In the heat of our political moment, we sometimes don’t see how our future connects deeply to our past. But the Christian Right does — and they do not like what they see. The Christian Right has made religious freedom the ideological phalanx of its current campaigns in the culture wars. Religious freedom is now invoked as a way of seeking to derail access to reproductive health services as well as equality for LGBTQ people. But history provides little comfort for the theocratic visions of the Christian Right.
The first national Day of the New Year will be one that most of us have never heard of. Authorized by Congress in 1992, Religious Freedom Day has been recognized every January 16th by an annual presidential proclamation commemorating the enactment of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom in 1786.
This seemingly obscure piece of Revolutionary-era legislation is so integral to our history that Thomas Jefferson asked that his tombstone recognize that he was the author of the bill, along with the Declaration of Independence and the founding of the University of Virginia as one of the three things for which he wished to be remembered.
It is worth taking a moment to understand why Jefferson thought it was that important.
Jefferson drafted the bill in 1777 but it took a decade to be finally pushed by the then-member of the House of Delegates, James Madison. It is regarded as the root of how the framers of the Constitution approached matters of religion and government, and it was as revolutionary as the era in which it was written. The bill not only disestablished the Anglican Church as the official state church, but it provided that no one can be compelled to attend any religious institution or to underwrite it with taxes; that individuals are free to believe as they will and that this “shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.” As the founding documents were developed it became ever clearer that the right to believe differently from the rich and the powerful is a prerequisite for free speech and a free press – and that this is what religious freedom is all about.
Following the dramatic passage of the Statute in 1786, Madison traveled to Philadelphia, where he served as a principal author of the Constitution in 1787. As a Member of Congress in 1789 he was also a principal author of the First Amendment, which passed in 1791.
Jefferson knew that many did not like the Statute, just as they did not like the Constitution and the First Amendment, both of which sought to expand the rights of citizens and deflect claims of churches seeking special consideration. So before his death, Jefferson sought to get the last word on what it meant.
The Statute, he wrote, contained “within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mohametan, the Hindoo and Infidel of every denomination.” So with this clear and powerful statement Jefferson, almost 200 years ago, refutes the contemporary claims of Christian Right leaders, many of whom insist that the U.S. was not only founded as a Christian nation, but according to their understanding of Christianity. Jefferson further explained that the legislature had rejected proposed language that would have described “Jesus Christ” as “the holy author of our religion.” This was rejected, he reported, “by the great majority.”
The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom does not fit the Christian Right’s narrative of history. Nor does it justify their vision of the struggles of the political present, or the shining theocratic future they envision. Indeed, Religious Freedom Day has got to be a dark day for the likes of Tony Perkins, who argues that Christians who favor marriage equality are not really Christians. That is probably why on Religious Freedom Day 2014, Perkins made no mention of what it is really about — and instead used the occasion to denounce president Obama’s approach to religious liberty abroad.
Religious Freedom Day provides an opportunity for us to think dynamically about the meaning of religious freedom in our time – even as the Christian Right seeks to redefine it beyond recognition. The web site that comes up first in a Google search for Religious Freedom Day adds to the misinformation. The group behind ReligiousFreedomDay.com is a small evangelical Christian Right agency called Gateways to Better Education that treats the Day as an opportunity to evangelize. They insist that “Religious Freedom Day is not ‘celebrate-our-diversity day.’” Gateways is part of a wider movement with a long history of efforts to hijack, or compromise, public schools in order to evangelize children. (This is detailed in a book by Katherine Stewart, The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children.)
Nevertheless, in his 2015 proclamation, President Obama declared that religious freedom “protects the right of every person to practice their faith how they choose, to change their faith, or to practice no faith at all, and to do so free from persecution and fear.”
That’s why it was so significant that in 2015, progressives took a big, bold step to reclaim this progressive legacy of the revolutionary, founding era. The 60 organizational members of the Coalition for Liberty and Justice (including PRA) decided to seize the day. We took to the op-ed pages and social media and launched the conversation that has continued to this day.
More than two dozen organizational members of the Coalition contributed op-eds, blog posts, and a storm of posts on Facebook and Twitter. The Coalition’s “Twitter Storm” reached some 590,000 Twitter accounts and more than six million impressions. In two hours on January 16th alone, there were more than 1,500 tweets and 552 individual contributors. Among the Coalition members that participated were Americans United for Separation of Church and State, National LGBTQ Taskforce, Secular Coalition for America, and the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. Bloggers at Daily Kos contributed a wide variety of thoughts about religious freedom and the Day. The Center for American Progress suggested three ways to celebrate.
The executive director of the Joint Baptist Committee on Public Affairs, J. Brent Walker, took to The Huffington Post to discuss how “Jefferson’s radical Virginia statute created a vital marketplace for religion that must be based on voluntary belief, not government assistance.”
It is, he said, up to religious communities to persuade others of their views, and to “count on government to do no more than to protect our right to do so.”
It would be an understatement to say that the outpouring was broad, diverse, and enthusiastic.
Let’s do it again in 2016.