Thursday, January 16, 2020

Ed Emery: The freedom to believe

(From Sen. Ed Emery, R-Lamar)

“Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever.” – Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson, America’s third president, author of the Declaration of Independence and the man responsible for the largest single expansion of the American landscape is buried at his home in Virginia.

His original tombstone, however, sits on the campus of the University of Missouri in Columbia – the marker that stands at Jefferson’s Monticello estate is a replica. Thousands of students pass the stone obelisk near the historic columns of the MU Quadrangle every week, but few realize its significance or bother to read the words inscribed on its face.

It’s a shame the marker doesn’t garner more attention, for it is a remarkable reminder of our nation’s history and ideals. Jefferson designed the monument himself and left strict instructions regarding his epitaph. 

This man of endless accomplishment wanted to be remembered for just three things: his role in founding the University of Virginia, his authorship of the Declaration of Independence and one other document, the “Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom.”

Since 1993, Americans have set aside Jan. 16 as National Religious Freedom Day, in honor of Jefferson’s seminal defense of religious freedom. First drafted in 1777 and ratified by the Virginia legislature on Jan. 16, 1786, the document ended the era of the Church of England as the sole sanctioned faith in Virginia and declared that all men were “free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion.” 

This document is the precursor to the Bill of Rights’ establishment clause: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . . ”

Taken in total, Jefferson’s views on religion are complex, but one thing is clear. Jefferson considered faith an essential element of liberty and the American experience. 

His writings often refer to a higher power and a greater moral authority that guides our lives. He described the practice of faith as a natural right of mankind. 

The Declaration of Independence leaves no doubt as to the importance Jefferson placed on faith: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.” Jefferson could not have been more direct if he had instead written, “In the beginning, God . . . ”

National Religious Freedom Day offers a powerful reminder of the role of faith in our lives, both public and private. On this day, we honor the inseparability of faith and liberty. When you unravel the thread of faith in America, you unravel the fabric of freedom. Can any of us honestly look at the decline of civility in our nation during the past few decades and not see a nation that has lost touch with faith?

In writing the statute that inspired National Religious Freedom Day, Jefferson was not arguing for the removal of religion from public life or for mandating its practice, but rather that man could and should follow his own conscience. 

We pause on this day not to say people should believe as we believe, but rather that religion and faith are essential to a free and civilized society. Jefferson may not have warmed the church pew often, but history confirms he firmly believed we should be guided by a moral compass.

Social scientists tell us that Americans are increasingly disconnected from faith. With each passing year, greater numbers of people describe themselves as non-believers, or at least unaffiliated with any religion. And what is the result? 

It is a coarser society – one in which civility and decency have been supplanted by increasing hatred and animosity. There is a direct correlation between the loss of faith in America and the increased strife and hatred we observe.

Hatred is freedom’s worst enemy, but faith inspires civility and reduces animosity. I believe our society today is ever-more intolerant of faith and religion. Those of us who believe faith is the answer to society’s ills must confront this challenge head on. We do so the same way we live – by holding onto our faith, and sharing it when we can.

Jan. 16 has been set aside as National Religious Freedom Day to celebrate the faith foundation to the character of our nation. Let’s take this day to ensure that faith, God, prayer, the Bible and its teachings continue to shape America’s future, promote freedom and reduce the animosity, hatred and incivility that is far too common today. Pray for our leaders, and for the healing of our nation.

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