Religious Freedom Is a Progressive Value and a Cornerstone of Our Democracy


(Editor's note: The following article is adapted from the author's speech at the New York Society for Ethical Culture and first appeared at

Religious freedom is a central issue of our time.

It has figured prominently in recent decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court. It was a major theme of the presidential election of 2016. And it has been a major theme of the Christian Right in both its evangelical protestant and Catholic expressions, as part of an effort to enact their religious and political agenda.

In June, the Supreme Court will announce its decision in the case of Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, where it will be decided whether businesses can discriminate against LGBTQ people in the course of normal business practice by invoking religious objection to same-sex marriage. No matter how that case is decided, religious freedom will continue to be an issue for the lives of everyone here today—and probably beyond as well.

That said, religious freedom is something that just about everyone says they are for, but we really don’t agree on what it means. I define it as the right to believe as you will, and to change your mind as often as you like without the undue influence of government and religious institutions and the rich, and the powerful.

But there are others who are seeking to use the idea of religious freedom to undermine it. As envisioned Thomas Jefferson and James Madison religious freedom is an idea that seeks to prevent government from enforcing the doctrines of powerful religious factions. But that idea is being undermined by the contemporary Christian Right, and we have our work cut out for us to restore this foundational principle of democracy in our lifetime.

Let’s make no mistake about what’s going on.

This weekend in Washington, DC, for example, you have probably seen something about CPAC—the Conservative Political Action Conference where the president spoke and has received a lot of media attention. But what has not received much attention is a big prayer rally being held at the Trump Hotel a few blocks from the White House. It is called The Turnaround and it is intended to defend Trump, whom some evangelical Christians believe has been chosen by God to help them advance what they call “biblical decrees.” They see themselves as raising-up an “Army of Special Forces” on his behalf.

These leaders, including Cindy Jacobs, Chuck Pierce, Dutch Sheets and Lou Engle, may not be as well-known as Jerry Falwell and Robert Jeffress, but they were pivotal to the election of Donald Trump and are in Washington to defend his teetering presidency, employing unambiguous theocratic language and the threat of religious war.

For decades, the broad theocratic movement we call Dominionism of which the leaders I just mentioned are a part, has been rising in plain sight—and now is a close ally of the president of the United States, enjoying access to power that ostensibly more moderate evangelicals can only dream of. (Dominionism is, very simply, the idea that Christians are called by God to exercise dominion over every aspect of society by taking control of political and cultural institutions.)

Since the people I’ve mentioned are not exactly household names, you may wonder if they reflect the intentions of the wider Christian Right with regard to religious liberty.

So let me offer a different example.

Tony Perkins heads the Family Research Council, the largest and most influential Christian Right lobby group in Washington.

In 2014, when marriage equality had not yet been decided by the Supreme Court, Perkins not only questioned the authenticity of the Christianity of those who support marriage equality — but questioned their right to religious freedom itself because, he claimed “true religious freedom” only applies to “orthodox religious viewpoints.”

Which brings us to a crucial point.

In the face of such ideas, it is important to know, to remember, and to be able to articulate—that religious freedom has nothing to do with religion.

Religious freedom is a right—not a religion. It is not religion in the general sense of the term nor is it synonymous with any particular variety of Christianity.

It is also understood to be synonymous with the right of individual conscience and freedom of mind.

James Madison wrote that when the Virginia Convention of 1776 issued the Virginia Declaration of Rights (three weeks before the Declaration of Independence), the delegates removed any language about religious “toleration” and declared instead “the freedom of conscience to be a natural and absolute right.”

But as clear as the founders sought to be on all this, it was and remains a confusing area. And they knew it.

Thomas Jefferson wanted to be remembered for three things, which he directed be engraved on his grave marker: Author of the Declaration of Independence; Father of the University of Virginia, and author of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom.

Now why, we might ask, would Jefferson who had been a governor, a secretary of state and two-term president—choose this piece of state legislation that most Americans have never even heard of—as one of the three things for which he most wished to be remembered?

The reason is simple and it is why we are here today. Religious freedom is one of the most liberatory ideas in human history.

The exact language of the key point in the Virginia Statute was that, “…all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.”

In contemporary plain English, we might say that people’s religious or non-religious views shall neither advantage or disadvantage their status as citizens.

But Jefferson and other of the founders knew that the freedom they were seeking to establish was fragile, and likely to be opposed, undermined or reinterpreted in the future. That’s why late in his life, Jefferson wanting to get the last word on his signature legislation—emphasized that the Virginia Statute was meant to protect everyone, including a “the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and Infidel of every denomination.”

