The Other Separation
By Ken Burrows
In his autobiography, Founder Thomas Jefferson looked back with pride on his Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom but lamented the attempts delegates had made to amend the Statute prior to passing it. He singled out one amendment in particular—the suggestion to modify the phrase “the holy author of our religion” by adding the words “Jesus Christ.” He had been relieved when that amendment was soundly rejected because he intended his Statute to protect, as he put it, “the Gentile, the Christian and Mehometan, the Hindoo, and Infidel of every denomination.” In other words, the law was never meant to enshrine the beliefs of any one religion, and it was written to protect the irreligious as well.
Things are different today. When Missouri legislators were crafting their 2023 law that eliminates virtually all access to abortion, one of the lawmakers remarked: “As a Catholic I do believe life begins at conception. That is built into our legislative findings.” A Colorado legislator this summer was quoted in a news article as saying he could not do his job without his faith because his religious belief is “necessary” to crafting good laws. In these and similar instances of late around the country, legislators’ intent is to embed religious beliefs into law.
In too many cases, modern-day lawmakers thus depart from what our key Founders believed in and practiced, which is observing a well-considered separation between private piety and public policy. One might call it “the other separation” these Founders abided by, one that coincided with the church-state separation they strenuously advocated and incorporated into the Constitution they created.
This other separation is yet one more revolutionary hallmark of Jefferson and his colleague James Madison, known as the father of the Constitution. They were personally religious, even if not Christian, but they nonetheless took great care to not impose their faith onto others. In his precedent-setting Virginia Statute, Jefferson wrote explicitly that “Our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions.” Madison pointed out that the “Jesus Christ” amendment would have limited the liberty in Jefferson’s Statute to only certain religious believers. He went so far as to say it would have “profaned” the name of Jesus by “making religion the means of abridging the natural and equal rights of all men.” Madison regularly contended in his journal writings and correspondence that any connection between religion and government is harmful to both. (One wishes the self-described “originalists” on today’s Supreme Court mirrored this conviction.)
Civic officials who seek to codify their private faith into public laws and policies flirt with a dynamic similar to today’s Christian nationalists, those authoritarian-friendly extremists who seek to establish a Christian theocracy to replace the secular republic our Founders bequeathed to us. Noted nationalist Michael Flynn has said publicly, “We have to have one religion, one nation under God, and one religion under God.”
That sort of thinking is wholly un-American. When laws are formulated to foist selected religious tenets onto the public at large, it reminds us we must have freedom from the dictated religion of some if we are to preserve freedom of religion for all. Today’s legislators should take a cue from our Founders and observe “the other separation” they practiced and handed down to us as a model to follow.
Published in the August 2-8 edition of the Colorado Springs Independent with the quotation below.
The tyranny of legislators is…our most formidable danger.
----- Thomas Jefferson