New Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom
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Publications Upon the New Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom

Religious Herald ─ ”Jefferson: Friend or Foe” (TBA)

Washington Times ─ Op-ed. Piece (TBA)

Roanoke Times ─ Op-ed. Piece (May 31, 2009)

The Virginian Pilot ─ Op-ed. Piece (May 17, 2009)

Washington Times ─ Op-ed. Piece (March 12, 2009)

Richmond Times ─ Op-ed. Piece (Jan. 24, 2009)

Religious Herald ─ ”The Need for a New Religious Freedom Statute” (Dec. 18, 2008)

Daily Press ─ Op-ed. Piece (Dec. 13, 2008) Download Adobe Acrobat Reader here

Religious Herald ─ ”A New Virginia Statute” (Oct. 30, 2008)

Stephen Strehle
Religious Herald: News Journal of the Baptist General Association of Virginia
Issue: December 18, 2008

The Need for a New Virginia Statute to Defend Our Religious Freedom

The Baptists played a prominent role in promoting religious toleration in the eighteenth century. Their effort gave birth to the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom in 1786, which disestablished the Anglican Church. The statute rejected the government’s preference for any specific religion or denomination, encouraged all believers to worship as they please, and provided the rights of its citizens to participate fully in the political process, regardless of their religious affiliation. The purpose of the statute was to eliminate discrimination and promoted inclusion and integration - at least in regard to religion.

Since those days, the society has lapsed in its treatment of religious people. The government has grown much larger; the culture has grown more secular; and religion has lost much of its standing, subsisting at the outskirts of public life and serving as a mere footnote during a week filled with other concerns. This development in our society finds a number of causes, but the government must bear considerable responsibility for much of it by developing policies that create and forward secularity in the modern world. The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom never intended this, and the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution only followed the statute in rejecting the establishment of a national church or denomination. Much of the responsibility falls upon the U.S. Supreme Court and its power to interpret the Constitution as it deems fit. In the watershed case of Everson v. the Board of Education (1947), the Court decided for the first time and through its own power to erect a “wall of separation between church and state,” declaring our government to be a god-less institution and sentencing religious people with their ideas and symbols to the private (and shrinking) realm of society. Before the decision, secular forces tried to erect this wall by amending the Constitution1, but the Court made the legislative process unnecessary through its judicial fiat. A more liberal interpretive philosophy arose at law schools in the first half of the twentieth century and allowed the Court to read the simple letter of the law in a more creative manner, providing more room for judicial activism through the process of interpretation. Now secular jurists like Hugo Black and Felix Frankfurter could use their new interpretive power to make religion irrelevant to public life and erect a wall to prevent its influence, declaring the wall between church and state “high and impregnable.”

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Following the verdict there developed much discussion over its meaning and merit, but one result seemed obvious to most fair-minded observers. The decision clearly reduced the importance of religion in our lives. The decision makes religion irrelevant to our corporate lives de facto; and worse than that, it maintains that religion exerts an evil influence when represented and empowered in the state. The wall contains an implicit commission to remember and emphasize all the wicked moments in church history - the “dark ages,” the Crusades, the Inquisitions, and the “religious” wars - in order to Stephen Strehle: book covereliminate the ill effects of religious dogma on society and justify its exclusion from the public domain. The wall summons the nation to ignore any positive effect of faith upon society and forget the religious heritage of America and its government.

This mentality is present in our nation’s public schools and textbooks, all of which highlight the times of the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century as founding the American way of life and the civil government. The modern secular textbook invariably ignores the simple fact that religious groups like the Puritans, Quakers, and Baptists spread the message of liberty, democracy, mixed and federal government - all the basic elements of the American Constitution - when they arrived on these shores, long before the eighteenth century and the so-called “Founding Fathers.” One only needs to possess a basic understanding of congregationalism and its history to refute the secular bias. One only needs to look at the government of congregational churches, which first arose in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and watch the civil governments of Britain and America change wherever these churches and their people grow in number and power.2  As many of the readers know, the Baptists had a special place in this history, changing the Anglican-dominated, authoritarian and hierarchical structures of our state decades before the Revolution, a history that is no longer a part of public consciousness or secular education. Some might say it doesn’t matter who receives credit in the eyes of the world, but I think it does matter in this case. Why wouldn’t Baptists and other religious people find some sense of pride in their history and want the nation to know how significant their faith was in all our lives? Isn’t it important who receives honor and credit in the public consciousness and teaching of a people? Can religion survive without a public place of honor in the affections of the people?

