The Christian Right Does Not Want Us to Celebrate this Day

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.

A statue of Thomas Jefferson, author of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, in Colonial Williamsburg, Va.

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.

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.”

“The Coalition for Liberty & Justice is a broad alliance of faith-based, secular and other organizations that works to ensure that public policy protects the religious liberty of individuals of all faiths and no faith and to oppose public policies that impose one religious viewpoint on all.”

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.

 

Taking Religious Freedom Day Astray

 

Religious Freedom Day may be the most significant national day that most of us have never heard of. It has been celebrated annually, mostly via presidential proclamation, since 1993, and commemorates a foundational moment in the history of religious freedom.

A statue of Thomas Jefferson, author of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, in Colonial Williamsburg, Va.

A statue of Thomas Jefferson, author of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, in Colonial Williamsburg, Va.

 

Considering how central religious freedom is to the Christian Right’s framing of issues ranging from abortion and contraception, to LGBTQ rights, and increasingly even labor concerns, it is seems strange that there is no massive effort on the Right hijack the day for their own purposes. With only a few minor exceptions, they have not. But there is one group worth noting, that generates attention disproportionate to the scale of its activities.

First, a little background.

Religious Freedom Day commemorates the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom—written by Thomas Jefferson in 1777, and campaigned into law by James Madison in 1786. The bill is widely regarded as the taproot of how the founders sought to reconcile the relationship between religion and government, and epitomizes how these towering figures of American constitutional history understood religious freedom. And that makes it a problem for the Religious Right, because the bill can in no way be construed as an excuse to discriminate against anyone, or to exempt anyone from adherence to the law of the land.

I recently wrote that the Christian Right really does not want us to think about Religious Freedom Day—mostly because the Virginia Statue and the history surrounding it does not support their revisionist narrative of history, nor their contemporary religious and political agenda.

Not even close.

The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom (PDF) 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.” The short of it is that religious equality was the basis for how the founders thought about the relationship between religion and government, when they authored and ratified the Constitution, and later, the First Amendment. Religious freedom was intended for individuals to be free from coercion by government and powerful religious institutions.

All which brings us to ReligiousFreedomDay.com, which comes up first in a Google search for Religious Freedom Day. The group behind it is a small California evangelical Christian Right agency called Gateways to Better Education, headed by longtime activist, Eric Buehrer. This group is part of a wider movement with a long history of efforts to hijack, or compromise, public schools in order to promote its religious views and to evangelize children. (This is detailed in The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children, by Katherine Stewart.)

Gateways is unambiguous about its intentions:

“Gateways to Better Education is a nonprofit organization founded in 1991 to help public schools teach about the important contribution the Bible and Christianity make to the world.”

 

They insist that “Religious Freedom Day is not ‘celebrate-our-diversity day.'”

All this might seem like a small thing from a small organization. But Gateways enjoys an outsized significance not only because they turn up at the top of Google searches for Religious Freedom Day. They often enjoy boosts from allied national Christian Right organizations. This year, for example, Citizen Link, the political arm of Focus on the Family has taken-up their cause.

Gateways, founded in 1991, teamed up with the Christian Right legal group, Alliance Defending Freedom (and other Christian Right groups) in 2009 for this project. (Uncoincidentally, 2009 was also the year that top Christian Right and evangelical leaders teamed up with scores of Catholic bishops and top neoconservatives to make religious freedom a core of their common agenda, via The Manhattan Declaration.)

Gateways claims to promote an approach that is legal and constitutional for educators, but those who have taken a closer look are not so sure.

Rob Boston at Americans United for Separation of Church and State reported that their initiative was misleading. The then-new Gateways pamphlet “”Free to Speak,” for example, claimed that “students have an unqualified right to include religious material in their class work and homework,” Boston reported. “The reality is different.”

Indeed, Gateways’ is not merely interested in protecting free expression, but opportunistically turning children into evangelical agents and generating conflicts in the classroom that end up in court.

Boston also reported that Religious Right legal groups had been unsuccessful in their efforts to intervene on behalf of kids who inserted religious content into their work “and either received a poor grade or were told to knock it off.” The resulting consensus, Boston says was, “Teachers and school officials have the right to curb students who wish to use classroom assignments for proselytism. The federal courts tend to defer to teachers in this area; judges really don’t want to grade little Johnny’s homework.”

Gateways and their allies added Religious Freedom Sunday to the program in 2010. The idea was to get churches to promote their religious expression campaign on the Sunday before Religious Freedom Day. (This year Religious Freedom Sunday is January 11th, prior to the official Religious Freedom Day on the 16th) . But Boston once again looked askance at the group’s motives and methods.

Gateways, he says, “is notorious for its unsolicited advice to public schools. The group plays fast and loose with the facts, advising teachers on ways to slip fundamentalist Christianity into the lesson plans. My favorite was a Gateways pamphlet a few years ago featuring a talking Easter Bunny who comes to a public school to advise a teacher on how she can teach kids about the resurrection of Jesus.” (Fortunately, educators, parents, and churches do not need to look to Gateways or the Alliance Defending Freedom for guidance in how to navigate religion and the public schools. Americans United for Separation of Church and State has a free book. Religion in the Public Schools: A Road Map for Avoiding Lawsuits and Respecting Parents’ Legal Rights)

Over the years, Religious Freedom Day has not generated much attention. But times have changed. Religious freedom as a concept is generating more interest today than at perhaps any time since the founding generation. Because this is so it is possible that Gateways and their friends on the Religious Right may this year succeed in generating some distractions from the real meaning of Religious Freedom Day. It is also possible that others of us may also begin to speak out and be heard.

 Share on Twitter Button  Share on Facebook Button

 

Seize the Day! (Well, what if we did?)

I recently wrote that the Christian Right does not want us to think about Religious Freedom Day, which commemorates the enactment of Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom in 1786. The bill is widely regarded as the taproot of how the founding generation sought to reconcile the relationship between religion and government.

The enactment of the bill has been celebrated annually, mostly via presidential proclamation, since 1993.

And 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.

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 decision in 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.

Religious Freedom Day was the brainchild of some of the town fathers and mothers of Richmond, Virginia, who have since created a museum dedicated to education about the Virginia Statute (PDF).

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. There is no time like the present to seize this day.

The Christian Right Does Not Want You to Know About This Day

Jefferson Statue

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, 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.

Thomas 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.

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.

 Share on Twitter Button  Share on Facebook Button