious Freedom vs. Religious Tolerance
However, 25-year-old James Madison objected to Mason’s toleration clause and successfully led an effort to modify Mason’s original language. Madison argued that religious liberty was a natural and inalienable right. It was possessed equally by all citizens and had to be beyond the reach of civil magistrates. The problem with religious tolerance he argued was that what the state gave it could also take back. Madison changed Mason’s “toleration in the exercise of religion” to the “free exercise of religion.” The revised Declaration of Rights was passed unanimously on June 12, 1776.
With this small but significant change in the Declaration’s language, Virginia moved from toleration to full religious freedom—a precedent that would not only help shape the new nation’s commitment to the free exercise of religion, but its very political theology. Government would no longer have the power to decide which groups to “tolerate” and what restrictions would be required in the practice of their religion. This revolutionary idea was designed to protect and promote a vital role for religion in public life.
This idea of “religious liberty” was adopted by the other twelve states over the next ten years and written into their constitutions. Eventually, Madison codified it in the First Amendment of the United States Constitution as one of the cornerstones of the United States’ Bill of Rights. For the first time, religious freedom, and the liberty of conscience it sustains, became an inalienable right for every person in the new country.
Madison would later write,
The Religion then of every man, must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate.
Biblical Foundations for Religious Freedom
Madison’s concept of religious freedom did not arise out of Hinduism or Islam. It also did not originate, as some mistakenly believe, only from the enlightenment thinkers. Rather, it arose from the rich teaching of the holy scriptures as understood throughout the history of the church.
For example, Tertullian wrote to magistrates of Rome that Christians could not be coerced into sacrificing to pagan gods because “we stand immovable in loyalty to our conscience.” He also became the first person in human history to use the very phrase “religious liberty.” In 212 AD, he wrote to a Roman proconsul these astonishing words: “It is a fundamental human right, a privilege of nature, that every man should worship according to his own convictions…”
Art Lindsley writes in Free Indeed that scripture upholds a right to freedom of conscience even when people’s views are misguided (Rom. 14:23).
The seeds of religious freedom were sown by these early church fathers, grew in the rich soil plowed by the reformers, and began to bear fruit with the American founding fathers and the birth of a new nation founded in part by a desire for religious freedom.
Religious Freedom Working Hand-in-Hand with Economic and Political Freedom
We see the best examples of human flourishing where people enjoy freedom in the areas of religion, the economic choices they can make, and self-government. Unfortunately, today, these freedoms are being undermined because the moral foundations that make them possible are eroding. The long-held truth of America’s founders and articulated by author Os Guinness in A Free People’s Suicide, that freedom requires virtue, virtue requires faith, and faith requires freedom, has been lost, even by the faithful.
Every person has the God-given right to discover their greatest potential, experience the fruits of labor, and find fulfillment in their work. This desire and right are intrinsic in our design, embedded with a dignity God instilled in us that is realized most when we work and create. In our creativity and work, we image our creator and fulfill his purpose. The more religious, economic, and political freedom we have, the more fully we can embrace this destiny.
Restoring Religious Freedom
This weekend, IFWE will convene 25 Christian scholars for a symposium on religious freedom. Our goal is to develop tools that we can use to educate Christians about the incredible importance of religious freedom and how it is necessary to answer the call God has placed on our lives.
Please pray for us that, like the meeting that took place in Virginia 242 years ago, what we do this week might, by God’s grace, also leave a mark on history.
Editor’s note: Read more about the essential role of religious freedom in Free Indeed: Living Life in Light of the Biblical View of Freedom.
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