Today is Religious Freedom Day! President Obama issued a proclamation heralding the First Amendment and calling on continued work to “protect religious freedom around the globe.”
Religious Freedom Day marks the adoption not of the First Amendment but an even earlier Virginia law, written by Thomas Jefferson, which showed the way for our constitutional religious freedom protections. In a column commemorating Religious Freedom Day in 2013, Baptist Joint Committee Executive Director Brent Walker explained how institutional church-state separation is good for religion:
Historians tell us that religion in this country was at a low ebb between 1750 and 1790 — at least when measured by church attendance (estimated to have been about 17 percent). After Jefferson’s bill was adopted in Virginia and the Bill of Rights ratified by the entire country, weekly church attendance increased over the years. According to a recent Pew Forum survey, 36 percent of the United States general public attends worship services at least once a week, and only 16 percent of Americans say religion is not important in their life.
Some argue that the United States has become less religious over the years. Instead, I think we have become more religiously diverse and fluid. The First Amendment requires, and we should be happy to embrace, a “secular” government in the sense that it is prohibited from promoting religion or taking sides in religious disputes, favoring one over another. It should and must be neutral toward religion.
Without the Virginia law, our religious freedom may look very different, as would the state of religion in America. Can there be any doubt, the separation of church and state is good for both?