If you’ve ever toured Monticello, then you know that Thomas Jefferson had very strong opinions of what his legacy should be. He wanted to be remembered as the man who wrote the Declaration of Independence and as the “father” of the University of Virginia. Both are inscribed on his tombstone, along with his second proudest achievement — authoring the Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom.
That might surprise Americans today, who think the only person who wanted to build a wall more than Donald Trump was Thomas Jefferson. They argue (wrongly) that the Virginian’s goal was to fence off the country’s churches from its state. That may be the goal of liberals now, but it’s a complete misunderstanding of history then. Remember, in Jefferson’s day, the concern wasn’t that religion would overshadow the government — but that government would overshadow the faith.
The reality for men and women before the Revolution, Amy Vitale points out, was a far cry from society today. “The United States was born into a world where the church and state were indelibly intertwined. In England, the [monarchy] was — and still is, as any fan of Netflix’s ‘The Crown’ can tell you — both the head of the government and the head of the church.” Historically, she goes on, “anyone willing to stand between God and the king risked paying a high price for doing so. Thomas Becket, for whom Becket Law where I work is named, was murdered by the king’s knights on the steps of Canterbury Cathedral on behalf of a king wearisome that his political operative-turned-priest would dare to serve God before his king.”
Jefferson was fiercely opposed to a government that would dictate what Americans believe – or punish those who refused to conform. Determined to give his new country the freedom England would not, he wrote the measure we still celebrate 232 years later: the Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom. At the time, it was such a clear and concise defense of liberty that the men who drafted our Constitution relied on it for the framework of the First Amendment.
Now, a full two centuries later, the fears of the framers are suddenly relevant again. Under Barack Obama, Jefferson would have barely recognized his country. Sure, Donald Trump’s predecessor would issue statements on Religious Freedom Day, but the difference is that Obama’s policies didn’t match his proclamations. Instead, he moved to crack down on the expression of faith through health care mandates, bathroom orders, government contracts, marriage lawsuits, and military policy. Now, thanks to a frustrated electorate, Americans have a president with an appreciation for this core value — not just in words, but actions. After two long terms, we finally have a White House determined to make our First Freedom a priority here and abroad.
In the first Religious Freedom Day proclamation of his presidency, President Trump makes a point of distinguishing himself from the past administration. He harkens back to the dark days of President Obama — a hostile chapter many liberals are all too eager to continue.
“Our Constitution and laws guarantee Americans the right not just to believe as they see fit, but to freely exercise their religion. Unfortunately, not all have recognized the importance of religious freedom, whether by threatening tax consequences for particular forms of religious speech, or forcing people to comply with laws that violate their core religious beliefs without sufficient justification. These incursions, little by little, can destroy the fundamental freedom underlying our democracy.
Therefore, soon after taking office, I addressed these issues in an Executive Order that helps ensure Americans are able to follow their consciences without undue Government interference and the Department of Justice has issued guidance to Federal agencies regarding their compliance with laws that protect religious freedom. No American — whether a nun, nurse, baker, or business owner — should be forced to choose between the tenets of faith or adherence to the law.”
“The free exercise of religion is a source of personal and national stability, and its preservation is essential to protecting human dignity.”
Today, we don’t just celebrate the heroes who lit this torch — we applaud the leaders committed to keeping it going. Senators like Steve Daines (R-Mont.) have fought to keep religious liberty front and center, even under Obama. But for the last 12 months, that courage has started at the top. Maybe that’s why Republicans are more satisfied with America’s direction now that they’ve been in 10 years. For once, we have an administration that understands the fragility of the freedoms entrusted to us – and is doing everything in it’s power to protect them.