Jefferson and his contemporaries also saw religious freedom as the key to disentangling ancient, mutually reinforcing relationships between the economic and political interests of aristocrats and the institutional imperatives of the church: Jefferson called it an unholy alliance of “kings, nobles, and priests”—that divided people in order to rule them. He later wrote that his Virginia Statute was “intended to put down the aristocracy of the clergy and restore to the citizens the freedom of the mind.”

Jefferson was very aware of the significance of the Virginia Statute.

Historians as well as Supreme Court justices since—widely regard it as the root of how the framers of the Constitution and later the First Amendment approached matters of religion and government.

That is one reason why it is worth a quick look back at the powerful entrenched interests of Jefferson’s day—interests who actively suppressed religious deviance and dissent. In Virginia, attendance was required at the Sunday services of the Church of England, and failure to attend was the most prosecuted crime for many years. Members of these Anglican Church vestries were empowered to report religious crimes like heresy and blasphemy to local grand juries. Unsurprisingly, the wealthy planters and business owners who comprised the Anglican vestries were able to limit access to this pipeline to political power. Dissenters from their theocratic dictates were dealt with harshly.

In the years before the Revolution, Baptists and other religious minorities in Virginia were victims of vigilante violence.

Historian John Ragosta writes:

“Men on horseback would often ride through crowds gathered to witness a baptism. Preachers were horsewhipped and dunked in rivers and ponds in a rude parody of their baptism ritual… Black attendees at meetings—whether free or slave—were subject to particularly savage beatings.”

This was the social and political context in which Jefferson drafted the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom in 1777. Despite the revolutionary moment, it took a decade for the bill to be enacted—which finally happened under the leadership of James Madison in 1786.

The following year, Madison traveled to Philadelphia where he and his colleagues produced the Constitution. This document made no mention of God or Christianity or even religion—except in one place—and that was in Article 6 which states that there shall be no religious test for public office anywhere in the United States.

This single mention of religion made it into the Constitution primarily in response to the 150 years of colonial theocracies that preceded it —during which officials usually had to swear an oath of office based on the prevailing doctrine of the day.

The framers of the Constitution were wise to this, knowing that established churches in each state would not be compatible with democracy and religious freedom—and they also knew something at least as important:

That, well, politicians lie.

Just because people were willing to swear an oath—didn’t necessarily mean that they meant what they said.

But Jefferson and others felt that the Constitution’s silence on a number of matters, including freedom of religion was insufficient, and agreed to support ratification only if it could be amended with a Bill of Rights later.

And so it came to pass that Madison led the way in the first Congress in crafting the First Amendment, which as we know provides for freedom of religion, freedom of speech and freedom of the press.

Now, in our siloized age, we usually see these things as separate matters. But in fact, there is a reason why they were all in one place, and perhaps even why they appear in that order. Without the right to think freely, there can be no free speech or for that matter, free press.

Having said this, it is also clear that the struggle for religious freedom is far from over. I think that some of what we face today has to do with our taking religious freedom for granted—and some very savvy exploitation of our unwariness by the theocratic strategists of the Christian Right.

As it happens, I have spent much of my life studying various elements of the Christian Right—and one lesson that has stood out for me, is what an influential theocratic theorist named Gary North calls “the dilemma of democratic pluralism.”

By this he means that those of us who embrace democratic pluralism, have to, as a matter of philosophical principle, tolerate those who do not share our values and in fact are dedicated to their destruction. Naturally, these are things that we would rather not see, and the Dominionists are usually (but not always) wise enough not to show their hands. That is part of why for decades, we have heard variations on the story that the Christian Right is dead, dying, or greatly diminished.

But whaddya know?

They are now making national policy in close collaboration with the White House. Too many of our religious and political leaders and certainly the media, turned a blind eye to their growing political strength and pooh-poohed their unambiguous theocratic vision.

Gary North, elaborated on his point, saying for example, that it may be worthwhile to temporarily advocate pluralism while plotting for the takeover. And I think that is about where much of the movement is now. But we should not be gulled by this. North flatly predicts that “pluralism will be shot to pieces in an ideological and perhaps even literal crossfire” as “Christians” and “humanists” sharpen and harden their positions in an “escalating religious war.”

The result of this protracted war would be religious and political dominion.

