It is, admittedly, no July 4 or December 7 or November 22. Still, the just-passed January 16 is a day that deserves more than it gets in the collective American memory, for it was on that date in 1786—a distant Monday—that Virginia adopted Thomas Jefferson’s Statute for Religious Freedom, a document as profound in its way as Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. The American tradition of religious liberty is one of our greatest strengths, one that will only grow in significance as the demographics and customs of the nation continue to shift.
And so it is that the intellectual and political achievements of the 18th century are rising rather than diminishing in relevance in the 21st.
The White House may be one of the few places where January 16 is kept as a kind of feast day, for the president—whoever he happens to be at any given moment—traditionally issues an unread proclamation on that date commemorating what’s known (insofar as it’s known at all) as National Religious Freedom Day. “Today, America embraces people of all faiths and of no faith,” President Obama said in last week’s proclamation. “We are Christians and Jews, Muslims and Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs, atheists and agnostics. Our religious diversity enriches our cultural fabric and reminds us that what binds us as one is not the tenets of our faiths, the colors of our skin, or the origins of our names. What makes us American is our adherence to shared ideals—freedom, equality, justice, and our right as a people to set our own course.”
These remarks are quintessentially Jeffersonian. The Virginia statute, Jefferson said, was “meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and Infidel of every denomination.” For him religious liberty was as an inherent right, and, understanding that he was writing for a predominantly religious (in the case of Virginia in those years, predominantly Protestant) public, he made the case for his defense of freedom of conscience in theological, not secular, terms.