Van Ens: Roy Moore refuses to protect and preserve Jeffersonian religious liberties (column)
Thomas Jefferson espoused personal liberties in his Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom (1786). In his bid for the U.S. Senate, Alabama Republican Roy Moore regards evangelical Christians as exclusive recipients of these religious liberties that Jefferson protected and preserved.
Jefferson believed God bestows religious freedoms on all people. In contrast, Moore fires up his white evangelical base by asserting that God favors Christians, especially the evangelical majority in Alabama who make up 42 percent of this state’s population.
Jefferson separated church and state. He believed mixing them corrupted both. In contrast, Moore favors church and state impinging on each other, so that Christianity remains Alabama’s dominant religion.
Working as a Virginia legislator in the mid-1770s, Jefferson removed out-of-date laws favoring the Anglican church. During this judicial housecleaning, he wrote a new bill that separated church from state.
Baptists and Presbyterians were persecuted in Virginia because the Church of England clergy held power over these religious traditions. Jefferson joined with evangelical Christians to rewrite church governance that leveled the playing field for Baptists and Presbyterians. He met formidable resistance to this plan. The “Roy Moore” colonial power brokers opposing Jefferson wanted the Anglican church to keep top rank.
Aided by James Madison, who moved legislation through several legislative roadblocks, Jefferson finally achieved his goal in 1786. The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom was passed that guaranteed separation of church and state.
Jefferson wanted every religion to have a chance to flourish in Virginia. He declared the new law for religious freedom was “meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Greek, the Christian and Mahometan (Muslim), the Hindoo (Hindu) and infidel of every denomination” (Thomas Jefferson, Writings, ed. Merrill D. Peterson, Library of America, p. 34).
Judging Moore by his past judicial record, he wants evangelical Christians to hold on to their political and religious power in Alabama. This prompts his voters to reject reports Moore in his 30s acted like a predator toward teenage girls. He denies these accusations.
In 2003, Moore was removed from the Alabama Supreme Court the first of two times. Then he concocted a silly defense for erecting a granite block inscribed with the Ten Commandments in the rotunda of the Judicial Building in Montgomery, Alabama. Moore justified this pro-Christianity bias, arguing the only religious people our nation’s Founders knew were Christians. According to Moore’s convoluted logic, the First Amendment in Jefferson’s day granted the right of free religious exercise only to Christians.
Moore’s bias is anti-Jeffersonian and historically inaccurate. The First Amendment did not guarantee religious freedom only for Christians in the colonial era. Nor were the founders only aware of Christians. Jefferson owned a copy of the Quran in his Monticello Library. The 1797 Treaty of Tripoli, signed during President John Adams’ administration with North African Muslim nations, declared, “The United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.”
Alabama’s white evangelical Christians form the largest voting bloc for Moore. They face, however, a formidable opponent: Thomas Jefferson.
On his tombstone, Jefferson wanted to be remembered for three accomplishments that insured political freedom, religious liberty and public education. Before dying, Jefferson composed an epitaph inscribed on his gravestone: “Here was buried Thomas Jefferson: author of the Declaration of Independence; of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom; and father of the University of Virginia.”
Using U.S. colonial history as his guide, Moore needs to learn to preserve and protect liberties for people of all faiths and no faith.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.
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