Editorial: Rasoul Reminds Virginia of Founders' Legacy on Religious Freedom - Sam Rasoul
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Editorial: Rasoul Reminds Virginia of Founders’ Legacy on Religious Freedom

Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, rose this week in the House of Delegates to deliver some remarks on, well, current events.

When the only Muslim member of the Virginia General Assembly rises to speak about President Trump’s executive orders on refugees, you might think you know what’s coming.

You’d be wrong.

Instead of excoriating Trump’s ban on refugees and his travel ban on people from certain countries, Rasoul delivered a remarkable history lesson, one that too many people today are unaware of. Rasoul chose to speak about a time when Virginians persecuted members of what was then considered a dangerous religious sect.

We’re talking about Baptists.

Here’s where our gauzy memories of American history collide with the actual facts of American history. We like to think our country was founded on the basis of religious freedom. And it was — if you take as your starting point the U.S. Constitution which enshrined freedom of religion in its Bill of Rights. However, getting to that point was not easy, and among those who suffered most were Baptists.

In colonial Virginia, the Church of England was the official church — meaning it was supported by tax dollars. No separation of church and state in those days. Other faiths were simply banned. Quakers were singled out for the death penalty.

The first trouble came when Scots-Irish began settling in large numbers west of the Blue Ridge in the 1700s. They tended to be Presbyterians, dissenters from the official church. In 1738, the colonial governor — William Gooch — bowed to the new demographic reality, and granted to the Presbyterians the freedom of worship. The Scots-Irish were considered a good buffer out on the frontier. Baptists, though, were a different matter. They were considered far too radical to be part of the mainstream — primarily because they practiced adult baptism, and not infant baptism. Virginia authorities considered withholding infant baptism to be a form of child abuse.

Baptist ministers also refused to apply for licenses to allow them to preach. They believed their commission to preach the word came from God, not from the government, and so made a point of not applying for licenses.

Virginia responded by arresting Baptist ministers and throwing them in jail. Baptist ministers were not simply jailed; they were tormented and physically abused. Rasoul quoted from the biography “Becoming Madison,” which described how the imprisoned pastors were treated: “They were now crying for food through the cold bars of their jail. Their captors threw them only dry crusts of rye bread to eat. One Anglican tormentor even stood on a stool and urinated through the bars into their jail cell.”

That was hardly an isolated incident. The book “Imprisoned Preachers and Religious Liberty in Virginia” includes a county-by-county list of Baptist ministers who were persecuted or prosecuted or sometimes both. Here’s a small sampling:

  • Elijah Baker of Accomac County: “Pelted with apples and stones.”
  • John Corbley of Culpeper County: “Frequently taken from pulpit, beaten.”
  • David Barrow of Nansemond County (now Suffolk): “Nearly drowned by 20 men.”
  • John Waller preached in Caroline County where he was “jerked off stage — head beaten against the ground,” and “whipped severely by the sheriff.” In Hanover County, he was “hauled about by the hair of his head.”
  • James Ireland of Culpeper County suffered even more abuse: “Tried to suffocate him with smoke. Tried to blow him up with gunpowder. Tried to poison him; injured for life. Men made their water in his face.”

Today, we’d likely call an attempt to murder the cleric of a minority faith an act of terrorism. In colonial Virginia, it was shockingly routine.

As late as 1770 — just six years before the Declaration of Independence — the Virginia House of Burgesses voted down a bill to grant freedom of religion to the Baptists.

It eventually took Thomas Jefferson and James Madison to change that, and even then granting religious freedom to minority faiths was a controversial move. In 1786 — a full decade after the declaration — Virginia finally enacted Jefferson’s Statute for Religious Freedom. Jefferson considered the measure so monumental that he asked that his authorship of it be inscribed on his tombstone instead of a reference to his presidency. The statute served as the foundation for the First Amendment to the Constitution, which specifically bans an official church.

This was the history that Rasoul turned to in his speech to fellow delegates: “This body, the House of Delegates, Jefferson’s House, may be unlike any other body in the world. [It] has a rich history in our DNA. Our predecessors are the founding founders of American religious history. Madison agreed with Jefferson that a republic without religious freedom was impossible. This liberty is a core Virginian value.”

Which, of course, brings us back to the present. People of good faith may disagree about the terms and conditions under which we allow people into the country. However, anything that smacks of a religious test runs directly counter to the values that Jefferson and Madison dedicated their lives to. That was the point Rasoul was trying to make on the House floor, and it’s a point worthy of deeper discussion. We should always be careful of calling something “un-American” because America has always been a country of great diversity. However, since our founders very specifically stood for religious freedom, it seems fair to say that any form of discrimination on the basis of religion is at odds with core American values. It is, in fact, un-American.

“The politics of hysteria and division are a distraction from what we should be focusing on,” Rasoul said on the House floor. “We must determine what we want to leave as a legacy for our grandchildren. All sides shouldn’t just defend Muslims, women, refugees, Latinos — we must defend our core American values. The nuance here is subtle, but when we rally around those core Virginia values, then we are truly honoring the legacy of our founding fathers.”

It’s an unusual day when the Muslim son of Palestinian immigrants calls upon all of us to remember the history of America’s founding and honor the values of Jefferson and Madison. But also a glorious one.

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