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The decision of 1947 dishonored the legacy of religious groups in our history, but it committed a worse sin than simply deprecating the place of the church. It also deprecated the place of God in our lives. The decision left the impression that a nation without God is possible and necessary to unify a people, divided by religious disputes. But can a nation live without God? It certainly is difficult to understand how a nation can possess any basis for its law if no moral or meta-physical universe exists to provide some foundation for it. Without God there is no ground for believing life has any purpose, meaning, or value - only the happenstance from which it arises and the way in which it happens to be. Without divine revelation, there is no “ought” or standard to tell us how we should live our lives or conduct civil policy - nothing absolute that really exists and embodies the perfect ideal.3  Without God, government would lose all moral authority and depend upon the arbitrary decisions of those who happen to be in power. The people could never appeal to God-given rights in nature against the arbitrary acts of a king, parliament, or anyone in authority. “If God did not exist, all things would be possible” (Dostoyevsky). There would be no basis for determining what is right and wrong in our public or private lives.

For believers, God is all important. There is no place for them to hide and escape the divine will. Jews, Christians, and most other religious people think of God as omnipresent - i.e., existing everywhere in the universe, even in the depth of Sheol (Psa. 139). By this very fact, they cannot escape the demands of the Lord wherever they go. The universe is the sanctuary of the Lord. “Heaven is my throne, and the earth my footstool” (Isa. 66:1). There is no place to hide in a secular world, free from the one who fills “all in all,” indifferent to the demands of true righteousness. A government can limit its scope and maximize the freedom of a people to live without coercion, but this policy does not free a government or a people from serving the will of God in whatever they choose to do in their public and private lives. There is no secular world to separate believers from seeking what is good and holy. The will of God can work to free us from authoritarian rule (Mk 10: 42-45) and legalistic demands (Gal. 5:1) for all to lead their own lives with their own conscience, but even this wise policy finds its basis in service to the Lord. This type of government chooses to serve God by protecting the rights of the people and leading by a good example.

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Since Everson v. the Board of Education, the Supreme Court has tried to eliminate religion from the public domain, but its decisions have lacked consistency. The Court breached its own wall so many times that it decided to change the barrier between church and state to a “line” that is “blurred, indistinct, and variable” (Lemon v. Kurtzman - 1971). This embarrassing ruling has not prevented the Court from its basic goal of eliminating the influence of religion on the government and separating it from our public life, but the justices are clearly wrong in this matter. They are caught in an unworkable doctrine of separation, based on a pure prejudice against religion, by attempting to untangle what is bound together in culture. They clearly need direction from the people in order to understand the essential nature of religion to human beings as an inevitable, indelible, and inseparable aspect of all our lives.

This is why I am calling for a New Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. This is why I am calling for Baptists and the state of Virginia, along with all people of faith and all those who love freedom to lead the nation once again in the cause of liberty. The new statute fully supports its predecessor and even wants to extend the provision for inclusion, but it also recognizes that the times have changed. Specific religious groups are no longer the great enemies of liberty, claiming a special right to rule over others. Today the concern is more secular forces who want to usurp power by sentencing all religious people to the margins of society. The purpose of the new statute is to update the old and extend its inclusive language to a new era by insuring the just representation of religious people with their ideas and symbols. There is no attempt to substitute a “theocracy” for the current “atheocracy,” where only secular people are permitted to participate in the civil process. I am calling for the inclusion of all citizens, religious and non-religious alike. I am calling for the privileges of real citizenship, not the patronizing and pacifying policies of toleration toward the disenfranchised. Without representation, religion will have no real significance in the hearts of the people or the future of our nation. If we continue on the present course, faith will lose more and more respect and eventually die out - not today or tomorrow, but soon enough - not “with a bang but a whimper” (T.S. Eliot). Its voice will die out through the growing and expanding power of a god-less state.

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This is why the people of God can no longer live as a remnant in society and watch secular forces denigrate the faith. They must demand from their elected officials, beginning in this state, a platform and a voice. It is their right as tax-paying citizens to have their ideas aired within the public domain in accordance with their rightful place in society. Taxation and representation are linked together within the revolutionary spirit of Americans and their sense of fair play. They believe it is unconscionable “to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves” (Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, new window). It is time for this state and this country to heed these words in respect to religious and non-religious people alike.

1 In December of 1875, President U. S. Grant went to Congress and urged the passing of a new constitutional amendment that would make “Church and State for ever separate and distinct.” His proposal showed a special interest in requiring states to provide funds for secular education and prevent religious schools from sharing any of these sources. The senate ended up rejecting a revised version of the bill , the so-called Blaine Amendment, which aimed its policy of discrimination at the Catholic minority and its parochial schools.

2 For details, see my latest book, The Egalitarian Spirit of Christianity: The Sacred Roots of American andBritish Government (New Bruswick, NJ and London: Transaction Publishers, 2008).

3 A. Einstein, Ideas and Opinions (New York: The Modern Library, 1994) 33, 45, 48, 54.

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©2008 The New Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom