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JEFFERSON: Against Religious Monopoly

By Steffan Bertsch

I've always been proud of Thomas Jefferson for considering the presidency of the United States too minor to put on his tombstone. I'm grateful to attorney Steffan Bertsch for sharing this eloquent tribute to Jefferson for one of the three things that great man chose to be remembered for.

Those of you who know me or my writings, know that I believe that Thomas Jefferson was among the greatest statesmen of all time. While many know some of his fine accomplishments, there is one which is often overlooked.

Mr. Jefferson designed his own tombstone, to be made of coarse materials so as not to be of value to thieves. The monument was not to exceed nine feet in height, and it was to have the following inscription which was penned by Jefferson to signify the most important accomplishments of his life:

Here was buried
Thomas Jefferson
Author of the Declaration of American Independence
of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom
& Father of the University of Virginia

Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence in 1776, complete with an abolition against slavery which was stricken by the Congress before it was signed. That document gives common people everywhere the faith and hope to know that when a government becomes intolerable, they have the God-given right to throw off the shackles that bind them to the tyrant. With the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson gave all men and women hope that they would not be slaves forever, but have every right to rebel against their slave masters. As Spartacus was to Rome, so was Jefferson to us. This document is one of the brightest lights produced in America's history. It gave our Founding Fathers the strength to dare to tumble with George III, an evil king. Today, it shows all lovers of liberty that no government, no where, no how, is beyond decapitation. With this document, America rode her way to freedom, and her people were freed of physical restraints of the mother country. Yet, as monumental a symbol of liberty as the Declaration of Independence is, it does not seem to be Jefferson's finest accomplishment.

In his later years, Jefferson devoted a great deal of time to building the University of Virginia, because he believed that institutions of learning were a great blessing to people so they could acquire knowledge in a world where ignorance reigns. People are kept ignorant by those in power, because knowledge is power, and the more knowledge the rulers have relative to the population, the easier are the constituents to control. Jefferson sought to close the door on ignorance by opening a fine university and free man's mind from the tyranny of ignorance. Still, as fine of goal as this was subservient to the work accomplished with the Declaration of Independence, which was secondary to Jefferson's finest achievement.

In 1777, while the colonies were engaged in the Revolutionary War, Mr. Jefferson drafted a piece of legislation which is printed in full below. It is "A Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom." It is not a long bill, only three sections, the first being a preamble stating the intent of the legislation, the second being the act, and the third being an admonition against corrupting it. If you have never read this bill, please do so. If you have read it before, please read it again; works like this come rarely to the human history.

While the Founding Fathers were willing to "mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor," when signing the Declaration of Independence, they were not willing to subscribe to so radical a bill as Jefferson's act on religious freedom. The bill sat in the Virginia legislature until the mid 1780's when Jefferson was our minister to France. When he learned of its passage, he was ecstatic and had printed at his own expense, several copies of the bill which he liberally distributed throughout Europe.

Why was this short bill so important in Jefferson's mind? Any who know the history of the Spanish Inquisitions need not ponder long. In the name of Christianity, those who refused to accept Jesus as their Savior were killed. Imagine what Jesus would have to say about those "trials and sentences." Jesus was opposed to stoning a prostitute caught in the act and he defended her, showing his contempt for earthly justice. Jesus knew that his followers would be persecuted. Would he want to have earthly punishments inflicted upon people who did not follow Him? If he would, then this writer is so sadly mistaken and ignorant about Jesus and the Father that you are free to disregard all that I have ever written. Persecution was not limited to Christians; history is replete with examples. Followers of Mani were killed for their beliefs. So have been followers of Horus, Mithras, Plato, Krishna, Confucius, Buddha, Mohammed, and Moses &c.

When inquisitions occur, and the religion of the party in power doesn't mesh with the person being questioned, that person has but a few choices: to stand on principle and die, to convert under duress, or to lie and deceive. Jefferson wanted nobody, whether Christian, Jew, Hindu or atheist to be put to this kind of option again, and he was a student of history, so he knew that such tests would soon arise under any government if left to its own devices of acquiring power and control over its subjects. In drafting this bill, Jefferson sought for all time to declare that a person's belief in God, or the lack of such a belief was as irrelevant to a government as whether the person believed in the Pythagorean theorem that the sum of the squares of the two sides of a right triangle are equal to the square of the hypotenuse.

