Though it is remarkably brief, considering the weighty topic it seeks to address, Jefferson’s Statute for Religious Freedom covers a lot of ground. Discussing, at turns, the nature of free will, reason and truth, the inherent fallibility of man, and the impossibility of objectivity, it is in some ways more of a philosophical treatise than a piece of legislation. Its character is decidedly that of the Enlightenment, though it also carries the influence of the British view of established religion (as inherited by the various colonies), and possibly of earlier American attempts at making freedom of conscience a matter of law.
The Statute is divided into three sections, the first of which acts as a sort of preamble that attempts to establish the intellectual and moral basis of the proposed law. Among the ideas that Jefferson puts forward in this section, most could be said to flow out of an Enlightenment, or more specifically Deist, worldview. First, he asserts that God granted to man both free will and the ability to reason, and that because the Almighty chose not to propagate religious belief by force, though he could very easily do so, he must have wanted his creations to make use of these faculties and decide on such matters for themselves. It then follows, Jefferson claims, that attempts to forcefully convert or coerce any person into believing or supporting a particular religious faith controverts the implicit will of God.
To this first argument, Jefferson couples an affirmation of the inability of man to sit in judgement of the religious beliefs of others as a consequence of his intrinsic weakness. Men, he claims, are “fallible and uninspired,” and manifestly incapable of accurately or objectively evaluating, for the benefit of others, the suitability of religious faiths that are foreign to their experience. More often than not, a man who finds himself tasked with weighing the rightness of this or that set of beliefs in the public sphere will simply take his own as the baseline, and “approve or condemn the sentiments of others only as they shall square with or differ from his own.” Because this would further contravene the God-granted free will of those whose faith is being judged, and create a nation of followers rather than believers, it is, in Jefferson’s view, wholly unacceptable.
Furthermore, and in a somewhat veiled criticism of the traditions of the Anglican Establishment, Jefferson argues that, in addition to people suffering under the yoke of religious regimes, religion itself suffers too. A great believer in the Enlightenment concept of natural rights, he claims in his 1779 Statute that every person has the fundamental right to form their own religious opinion, and to not have that opinion, unless it’s proven to be an extraordinarily destructive one, held against them in the eyes of the law or used to discriminate against them in any way. Successful attempts at disenfranchising or otherwise persecuting those deemed religious outsiders, nonconformists, or dissenters had become common a features of both the British and colonial administrations, particularly in the 17th century, as each sought to create a stable social order defined by a set of agreed upon elite values. This previously mentioned Anglican Establishment had solidified in Britain in the 1660s and 1670, and managed to sideline any number of Catholics, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Baptists, and Methodists, as well as a host of more radical faiths, like the Quakers, Shakers, Diggers and Adamites. This persistent persecution was, in fact, the central motivation behind much of the British emigration to North America, and influenced the formation of colonial governments that formally promoted religious liberty (such as in Pennsylvania or Rhode Island), and those that sought to perpetuate religious exclusion on their own terms (as with the Puritans of Massachusetts and Connecticut).
Jefferson also asserted that religion itself, in its purest moral sense, suffers greatly by its association with the use of coercion, and by “bribing with a monopoly of worldly honours and emoluments, those who will externally profess and conform to it.” In Britain and in many of the colonies, the Church of England was closely intertwined with the political status quo. By the 1670s, only communion-taking Anglicans could sit in the House of Commons or accept positions in the military hierarchy, bishops continued to sit in the House of Lords, and the Supreme Head of the Church of England was the reigning British monarch. Much of this carried over to Virginia, where political office was denied to non-Anglicans, and priests were paid and housed at government expense. In Jefferson’s view, this confluence of spiritual authority and political and economic power ultimately corrupts the virtues that religion (and by that he no doubt means Christianity) is meant to encourage, like charity, humility, and honesty. As well, by rewarding outward professions of faith with greater social and economic influence without being able to truly measure a person’s sincerity, religious establishments served only to fill their congregations with shallow, ambitious wealth-seekers who have no compunctions about mouthing the words of one faith while holding another in their hearts. This too, Jefferson sought to avoid.
The idea of a religious establishment also ran contrary to what Jefferson believed was the nature of truth itself. At the end of his initial preamble, he concludes that, “truth is great and will prevail if left to herself,” has nothing to fear from conflict or disagreement, and will always triumph if free argument and reasoned debate are permitted. This is another notion derived from the Enlightenment; that though there was such a thing as truth it belonged to no one sect or faith. The purpose of life, then, was to seek out this truth, test it against reason, and distill and render it down to something pure and universal; remembering always that truth aided by force or coercion is only an illusion. In Jefferson’s opinion, the Anglican Establishment was inherently flawed because it required the apparatus of the state to prop it up, silence its critics and spread its doctrine. If the Church feared debate, he believed that it was only because it knew that its own principles would not stand up to scrutiny. For the author of the Declaration of Independence, this was manifestly unjust and illogical and needed to be done away with.
This was, among other things, the purpose of the Virginia Statute. By making religion solely a matter of conscience it freed government from committing egregious sins against the will of God, freed religion from the temptation of material wealth and advantage, took account of the fallibility of mankind, and made the laws Virginia better reflect those of nature and of truth. Rather than try to describe or paraphrase the core of the Statute, the second section which actually defines what is and is not to be permitted, I’ll simply excerpt the entire paragraph. It reads, in a very straightforward and concise manner:
“Be it enacted by the General Assembly, That no man shall be compelled to frequent or support an religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burdened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.”
Of particular importance is the fact that Jefferson makes no mention of the Protestant, or even Christian faith. Though there were a comparatively small number of Jewish people living in the Unites States at the end of the 18th century, and far fewer of any other religions, he believed that freedom of conscience must be absolute if it’s to mean anything at all. In addition to being a far cry from the established traditions of Britain and its colonies, the Statute went further even than most attempts by said colonies to promote religious liberty in years prior.