Shine On: The Gift of Freedom
Before Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit musical, Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson’s place in the minds of many Americans was simple: founding father, third President, sculpted into Mount Rushmore. After Hamilton… well, let’s just say he’s probably now known more for his flamboyant portrayal.
I want to shine a light on one of Jefferson’s lesser-emphasized historical achievements: his protection and advocacy for American religious freedom.
Before his death, Jefferson left explicit instructions regarding any memorial or monument that should be erected over his grave site. It was to be a simple obelisk and, “on the faces of the Obelisk the following inscription, & not a word more: 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. Because by these as testimonials that I have lived, I wish most to be remembered.”
Jefferson wrote the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom shortly after the American colonies declared independence from Great Britain. It served as a critical influence in the development of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, and was even cited in the first Supreme Court case concerning religious freedom, which adopted the definition of religious freedom as suggested in the Statute.
Suffice it to say, Jefferson felt strongly about religious freedom and had more than a small hand in securing it for our nation. And here is where it gets really interesting: Thomas Jefferson wasn’t very religious.
In today’s parlance, Jefferson would be called “spiritual but not religious.” He wasn’t an atheist or even agnostic, and he certainly had Christian influences, but he never subscribed to organized religion. To him, a person couldn’t reasonably look at the natural world and believe there wasn’t a God. It was a matter of reason and nature to Jefferson.
Why, then, would someone who was opposed to organized religion fight so vehemently for religious freedom? Why would it be something by which he wished to be remembered?
Perhaps the answer is in his document, the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom: “Almighty God hath created the mind free, and manifested his supreme will that free it shall remain.”
Freedom. Not only religious freedom but freedom itself is a gift of God.
Under Article 3 titled, “Man’s Freedom,” paragraph 1730 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “God created man a rational being, conferring on him the dignity of a person who can initiate and control his own actions.”
It would seem Jefferson and the Catholic Church agree: God created us to be free.
And yet, so often, we give up our freedom. We sin. We fail to do good and choose to do evil. We deny life and embrace death. In the words of St. Paul to the Romans, “for I do not do the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want.” (Romans 7:19.)
Perhaps we should ask ourselves, “What is the evil I do that I do not want?” Perhaps it is time to shine a light on the darkness that takes away our freedom, and bring it into the light.
Freedom is a gift that allows us to be in relationship with God. So the next time you pray, say a quick prayer for Thomas Jefferson, and thank God for freedom!