Dr. King and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom

We have two January holidays to celebrate.  They are coming back-to-back, January 16 and 17, and they are connected.  January 16 is Religious Freedom Day.  It's hardly noticed, much less celebrated at large.  The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday is observed January 17 as a national holiday by prayer meetings, memorial dinners, and ceremonies at home and in U.S. embassies and military installations around the world.  This is as it should be.

On January 16, 1786, the General Assembly in Richmond voted its final approval of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom.  That law was the best example in the world of the proper relation between church and state.  It said that all men have a duty to worship their Creator, but the government could in no way prescribe how they were to fulfill their duty.

The statute said that no one could be barred from holding any public office on the basis of his religious beliefs.  Thus, in Virginia, Protestants, Catholics, Jews, and nonbelievers became fully eligible to run for, or be appointed to, all civil offices, including high rank in the military.

Lawmaker James Madison had at last shepherded Thomas Jefferson's 1779 bill through the state legislature.  Fearing British invasion earlier in the War of Independence, Virginia's legislators had moved their capital to Richmond, away from exposed Williamsburg.  Now, in 1786, Madison's skills at persuasion prevailed, five years after the Revolution's concluding Battle of Yorktown.

In passing this statute, Virginians for the first time on earth established religious freedom.  Madison wrote jubilantly to Jefferson in Paris, where the elder Virginian was representing our new nation as ambassador.  Both of these patriots congratulated the Old Dominion and each other on the passage of this great statute.  No longer would government seek to rule over the mind of man.  So proud of this signal achievement was Jefferson that it claimed authorship on his epitaph.

Without such a firm foundation for religious freedom in Virginia, we might never have had our Constitution's protections against religious persecution and political despotism.

These two principles, in the minds of Jefferson and Madison, were intimately linked.

Madison wrote the following year in the Federalist that "the security for civil rights must be the same as for religious rights."  Historian Lance Banning argues that Madison's key role in guiding the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom in 1786 was "a crucial building block in the creation of the great republic."

Where America's genuine commitment to civil rights conspicuously failed, we note with sorrow, was in the centuries-long denial of those rights to black Americans in certain states.  Here's where Dr. Martin Luther King used his religious freedom to launch his powerful appeal from the pulpits of hundreds of Christian churches.

He made it clear from the beginning that his Southern Christian Leadership Conference was not a secular movement unconcerned with spiritual truth.  Soon, he would take his call for civil rights from the pulpit to the streets.  Dr. King's dream for civil rights could be realized only in an America where pastors were free to preach and teach and organize for biblical concepts of justice.

If pastors today organize to defend the civil right of marriage, and if they seek public support in referendum campaigns, the media consign them to the back of the bus.  We hear it argued that pastors who defend the civil right of marriage should not even have access to the media.  All over America, pastors and their supporters are being shouted down.  Those who want to silence them seek not a redefinition of marriage, but its end.

Dr. King would not be silenced.  He demanded his call for civil rights be heard.  "I want it to be known throughout Montgomery and throughout this nation that we are -- a Christian people[.]"  He spoke for civil rights from the pulpits of historically black churches and in those of largely white congregations.

He cried out, in the words of the prophet, "...let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!" (Amos 5:24).

Today, six of every ten unborn children of black mothers in New York City are denied the civil right to life.  And in our nation, seven of every ten black babies are born without a father in the home to love, guide, and protect them.  These fatherless children are too often condemned to lives of poverty and poor school achievement.

These are grave threats to today's black community.  And what threatens black Americans threatens us all.  "We will live together as brothers," said Dr. King, "or die together as fools."

Religious freedom and civil rights -- together they constitute what James Madison called "the lustre of our country."  On these twin holidays, it's time to defend both.
We have two January holidays to celebrate.  They are coming back-to-back, January 16 and 17, and they are connected.  January 16 is Religious Freedom Day.  It's hardly noticed, much less celebrated at large.  The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday is observed January 17 as a national holiday by prayer meetings, memorial dinners, and ceremonies at home and in U.S. embassies and military installations around the world.  This is as it should be.

On January 16, 1786, the General Assembly in Richmond voted its final approval of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom.  That law was the best example in the world of the proper relation between church and state.  It said that all men have a duty to worship their Creator, but the government could in no way prescribe how they were to fulfill their duty.

The statute said that no one could be barred from holding any public office on the basis of his religious beliefs.  Thus, in Virginia, Protestants, Catholics, Jews, and nonbelievers became fully eligible to run for, or be appointed to, all civil offices, including high rank in the military.

Lawmaker James Madison had at last shepherded Thomas Jefferson's 1779 bill through the state legislature.  Fearing British invasion earlier in the War of Independence, Virginia's legislators had moved their capital to Richmond, away from exposed Williamsburg.  Now, in 1786, Madison's skills at persuasion prevailed, five years after the Revolution's concluding Battle of Yorktown.

In passing this statute, Virginians for the first time on earth established religious freedom.  Madison wrote jubilantly to Jefferson in Paris, where the elder Virginian was representing our new nation as ambassador.  Both of these patriots congratulated the Old Dominion and each other on the passage of this great statute.  No longer would government seek to rule over the mind of man.  So proud of this signal achievement was Jefferson that it claimed authorship on his epitaph.

Without such a firm foundation for religious freedom in Virginia, we might never have had our Constitution's protections against religious persecution and political despotism.

These two principles, in the minds of Jefferson and Madison, were intimately linked.

Madison wrote the following year in the Federalist that "the security for civil rights must be the same as for religious rights."  Historian Lance Banning argues that Madison's key role in guiding the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom in 1786 was "a crucial building block in the creation of the great republic."

Where America's genuine commitment to civil rights conspicuously failed, we note with sorrow, was in the centuries-long denial of those rights to black Americans in certain states.  Here's where Dr. Martin Luther King used his religious freedom to launch his powerful appeal from the pulpits of hundreds of Christian churches.

He made it clear from the beginning that his Southern Christian Leadership Conference was not a secular movement unconcerned with spiritual truth.  Soon, he would take his call for civil rights from the pulpit to the streets.  Dr. King's dream for civil rights could be realized only in an America where pastors were free to preach and teach and organize for biblical concepts of justice.

If pastors today organize to defend the civil right of marriage, and if they seek public support in referendum campaigns, the media consign them to the back of the bus.  We hear it argued that pastors who defend the civil right of marriage should not even have access to the media.  All over America, pastors and their supporters are being shouted down.  Those who want to silence them seek not a redefinition of marriage, but its end.

Dr. King would not be silenced.  He demanded his call for civil rights be heard.  "I want it to be known throughout Montgomery and throughout this nation that we are -- a Christian people[.]"  He spoke for civil rights from the pulpits of historically black churches and in those of largely white congregations.

He cried out, in the words of the prophet, "...let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!" (Amos 5:24).

Today, six of every ten unborn children of black mothers in New York City are denied the civil right to life.  And in our nation, seven of every ten black babies are born without a father in the home to love, guide, and protect them.  These fatherless children are too often condemned to lives of poverty and poor school achievement.

These are grave threats to today's black community.  And what threatens black Americans threatens us all.  "We will live together as brothers," said Dr. King, "or die together as fools."

Religious freedom and civil rights -- together they constitute what James Madison called "the lustre of our country."  On these twin holidays, it's time to defend both.

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