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Scholars praise Jefferson's Statute for Religious Freedom
Exploring the complex faith of the man who gave America religious freedom

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Date published: 1/22/2011


In 1779, Thomas Jefferson wrote a radical document calling for freedom of religion.

The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, drafted in Fredericksburg, introduced what was then a nov-el concept: separation of church and state.

The Rev. Martin Marty, a renowned Chicago-based church-history scholar, said the importance of that statute can't be overstated. He and Seyyed Hossein Nasr, a professor of Islamic studies at George Washington University, spoke about the statute last night at the University of Mary Washington.

The document paved the way for the First Amendment and for America's current religious diversity. But the faith behind the statute remains unknown. Thomas Jefferson has been called a deist, an atheist, a Unitarian and a Christian.

He owned a copy of the Quran and made his own version of the New Testament, taking out the miracles and divinity of Jesus.

And those texts--as well as the Hebrew Bible--could have influenced his statute.

Marty and Nasr spoke of the statute's possible religious influences. Several of Jefferson's points can be found in the three Abrahamic texts.

For instance, Jefferson speaks about the importance of reason, a theme that appears often in the Quran, Nasr said. He said the Islamic faith encompasses "a wide spectrum of theological positions" and often includes belief in the free will of man, another statute theme.

And Jefferson's central reason for separating church and state is that a faith forced on someone isn't a true faith, a concept that appears in both the Quran and the New Testament.

Both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament mention religious rights. But Marty said that until Jefferson's statute, most Christians really worried only about rights for people who shared their faith.

The novel concept of Jefferson's statute was that it extended religious freedom to all--Christians, Jews, Muslims and people without faith, Marty said.

And while the statute has changed the course of Islam in America, most Muslims don't study Jefferson's connections to the faith, Nasr said. America's third president didn't just own a Quran, he read the text and made notes. He wrote many letters that referenced Islamic beliefs.

"These have never really been fully investigated," Nasr said.

The scholars spoke at UMW as part of the school's annual celebration of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. Passed by Virginia's General Assembly in 1786, it was the first American document offering freedom of religion.

At the time, Virginia was an Anglican state and ministers of other faiths were often imprisoned simply for preaching. And the statute didn't just call for tolerance, Marty said.

"It's far more radical."

The statute declared that everyone could freely practice and profess his faith. And while the document introduced those freedoms, Americans still struggle with tolerance more than 200 years later, Marty said. He pointed out that most Americans would not vote for an atheist.

And both men referenced recent religious tensions, talking about "current events" and "Islamophobia."

Amy Flowers Umble: 540/735-1973
Email: aumble@freelancestar.com