The Founders of the United States were religious people. Our second President John Adams, a Unitarian, epitomized a sound partnership between State and Church. He wrote, “… it is Religion and Morality alone, which can establish the Principles upon which Freedom can securely stand.” Adams experienced in his time a movement similar to what we face today — radical fundamentalists bullying their way into office and forcing their particular brand of religion on others. To this movement, Adams said,
“We have now, it seems a National Bible Society, to propagate King James’s Bible through all nations. Would it not be better to apply these pious subscriptions to purify Christendom from the corruptions of Christianity … I see in every Page, something to recommend Christianity in its Purity and something to discredit its corruptions … The Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount contain my Religion.”
Critical to understanding Adams, however, was his view Christianity was not the only viable religion. Adams was well read and had enormous respect for Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and other world religions. Adams even supported nonbelievers, when he said that “Government has no right to hurt a hair on the head of an atheist for his opinions.” What Adams could not abide was the pompous priesthood of organized churches that stifled free inquiry. He wrote to Thomas Jefferson of his disgust with the use of the Cross as a tool for war, torture and oppression. “… knavish priests have added prostitutions of it, that fill the blackest and bloodiest pages of human history.”
“Almighty God hath created the mind free, and manifested his supreme will that free it shall remain by making it altogether insusceptible of restraint; that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments, or burthens, or by civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness … that the impious presumption of legislature and ruler, civil as well as ecclesiastical, who, being themselves but fallible and uninspired men, have assumed dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible, and as such endeavoring to impose them on others, hath established and maintained false religions over the greatest part of the world and through all time … that our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions, any more than our opinions in physics or geometry.”
What basis would Adams and Jefferson have relied upon to ensure religious freedom? In a letter to his young nephew, Jefferson recommended reading the sacred texts of religions and using his own powers of reason as guide.
“Do not be frightened from this inquiry by any fear of its consequences. If it ends in a belief that there is no god, you will find incitements to virtue in the comfort and pleasantness you feel in its exercise, and the love of others which it will procure you. If you find reason to believe there is a God, a consciousness that you are acting under his eye, and that he approves you, will be a vast additional incitement; if that there be a future state, the hope of a happy existence in that increases the appetite to deserve it; if that Jesus was also a god, you will be comforted by a belief of his aid and love.”
Adams agreed, saying that “The only foundation of a free Constitution is pure Virtue.” The incitement to virtue is the true path to religious freedom. Loving your neighbor, helping the needy, freeing the oppressed. Religious freedom is not about your right to do as you please. Religious freedom is not about imposing your beliefs on others you have committed yourself to serve. Religious freedom is about inciting the virtue in every person to love all people and to respect all their glorious diversity.