234 Years Later, No One's Doubting Thomas
Editor’s note: These pieces were originally penned on January 16.
“…By these, as testimonials that I have lived, I wish most to be remembered.” —Thomas Jefferson
He was a president — a man who doubled the size of our country, abolished the international slave trade, even developed the plans for West Point. When the Library of Congress was demolished in the War of 1812, he single-handedly restocked it. He invented the polygraph, swivel chairs, the dumbwaiter, message encoders, a form of the pedometer, even the macaroni noodle. He was America’s first secretary of state, its father of intellectual property rights. But as impressive as those accomplishments are, they weren’t what mattered to him. When Thomas Jefferson died, not one of these things appeared on his tombstone.
“On the faces of the Obelisk the following inscription, & not a word more,” Jefferson instructed. His legacy, he decided, would be three things: the Declaration of Independence, his founding the University of Virginia, and a local law that would become the foundation for our First Amendment — the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom. When visitors walk the garden path to his gravesite at Monticello, they realize that Jefferson — whose face is on Mount Rushmore, the two-dollar bill, and carved into a giant marble likeness under the Tidal Pool dome — was most proud, not of leading his infant country, but of his contributions to liberty.
When the memorial was made, Jefferson wanted it to be of “course stone… that no one might be tempted to destroy it…” To be fair, no one wanted to harm it, but shortly after it was put in place, people couldn’t help themselves. Little by little, the granite was chipped away. Grateful Americans were breaking off tiny pieces of the stone — not because it was worth anything, but because they wanted something to remember the president by.
Jefferson’s legacy, it turns out, was not so easy to whittle away. A full 234 years after the 43-year-old Thomas dipped his pen in ink and wrote the words that separate America from the world, we still live by them. “Almighty God,” the eventual president wrote, “hath created the mind free… [A]ll attempts to influence it by temporal punishment or burthens, 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 was his Almighty power to do.”
The statute wasn’t taken seriously at first. It took a whole 10 years for Jefferson’s revolutionary idea to even pass the general assembly. By then, he wasn’t even there — he was in Paris, serving as a U.S. minister. But, as historians point out, he “watched anxiously” from afar, as James Madison championed the bill through its decade-long journey. When it finally passed, Jefferson was so convinced of its significance that he had it translated into French and Italian and “distributed as widely as possible.”
Asked later why he was so passionate about it, Jefferson said his Virginia statute “is a true standard of Religious liberty: its principle the great barrier against usurpations on the rights of conscience. As long as it is respected & no longer, these will be safe.” While the story of America was still being written, he was determined to give his new country the freedom England would not. And that determination led to one of his greatest inventions: a way for every American — believing and unbelieving — to live an authentic life.
He understood then that without religious liberty, there is no freedom. Maybe that’s why, despite all of his other accomplishments, the words that inspired the First Amendment are what he’s most proud of. More than two centuries later, they’re still stirring countries to fight for the liberties that set America apart. And while he didn’t live to see how the Founders’ experiment turned out, Jefferson would be gratified to know that in a world where three out of every four people live in places hostile to faith, America is still one of the brightest lights on freedom’s shore.
Today, on the anniversary of the signing that made that possible, we celebrate that — and the men and women of courage who keep the torch burning.
For more on Religious Freedom Day, check out David Closson’s new piece in Townhall, “Religious Freedom Still Deserves Our Respect.”
Originally published here.
Trump: Fixing the Schools’ Prayer Conditioning
“Y'all don’t do that again.” Eighth grader Hannah Frost looked up in surprise. It was her Honey Grove Middle School principal, Mr. Frost, walking toward the table where she and a few classmates were standing. One of their friends had been in a car crash, and they’d gone to an empty corner of the lunchroom to pray. If they wanted to keep this up, he told them the next day, they’d better move behind a curtain, meet alone outside, or hide out in the gym. Hannah was stunned. Since when did it become a problem to pray together, she wondered? Since never, attorneys said.
“The right to pray is constitutionally protected activity,” First Liberty Institute fired back. By exiling Hannah and the other students, the group insisted to the school, Principal Frost was sending a message that prayer is “illegitimate, disfavored, and should not occur in public… Even Establishment Clause concerns cannot justify such treatment.” To its credit, Honey Grove came around — responding immediately that the middle schoolers could pray.
Hannah’s story had a happy ending, but not every one does. In a lot of districts, school officials are either ignorant about student speech or outright hostile to prayer, but in too many instances, kids have been taught that expressions of faith aren’t welcome. That changes today, President Trump insisted. To celebrate Religious Freedom Day, the administration is rolling out a new set of rules aimed at protecting kids like Honey Grove’s. “President Trump is committed to making sure that people of faith, particularly children, are not subjected to illegal punishment or pressure for exercising their constitutionally protected rights,” White House Domestic Policy Council Director Joe Grogan explained.
