Tony Perkins Pops Off


Tony Perkins speaking at the Values Voter Summit in Washington D.C. on October 7, 2011. Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr.

Paul Rosenberg recently published an essay at Salon that challenged the myth that the United States was founded as a Christian Nation. The occasion was the then-forthcoming annual celebration of Religious Freedom Day, which commemorates the enactment of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. The Statute, written by Thomas Jefferson and shepherded into law by James Madison in 1786, is generally regarded as the taproot of how the Framers of the Constitution and the First Amendment approach religion and government.  Rosenberg interviewed me for his story, and we agreed that that the Christian Right generally, and the Family Research Council (FRC) in particular, is promoting the myth of a Christian nation that never was. I believe that this is a serious weakness in the justifications the Christian Right uses to advance its contemporary agenda.  It is an effort to press the Framers of the Constitution into their service with the false claim that the Framers held to a certain “Christian worldview” –– and that they forged the Constitution and the First Amendment to establish and advance it.

Tony Perkins, president of FRC responded by devoting the entirety of his regular Washington Update missive to slamming us.  But out of the fog of Perkins’ remarkable tangle of distortions and falsehoods, his essay inadvertently underscores my point about the weakness of the Christian nationalist claim.

First, let’s note that the Christian Right generally avoids talking about the Constitution because of the well-established history that the Framers deliberately did not include anything about God, Christianity, or religion at all in the nation’s charter, except to state in Article VI that there shall be no religious tests for public office.  But Perkins, writing “with the aid of FRC senior writers” rests his case with this:

Our own Constitution closes with the words, “In the year of our Lord, 1787.” That’s a reference to Jesus! The signers not only embraced Christianity, they anchored our most important document in it.

Common sense tells us that the style of the dating of a document does not define its contents or the intentions of the authors.  However, historian John Fea of the evangelical Messiah College has written about this very point.

I am often asked about this reference when answering questions about my book Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction.

The phrase “Year of our Lord,” which is the only reference to God in the United States Constitution, was, of course, a standard eighteenth-century way of referencing the date.

Then he explains:

We know that the phrase “Year of our Lord” was not included in the draft of the Constitution that was approved by the Convention.

No one knows for sure how it got in there, but it is clear that it was added afterward, perhaps as some speculate, as a “scrivener’s touch.”

Second, the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom that so guided the Framers of the Constitution, was intended to guarantee the rights of conscience of individual citizens, declaring:  “…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.”

And when Jefferson wrote “all” he meant everyone, including, as he later wrote “the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and Infidel of every denomination.” This idea–that one’s religious identity should be neither an advantage nor a disadvantage under the law––was central to the intent of Madison and the Framers and cannot be undone with false claims and interpretations of convenience.

Anyone who wishes to get the real story should consult legitimate histories by contemporary historians (such as John Ragosta’s Religious Freedom: Jefferson’s Legacy, America’s Creed.)

Third, Perkins regales us with the spectacle of setting up and knocking down of a strawman

Thomas Jefferson, meanwhile, was so proud of writing the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom that it’s included on his tombstone! Does that sound like someone who doesn’t believe in expressions of faith?

Like Jefferson, Paul Rosenberg and I are not opposed to expressions of faith, and there is nothing in Rosenberg’s essay that suggests otherwise. It is certainly true that Jefferson had his authorship of the Virginia Statute engraved on the monument that marks his grave. As a matter of fact, John Ragosta and I discussed that very point in an interview at Religion Dispatches, published on January 8, 2018.  Jefferson certainly believed, as do Rosenberg and I, that the right to believe as you will, to think differently than powerful government and religious institutions, and from the rich and the powerful, is essential to democracy.

Another strawman is Perkins’ claim:

One minute the Left is rushing to write our obituary — and the next, we’re powerful enough to create a theocracy!

There have certainly been many obituaries for the Christian Right published over the years, but none of them have been written by me or by Paul Rosenberg. In fact, I have criticized such unfounded claims many times over the years. As recently as December 28, 2017, for example, I tweeted “Nota bene for the New Year. The Christian Right is not dead, dying or diminished.” I also have never written and do not believe that they are “powerful enough to create a theocracy” – although I maintain that they have not only been effectively building for power,  but their theocratic intentions are unambiguous, and they are not to be underestimated (as my new article in The Public Eye makes clear.)

But of course, I could be wrong this time.

Tony Perkins and most of the Christian Right hitched their wagons to the political fortunes Donald Trump and losing Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore. It was a big risk given the long shadows on their characters including credible accusations of serial sexual predation. Trump and Moore were featured speakers at the 2017 Values Voter Summit hosted by the FRC and other leading organizations of the Christian Right last fall. Most of the Christian Right stood by Moore throughout his campaign, and continue to stand by Trump, who in his first year in office has managed to become the most unpopular president in modern American history. And there are indications it may get worse. Polls show that once overwhelming White evangelical support for Trump is slipping. What’s more, some evangelical leaders are concerned that Trump, Moore and the evangelicals who supported them may have severely damaged the reputation of evangelicalism itself. The editor of Christianity Today, the leading magazine of evangelicalism wrote that in the wake of the Roy Moore fiasco, “No one will believe a word we say, perhaps for a generation. Christianity’s integrity is severely tarnished.”

It’s possible that such reactions are overwrought. As bad as things may look for Trump and evangelicalism right now, Christianity has withstood worse. What’s more, the political climate could change quickly, as sometimes happens. Part of the strength of the Christian Right has been its ideological adaptability, its political resilience, and its attention to the details of building for political power.

Whatever the future may hold for religious and political leaders, they intend to wield the power they have now in ways that will affect many people.

There could hardly be a better example of the stakes in the contemporary struggle over the meaning of religious freedom than the recent formation of the federal Department of Health and Human Service’s “Conscience and Religious Freedom Division” within its Office for Civil Rights. The division will oversee enforcement of federal laws that allow medical providers to refuse to provide or to even be indirectly involved in care that conflicts with their moral or religious conscience.  This is understood to mean an expansive policy tilt to the discriminatory doctrines of the Christian Right and Roman Catholic Bishops on such matters as reproductive choice, gender identity and sexual orientation.

Jefferson, Madison and the leaders of their generation sought to prevent favored factions from being able to use the government to enforce their doctrines on everyone else. And yet this is exactly what the FRC and their allies are trying to do.

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 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.


VIDEO: PRA’s Frederick Clarkson Discusses Religious Freedom Day on the David Pakman Show

Political Research Associates’ senior fellow for religious liberty, Frederick Clarkson, joined The David Pakman Show to discuss Religious Freedom Day, and how the definition of religious freedom laid out by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison is now being corrupted by the Christian Right into a weapon that can be used to punish individuals for their beliefs or non-beliefs.

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.