Jefferson left us much to be thankful for, but sometimes his greatest accomplishment is overlooked. He knew full well the horrible tyranny that could be wrought by a religious monopoly, and he sought to free us from it for all time, proclaiming that the right to believe is a natural right. Centuries of shackles were symbolically cast aside with this single bill, so that today, even though the government has corrupted the original bill's effect, just as it has corrupted the Declaration of Independence and the University of Virginia, we are still free to worship as we choose, whether on Saturday, Sunday, Wednesday or no day.

Jefferson symbolically freed the body with the Declaration of Independence, the mind with the University of Virginia, and the soul with the bill on religious freedom. It is up to all of us as lovers of liberty to carry these symbols as torches, holding them high above our heads and declaring openly to any who seek to imprison either our bodies, our minds or our souls, that we are subject to no powers that our puny rulers on earth can invent, contrive or conspire with; that we are free.

(c) Steffan M. Bertsch 1998

A Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom

SECTION I. Well aware that the opinions and belief of men depend not on their own will, but follow involuntarily the evidence proposed to their minds; that Almighty God hath created the mind free, and manifested his supreme will that free it shall remain by making it altogether insusceptible of restraint; that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments, or burthens, or by civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and are a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, who being lord both of body and mind, yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as was in his Almighty power to do, but to extend it by its influence on reason alone; that the impious presumption of legislators and rulers, civil as well as ecclesiastical, who, being themselves but fallible and uninspired men, have assumed dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible, and as such endeavoring to impose them on others, hath established and maintained false religions over the greatest part of the world and through all time: That to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors, is sinful and tyrannical; that even the forcing him to support this or that teacher of his own religious persuasion, is depriving him of the comfortable liberty of giving his contributions to the particular pastor whose morals he would make his pattern, and whose powers he feels most persuasive to righteousness; and is withdrawing from the ministry those temporary rewards, which proceeding from an approbation of their personal conduct, are an additional incitement to earnest and unremitting labours for the instruction of mankind; that our civil rights have no dependance on our religious opinions, any more than our opinions in physics or geometry; that therefore the proscribing any citizen as unworthy the public confidence by laying upon him an incapacity of being called to offices of trust and emolument, unless he profess or renounce this or that religious opinion, is depriving him injuriously of those privileges and advantages to which, in common with his fellow citizens, he has a natural right; that it tends also to corrupt the principles of that very religion it is meant to encourage, by bribing, with a monopoly of worldly honours and emoluments, those who will externally profess and conform to it; that though indeed these are criminal who do not withstand such temptation, yet neither are those innocent who lay the bait in their way; that the opinions of men are not the object of civil government, nor under its jurisdiction; that to suffer the civil magistrate to intrude his powers into the field of opinion and to restrain the profession or propagation of principles on supposition of their ill tendency is a dangerous fallacy, which at once destroys all religious liberty, because he being of course judge of that tendency will make his opinions the rule of judgment, and approve or condemn the sentiments of others only as they shall square with or differ from his own; that it is time enough for the rightful purposes of civil government for its officers to interfere when principles break out into overt acts against peace and good order; and finally, that truth is great and will prevail if left to herself; that she is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error, and has nothing to fear from the conflict unless by human interposition disarmed of her natural weapons, free argument and debate; errors ceasing to be dangerous when it is permitted freely to contradict them.

SECTION II. WE the General Assembly of Virginia do enact that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened 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 opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.

SECTION III. AND though we well know that this Assembly, elected by the people for the ordinary purposes of legislation only, have no power to restrain the acts of succeeding Assemblies, constituted with powers equal to our own, and that therefore to declare this act irrevocable would be of no effect in law; yet we are free to declare, and do declare, that the rights hereby asserted are the natural rights of mankind, and that if any act shall be hereafter passed to repeal the present or to narrow its operation, such act will be an infringement of natural right.

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29 June, 1998