Now, North wrote this in the late 1980s, and all out religious war has not yet broken out. And it’s also true that those he regards as “humanists” includes just about everyone—including Christians, who don’t happen to subscribe to his particular version of Calvinist Protestantism. North and his colleagues know that they are a minority, seeking to leverage a wider coalition in order to ultimately take power.

Gary North may seem an obscure figure, but he is far from alone. I could quote you contemporary Christian right political theorists and leaders who hold similar views. They are patient theocrats and know that their vision will take time to implement. But we don’t have to look far to see elements of this movement operating in plain sight. Like, at the Trump Hotel in Washington.

This turning a blind eye to political reality has worked to the advantage of the Christian Right because they know that our tolerance and wishful thinking can sometimes be exploited. Because they know we live in the dilemma of democratic pluralism, they know that it can be challenging for us to recognize the threats to our values and our way of life. This causes us great cognitive dissonance. And so as a society, we have been very creative in finding ways not to see it. Sometimes people dismiss them as crazy, extremists who cannot be taken seriously. It is a variation on the idea of “it can’t happen here.” In fact it is happening, and has been happening for a long time.

But let’s not also turn a blind eye to what religious freedom has made possible.

It was religious freedom that allowed for Quakers, evangelicals and Unitarians to lead the way in opposition to slavery in the 19th century. Religious freedom also allowed Catholics and mainline Protestants to guide society in creating child labor laws early in the 20th century, and later made it possible for religious groups and leaders to help forge wide and evolving coalitions to advance African American Civil Rights and women’s equality, to oppose the Vietnam War, and eventually fight for LGBTQ civil and religious rights.

Thus the principle of religious equality under the law was a profoundly progressive—and an authentically revolutionary stance against the advantages enjoyed and enforced by the ruling political and economic elites of the 18th century and ever since.

One more quick note from the 18th century: in Virginia, marriages had to be consecrated by an Anglican priest, making dissenters marry within the Church of England (or pay off the priest to get his cooperation) in order to have a legal marriage.

The religious freedom that Jefferson and Madison sought was freedom from corrupt and totalitarian religious control such as this.

Such abuses may seem like a relic of the past, but in recent years some conservative Christians have tried to outlaw the religious marriages of others.

In 2012 Christian Right advocates in North Carolina sought to build on existing laws limiting marriages to heterosexual couples by amending the state constitution, using language that would effectively criminalize the performance of marriage ceremonies without a license. This meant that clergy from a wide range of religious traditions from Judaism to Christianity to Buddhism, would be breaking the law if they solemnized religious marriage ceremonies for same-sex couples. And the motive was explicitly religious. One state senator cited the Bible in explaining his view, “We need to regulate marriage because I believe that marriage is between a man and woman.”

This issue was part of the 2014 case General Synod of the United Church of Christ vs. Resinger, in which a federal judge declared that laws that deny same-sex couples the right to marry in the state, prohibit recognition of legal same-sex marriages from elsewhere in the United States, “or threatens clergy or other officiants who solemnize the union of same-sex couples with civil or criminal penalties” were unconstitutional.

It was an historic victory—not only for marriage equality—but for a progressive vision of religious liberty. Even as we contend with all this it is important not to lose sight of how the same idea that Jefferson and Madison codified into law in colonial Virginia has become an international human rights standard:

Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights passed by the General Assembly of the UN in 1948 states:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

Article 18 has been updated and gone into greater detail several times since then, but the basic principle remains the same.

Still, the principle entered our culture and laws only in fits and starts. It’s fair to say we are still working on it. Freedom of religion in the 18th century certainly did not mean freedom for all and in all respects, as African and Native American slaves, women and people who were not landowners could attest. Nor did the principle eliminate religious prejudice and discrimination.

But what it did do was facilitate every struggle for advances in human and civil rights ever since. And we have come a very long way even as we have a long way to go. The struggle has gone global. It is progressing even as it is being met with familiar resistance.

It is in this sense that religious freedom is a progressive value. It makes possible freedom and equality for all. Kings, theocrats and authoritarians of all sorts fear it—and rightfully so.

Religious freedom is the cornerstone of democracy and arguably the glue that holds us together. Whatever our differences we are unified in having the freedom to differ. In that sense it is a progressive value, but it is also a conservative value, a mainstream value, and a universal value—and it it is our obligation and our opportunity to live it out, never losing sight of the dilemma of democratic pluralism that the theocrats of our time seek to exploit, and to carry it forward through the 21st century.

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