By Andrew L. Seidel
As Frederick Clarkson noted on RD earlier this week, every January 16 we celebrate Religious Freedom Day. On this day 234 years ago, the Virginia Assembly passed the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, setting in motion what, according to Clarkson, “may be the most revolutionary and liberatory idea in the history of civilization.”
America’s unique contribution to political science is the separation of state and church. We invented it and it’s the only guarantee for true religious liberty. The “wall of separation” that Thomas Jefferson famously wrote of—a metaphor that the Supreme Court first adopted nearly 150 years ago—is an American original. The idea was born in the Enlightenment, but it was first implemented in the American Experiment. This is not just an improvement on political science, but one of our country’s unique contributions to humanity.
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Gary Wills put it nicely in his 1990 book, Under God: Religion and American Politics. The separation of state and church:
“more than anything else, made the United States a new thing on earth… . Everything else in our Constitution—separation of powers, balanced government, bicameralism, federalism—had been anticipated both in theory and practice. . . . But we invented nothing, except disestablishment. No other government in history had launched itself without the help of officially recognized gods and their state-connected ministers.”
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