Since the fourth of July is nearly here, I thought it would be good to find an appropriate quote from one of the founders on religious freedom. The religious right constantly repeats the specious claim that “America is a Christian nation.” This is simply not true.
Thomas Jefferson was not himself at the Constitutional Convention of 1787, but prior to that, he and James Madison were instrumental in the disestablishment of the Church of England in Virginia. The Virginia law on religious freedom had a great influence on the First Amendment to the Bill of Rights, which guarantees freedom of worship (or not to worship) while prohibiting the establishment of religion. Some might try to argue that freedom of religion meant freedom to choose from the various Christian sects, but did not extend to non-Christian religionists, and certainly not to atheists. But this claim is refuted by the following quote from Jefferson’s autobiography regarding the scope of the Virginia law guaranteeing religious freedom. He wrote:
“The bill for establishing religious freedom, the principles of which had, to a certain degree, been enacted before, I had drawn in all the latitudes of reason and right. It still met with opposition; but, with some mutilations in the preamble, it was finally passed; and a singular proposition proved that its protection of opinion was meant to be universal. Where the preamble declares, that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy auhtor of our religion, an amendment was proposed, by inserting the word “Jesus Christ,” so that it should read, “a departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion;” the insertion was rejected by a great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and the Mahometan, the Hindoo, and Infidel of every denomination.”
In other words, everybody has equal legitimacy, including atheists. This is not a Christian nation.