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, most prominently regarding marriage equality.
But history provides little comfort for the theocratic visions of the Christian Right. And that is where our story begins.
For all of the shouting about religious liberty — from the landmark Hobby Lobby Supreme Court case, to the passage of the anti-gay Religious Freedom Restoration Act in Mississippi, and more — there is barely any mention, let alone any observance, of the official national Religious Freedom Day, enacted by Congress in 1992 and recognized every January 16 by an annual presidential proclamation.
The day commemorates the enactment of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom in 1786.
Why is this seemingly obscure piece of Revolutionary-era legislation so vital? And why doesn’t the Christian Right want you to know anything about it?
The bill, authored by Thomas Jefferson and later pushed through the state legislature by then member of the House of Delegates, James Madison, 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.
It 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 a practical matter, this meant that what we believe or don’t believe is not the concern of government and that we are all equal as citizens.
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 was well aware 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.”
That is a powerful and clear statement. Jefferson, almost 200 years ago, refuted the contemporary claims of Christian Right leaders, many of whom not only insist that America was founded as a Christian nation, but that the framers really meant their particular interpretation of Christianity. (And they are sometimes encouraged by a surprisingly wide array of pundits.)
Jefferson further explained that the legislature had specifically 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.”
No wonder the Christian Right does not want us to remember the original Statute for Religious Freedom — it doesn’t fit their narrative of history! Nor does it justify their vision of the struggles of the political present, or the shining theocratic future they envision.
Religious Freedom Day is nothing but bad news for the likes of Religious Right leaders like Tony Perkins, who argue that Christians who favor marriage equality are not really Christians. They can believe that if they want, but it can make no difference in the eyes of the law. That is probably why on Religious Freedom Day 2014, Perkins made no mention of what Religious Freedom Day is really about — instead using the occasion to denounce president Obama’s approach to religious liberty abroad.
This barely commemorated day provides an opportunity for LGBTQ people, and progressives generally, to reclaim a philosophical, legal and constitutional legacy that the Christian Right is busy trying to redefine for their own purposes.
Alright. So the Christian Right really does not want us to know about this day, but if we do, they certainly don't want us thinking about this stuff -- and so the standard fare of faux outrage about president Obama and various conspiracies against faith in general and conservative Christianity in general is likely to dominate our foreseeable future.
But it doesn't have to be this way. And the Christian Right probably knows it.
When I say that the Christian Right does not want “us” to think about it, I mean everyone who is not the Christian Right and their allies, and especially not LGBTQ people and the otherwise “insufficiently Christian.” I think that is why the Christian Right is mostly so eerily quiet about it, even though religious freedom is so central to their political program.
But what if we did?
What if we seized this day to think dynamically about the religious freedoms we take for granted at our peril; freedom that is in danger of being redefined beyond recognition. What if we decided to seize this day to consider our best values as a nation and advance the cause of equal rights for all?
If we did, we might begin by recalling the extraordinary challenge faced by the framers of the Constitution when they gathered in Philadelphia. They met to create one nation out of 13 fractious colonies still finding their way after a successful revolt against the British Empire; and contending with a number of powerful and well-established state churches and a growing and religiously diverse population.
Their answer? Religious equality. And it is rooted in Jefferson’s bill. Let's remind ourselves about the origins of the bill.
Jefferson wrote the first draft in 1777 — just after having authored the Declaration of Independence in 1776. And it was James Madison who finally got the legislation passed through the Virginia legislature in 1786, just months before he traveled to Philadelphia to be a principal author of the Constitution. The Virginia Statute states that no one can be compelled to attend or support any religious institution, or otherwise be restrained in their beliefs, and that this “shall in no wise diminish, enlarge or affect their civil capacities . . .”
The Constitution, framed according to “The Virginia Plan,” drafted primarily by Madison, contains no mention of God or Christianity. In fact, the final text’s only mention of religion is in the proscription of “religious tests for public office,” found in Article 6.
In other words — Jefferson’s words — one’s religious identity, or lack thereof, has no bearing on one’s “civil capacities.”
If we thought about the meaning of Religious Freedom Day, we might start thinking about things like that — and not capitulate to the Christian Right’s effort to redefine religious freedom to include a license for business and institutional leaders (both government and civil) to impose their religious beliefs on employees and the public.
If we thought about things like that, then we might consider them in light of a host of initiatives in recent years, often advanced under the banner of religious freedom, but which, in fact, restrict the religious freedom of others.
We might consider, for example, the recent federal court decisionin the case of General Synod of the United Church of Christ v. Cooper, which found that North Carolina’s ban on clergy performing marriage ceremonies without first obtaining a civil marriage license, was unconstitutional.
Since state law declared that same-sex couples could not get marriage licenses, this subjected clergy in the United Church of Christ, the Alliance of Baptists, and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, among others, to potential prosecution for performing a religious ceremony.
As religious equality advances, so does equal rights for all. So you can see why the Christian Right might not want people—people like us—thinking like Jefferson. And that is why we must.
But we need more than a museum to breathe more life and liberty into the living Constitution. Not much goes on around the country on Religious Freedom Day, January 16th.
There is no time like the present to seize this day.This post is adapted from two recent columns at LGBTQ Nation, and is crossposted from Talk to Action.