This year, October 31 marks the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s posting of 95 objections to the Roman Catholic Church on a church door in Germany. As a civics lesson, students of all faiths and no faith should understand the freedom of religion they enjoy because of what Luther started.
Understanding the benefits of America’s religious heritage to our civic life is important. Part of the American value system, rooted in Christian thinking, is that people not only have the freedom to hold to their religious beliefs, but to live by them and express them publicly, as well.
In 1517, Luther had no intention of leaving the Catholic Church. But, holding fast to his conviction against certain church practices and doctrines got him expelled.
At the time, governments in Europe enforced religious conformity for the Church. Luther wrote about why government authority should not be used to coerce belief. He argued, from Scripture, that each person is responsible only to God for his religious beliefs.
To make his case, he quoted Jesus’ statement in Matthew 10:28, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”
He then wrote:
“Surely that [Matt. 10:28] is clear enough: the soul is taken out of the hands of any human being whatsoever, and is placed exclusively under the power of God. Now tell me this: would anyone in his right mind give orders where he has no authority?…It is impossible and futile to command or coerce someone to believe this or that.”
Luther’s revolutionary thinking about religious freedom spread throughout Europe and came to America with the Pilgrims, the Puritans, and eventually, America’s Founders.
Thomas Jefferson echoed Luther’s thinking when he wrote the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. With the help of James Madison, it became law in 1786. Before this, Virginia taxed people to support churches.
Jefferson began the legislation with this theological assertion:
“Whereas Almighty God hath created the mind free; that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burthens [burdens], or by civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and are a departure from the plan of the Holy author of our religion, who being Lord both of body and mind, yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as it was in his Almighty power to do.”
After making his argument for freedom of religion, Jefferson’s legislation stated:
“Be it enacted by the General Assembly, That no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever…nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.” (Emphasis added)
CONNECTION TO THE BILL OF RIGHTS
The Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom was an important influence on the drafters of the First Amendment three years later:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”
IN THE NEWS RECENTLY
As an example of how relevant Luther’s and Jefferson’s words are for today, we should all be concerned about religious tests expressed in Senate hearings this year (no matter what our political leanings are). (Here, and Here)
Every student in America needs to understand the Christian roots of the freedom of religious expression they might take for granted. Students will not seek to preserve what they do not cherish, and they will not cherish what they do not understand. October 31 – Reformation Day – is an excellent opportunity to teach a civics lesson about the connection between Martin Luther, religious freedom, the Bill of Rights, and their everyday lives.
Video – Martin Luther Sparks a Revolution (best viewed with Google Chrome)