By religious freedom, or soul liberty, is meant the natural and inalienable right of every soul to worship God according to the dictates of his own conscience, and to be unmolested in the exercise of that right, so long, at least, as he does not infringe upon the rights of others; that religion is, and must be, a voluntary service; that only such service is acceptable to God; and, hence, that no earthly power, whether civil or ecclesiastical, has any right to compel conformity to any creed or to any species of worship, or to tax a man for its support.
This principle gives to “Caesar” “the things that are Caesar’s,” but it denies to Caesar “the things, that are God’s.” It does not make it a matter of indifference what a man believes or how he acts, but it places all on the same footing before God, the only lord of the conscience, and makes us responsible to him alone for our faith and practice. This doctrine is now very generally accepted, not only in Virginia, but also throughout the United States. It has been incorporated into our National and State Constitutions, and it is the basis of our civil liberties. And yet at the date of the American Revolution it was not so. No government in the Old World had recognized this doctrine, and, unless Rhode Island be an exception, it did not find full and unequivocal recognition in any of the colonies of the New World. Virginia was the first to recognize it in her organic law, and this she did in Article XVI. of her Bill of Rights, which was adopted on the 12th day of June, 1776. From that time down to January 19, 1786, when Jefferson’s “Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom” became the law of the State, the battle for soul liberty was on.
History proves how the Light of “True” Christianity had to advance out of the Dark Ages in order for Religious Liberty to advance, which then allowed civil society to advance in large degrees. ~ Editor
Our Lord’s saying, “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s,” being rightly interpreted for us, means, “Render unto President and Congress, to governor and legislature, and to all courts and magistrates, all that is due to them according to the constitution and laws.” Our Lord set a limit to the civil power, and thus guarded religious liberty. The things of Caesar and the things of God are to be distinguished from each other, but they cannot be separated from each other. To be a good citizen and to be a good Christian are two quite distinct things, but they cannot be two separate things. A good Christian cannot knowingly neglect his duty to his country; a citizen cannot do his best for his country if he disregards his religious obligations. He who disregards the things that are Caesar’s therein disobeys God. He who is regardless of the things which are God’s is not helping to secure to his country the favor of God.
All duties of citizenship are really religious duties. The Christian can no more exclude religion from his politics than from the training of his family. He should adopt his political opinions as conscientiously as his religious opinions. He should defend the former with as scrupulous truthfulness as the latter. He should go to the polls and to the primary meeting with as serious reference to the will of God as to the prayer meeting. He should choose his party as conscientiously as he chooses his church, and should have no connection with any party unless he honestly thinks that he can thus best promote whatever is true and pure and right. He may no more allow his party than his church to control his conscience or constrain him to violate his principles.
The obligation to “render unto God the things which are God’s” is as binding upon Caesar as upon his lowliest subject. Rulers have personally the same religious duties and needs as if they were not rulers; and there are obligations to God resting upon rulers as such, over and above those which rest upon them in common with other men. “He that ruleth over men must be just, ruling in the fear of God.” This obligation rests upon every ruler, no matter in what way he has acquired his power—whether by birth, by conquest or by the choice of the people. It follows irresistibly that a free people ought always to elect rulers who are “just, fearing God.” Every Christian citizen ought to give his vote and use his political influence as wisely as he can to this end.
The government has no right to pursue a policy which prevents its subjects from rendering unto God the things that are God’s. So far as worship and the profession of religious belief are concerned, this is well settled in our country. The people are unanimous and the national constitution is explicit in denying to our rulers the right either to require or to forbid the adoption of any creed or the practice of any religious rites whatsoever. But it would be a false view of religion to regard it as consisting only in creed and worship. If religion is not a spiritual power pervading practical life, it is worthless.
The government has no right either to forbid or to command us to pray or to keep the Sabbath religiously; but it ought to protect us all in our right to pray and to keep the Sabbath holy. It does repress and forbid noisy demonstrations and the public prosecution of trades and business, which would destroy the quietness that is necessary for religious Sabbath-keeping. Our government has always done this, at least so far as to commit it to the principle, yet it does not consistently carry out this principle. The principle requires cessation from labor in all departments of government service, and forbids the running of trains for postal or other service, on the Sabbath, as clearly as it requires foundries and mills and anvils to cease from their din and noise.
There is an application of this principle to our public education, which calls for more thorough investigation than it has yet received. It is strenuously asserted that no religious teaching can be given in schools supported by taxation without violating religious liberty, because, in the vast variety of religious belief and unbelief, no religious teaching can be given which will not be contrary to the religious belief or unbelief of some tax-payer. So Christians are told that they must teach religion at home and in the Sabbath-school, and let the state teach arithmetic and geography and grammar.
If religion with us meant a creed or a catechism or a rite, this might do; but if religion means a spiritual power pervading and controlling practical life, it will not do. What would infidels say of a man who should propose to confine the religion of his family to Sunday and the daily half hour of family worship? They would call him a hypocrite. They would justly say, “If that man honestly believed what he teaches the children on Sunday and what he reads from his Bible and sings from his hymn-book and solemnly utters on his knees, it would go with him to the field and to the table and in all the various work and play and intercourse of the family He would do just as his Bible bids him, where it says, “And these words which I command thee shall be in thine heart; and thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up.” But is such a sincere Christian, being a father, willing to have religion excluded from the whole school-life of his children— to have their intellects formed and trained under a system which forbids their teachers to find moral principles in the Ten Commandments, or wisdom in the Proverbs, or history in the Pentateuch, or poetry in David and Isaiah, or God in chemistry and astronomy?
May the government rightly take for its treasury the money which such a father would use for the education of his children, and give him in return only an education which has all religion excluded from it? Must the government be so tender of the atheist’s conscience, at the expense of putting such a strain as that upon the Christian conscience? Is the conscience, whose supreme law is “Fear God, and keep his commandments,” so much less entitled to the respect of rulers than that which says, “There is no God, there is no immortality, there is no immutable moral right”?
The Synod of New York at its last meeting affirmed its conviction that our national vigor and permanence are guaranteed only by a religiously-grounded morality; that there should be in every school maintained by the state the inculcation of such principles of dependence upon God and obligation to him as are essential to sound learning, safe character and wholesome citizenship; that the synod should bring the entire weight of its influence to bear against whatever, by statement or suggestion, shall antagonize the claims of the God upon whom we depend and to whom we owe obligations. The synod instructed its ministers publicly to recognize the difficulties in which the case is involved, and to bring those difficulties to bear as an argument for more thorough, intelligent and faithful religious instruction on the part of the family, the Sunday-school and the church. Surely these are words of truth and soberness.
Sources: The Church at Home and Abroad, Volume 3 January, 1888
Documentary History of the Struggle for Religious Liberty in Virginia by Charles Fenton James, 1899