Believe it or not, this kind of federal guidance is supposed to be updated every couple of years — and yet, almost two decades have gone by, and no president has. So, this morning, for the first time since 2003, districts across America are about to get a lesson in students’ rights. And to ensure that schools are listening, local agencies will have to promise to abide by the law before they get a cent of federal funds.
For years, we’ve watched secularists pressure school administrators into telling students that they can’t pray, read their Bibles, or talk about their faith in class. Now, the tables are turned. For once, the onus isn’t on kids or districts to defend their freedoms — it’s on states to certify that they’re compliant and respectful of these basic rights. Thanks to President Trump, the government is finally standing up to schoolyard bullies who make a living trying to intimidate and silence students.
And the Trump administration didn’t stop there. In the push to put the “freedom” back in Religious Freedom Day, the president’s team released a string of announcements across the government agencies — rules that promote everything from the fair and equal treatment of faith-based groups to ending the discrimination of religious nonprofits in federal grants.
“From its opening pages,” the president insisted, “the story of America has been rooted in the truth that all men and women are endowed with the right to follow their conscience, worship freely, and live in accordance with their convictions. On Religious Freedom Day, we honor the foundational link between freedom and faith in our country and reaffirm our commitment to safeguarding the religious liberty of all Americans.”
Originally published here.
‘Even If I Die, I Have No Regrets’
Her name isn’t Hae Woo, but, like a lot of traumatized North Koreans, she doesn’t want to take any chances. “I’m a believer,” she says, “because of my husband — because of the things he told me and my children about Jesus. ‘You cannot see Him,’ he would say, ‘but He is alive and working.’” That became harder to believe when he was taken from them, locked away in a prison where he would die.
“The torture he went through was so gruesome that it is unimaginable," she says. Every single day, the guard would come and punish him for his faith, "with blood,” she explains quietly, “everywhere.” But “even in the midst of these horrible tortures, he had compassion for those who did not know about Jesus Christ,” Hea Woo remembers. “He went into the prison walking but after all the torture, he was dragged loose on the ground… Although his body was all torn apart, he handed the last pieces of rotten corn that he had to his prison-mates. He spread the gospel to the inmates. He prayed for the sick [and] as he continued the good work, God built an underground church in the prison through my husband.”
One of the last times her children saw him, she thinks back, “he wanted to pass on his faith, but there were guards everywhere. So, he did something simple and profound. He wrote three words on his hand: "Believe in Jesus.” Not long after, he was killed by prison guards for giving that same advice to others. “Even if I die…” he had told her, “I do not have any regrets…”
Today, a lifetime after Hae Woo was hauled into prison to experience the horrors for herself, very little has changed. “Every year,” David Curry of Open Doors USA told me on “Washington Watch,” “I keep hoping that we’ll have some signs that [the persecution of Christians] is receding. But all of the driving forces… that are oppressing the expression of faith — all of these things are still in place.” In North Korea, which is once again at the top of their 2020 World Watch List, nightmares like Hea Woo’s aren’t rare.
The Christian community is significant there, he explains, but they’re “deeply underground.” “There are many Christians,” he explains, but “they’re facing every kind of pressure you can imagine.” Tens of thousands of Christians are in labor camps — a nightmarish place that Hae Woo describes like Nazi-era holdovers. “Each person received one handful of rotten corn [and] there was nothing else to eat. We got something watery — it wasn’t even a soup. We got those as food for the whole year. Nothing else… People are obligated to work more than cows or animals.” Usually, they’re on the verge of death. They’ve been starved, beaten, and abused.
They’re there, David explains, for things Americans take for granted every day: owning a Bible, being a Christian, or talking about their faith. “The reality [is] to be registered as a Christian or to be thought of as a Christian, it means you are the number one enemy of the state.”
In the Middle East and Africa, places like Afghanistan (#2 on the list), Somalia (#3), and Libya (#4), the situation isn’t much better. The punishment for being a Christian is quick and decisive. “It’s not uncommon for believers to be beheaded. There’s no trial. There’s no kangaroo court [or] anything like that. This is where Islamic extremism really shows itself in that top 10 and even beyond so many of these countries… It may not be the government itself,” David pointed out, “but either the government is powerless or impotent to respond to these non-state actors within their boundaries.”
Here at home, where practicing our faith is second nature — something we never think twice about — it’s hard to imagine life of constant terror. If anything, that should drive us all to our knees — in gratitude, for one thing — but also for our brothers and sisters overseas. “Every year,” David wanted people to know, “there are silver linings. Faith is growing deeper in these places where people are being persecuted for serving Jesus. Communities are getting smaller but stronger. And I think it’s causing people to [reflect] on the cost to faith.”
When I asked him what people can do, miles away from the stories like Hae Woo’s, David’s answer was simple. “We need everybody praying. I would love to see people pray daily — even, at a minimum, weekly for the persecuted church. Adopt a country, a cause, a person. Let’s pray. Let’s talk. Let’s advocate for these individuals and make a big difference.”
Originally published here.
This is a publication of the Family Research Council. Mr. Perkins is president of FRC.