Religious Freedom is the Cornerstone of Our Democracy

Sunday Morning talk by Frederick Clarkson at the New York Society for Ethical Culture

Frederick Clarkson was the guest speaker at the Sunday morning meeting of the New York Society for Ethical Culture on February 25, 2018.   He spoke on the theme of how Religious Freedom is a Progressive Value. He was responding to how the Christian Right has been appropriating religious freedom to advance its political and religious agenda, as well as to those who have a lot to say about what religious freedom is not, but not much about what it is. He invoked the political aphorism that that if you don’t like the story that is being told, tell a different story.

These are his prepared remarks.

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.

Thank you for your kind attention.

 

 

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.

Religious Freedom and the Christian Right’s Masterpiece of Manipulation

Photo: United States Supreme Court. Joe Ravi/Wikimedia Commons.

Throughout history, people have used religion to justify a myriad of injustices. In the United States, for example, some Christians used their faith to defend slavery and segregation, citing scriptural references as moral justification for the dehumanization and genocide of Black and indigenous people until, ultimately, the government intervened. Earlier today at the U.S. Supreme Court, the Christian Right once again attempted to justify injustice, asserting that religious freedom grants them the right to discriminate against LGBTQ people. But before gay wedding cakes were ever up for debate, we saw the Christian Right manipulate religious freedom to enable racial discrimination, too.

In 1970, Bob Jones University (BJU), a fundamentalist Christian school in Greenville, South Carolina, came into conflict with the IRS over issues of racial discrimination (at the time, the school did not admit Black students). School officials argued that since they didn’t accept federal funding, they were free to operate according to their own will, proclaiming that their discriminatory policies were a matter of religious freedom. However, the Civil Rights Act of 1969 disrupted the legality of racial discrimination, and in 1976, the IRS rescinded BJU’s tax exempt status, which they only regained in February 2017 by reorganizing under the existing 501(c)3 status of Bob Jones Elementary. In its decision, the IRS affirmed that discrimination on the basis of race or ethnicity is illegal, and therefore BJU was not justified in denying admission to Black students.

In an interview with religious historian Randall Balmer, longtime BJU administrator Elmer L. Rumminger explained that the IRS actions against his school “alerted the Christian school community about what could happen with government interference” in the affairs of evangelical institutions. “That was really the major issue that got us all involved.”

The Moral Majority was founded a few years later, formally establishing the Christian Right’s most powerful political coalition of the time. Paul Weyrich, the late conservative Christian political activist and co-founder of the Heritage Foundation, was one of the architects of the movement. In the mid-1970s he wrote, “The new political philosophy must be defined by us [conservatives] in moral terms, packaged in non-religious language, and propagated throughout the country by our new coalition…  When political power is achieved, the moral majority will have the opportunity to re-create this great nation.”

Weyrich could be thought of as the original “make America great again” evangelist — a man who was committed to an idealized notion of what America once was and dedicated his entire life to reinstating the dominance of a white, middle class, Christian patriarchy. The contemporaries of the now-defunct Moral Majority continue to weaponize religious freedom to advance the Right’s overarching goals of maintaining and advancing cultural, economic, and political dominance, at the expense of those who have been historically marginalized, including women, LGBTQ people, poor people, and non-Christians.

The Civil Rights Act prevented the Right from successfully manipulating religious freedom into a tool of racial oppression in the 1970s, but without federal protections1 against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, LGBTQ people remain especially vulnerable, and the Right is well positioned to exploit that vulnerability to its fullest extent.

Religious freedom was initially designed to protect religious minorities and nonreligious people, shielding them from the dominant culture’s religious imposition and preserving the separation of church and State.

As PRA research analyst Frederick Clarkson has carefully documented, religious freedom was initially designed as an important strategy for protecting religious minorities and nonreligious people, shielding them from the dominant culture’s religious imposition, and preserving the separation of church and State. Again, the Christian Right is manipulating this progressive value to justify discrimination against those who are not aligned with their particular ideological views. Increasingly, religious freedom is being used to deny the right of LGBTQ people and women to have agency over their own lives and bodies and to live according to their own beliefs and values.

The Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby ruling in 2014 enabled the large, family-owned chain of craft stores the right to claim a religious exemption from providing employees with healthcare insurance that covered four kinds of contraceptives, based on the company owners’ belief (medical science notwithstanding) that they are abortifacients. This was the first time a private business was granted religious standing under the First Amendment, which dangerously expanded the notion of corporate personhood, granting for-profit entities legal justification for religion-based discrimination.

Today, this corruption of religious freedom is being tested again as the Supreme Court hears the case of Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission. Jack Phillips, a professional baker and the owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop in Denver, Colorado, refused to make a wedding cake for Charlie Craig and David Mullins, a gay couple who sought out his services in 2012. Phillips’ refusal violated Colorado’s Anti-Discrimination Act, which prohibits businesses open to the public from discriminating against customers on the basis of race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation. According to Phillips (who is represented by the right-wing Christian legal group, Alliance Defending Freedom), making the cake would have forced him to “use my creativity, my talents and my art for an event — a significant religious event — that violates my religious faith.”

Unfortunately, Jack Phillips, like many fundamentalist Christians, sees LGBTQ people not simply as people who are LGBTQ but as people who believe that they’re LGBTQ. Because he makes a distinction between the sexual orientation of Charlie Craig and David Mullins and their humanity, he feels justified in refusing to serve them. From his perspective, he’s not discriminating against a gay couple — he’s rejecting the notion that Charlie and David’s queerness is an inherent part of who they are.

This is dangerous, and (in Colorado) it’s illegal. A person’s religious faith does not give them the right to decide whether or not another person’s identity is real, and it certainly doesn’t give them the right to discriminate.

The Moral Majority disbanded in 1979, but the strength and influence of the Christian Right has continued to steadily expand, thanks to the leadership of organizations like Focus on the Family, Family Research Council, Alliance Defending Freedom, the Heritage Foundation, and others. Over the last 30 years, these groups have built inroads at all levels of governance, from local school boards to the White House, and they ultimately endeavor to establish and enforce a brand of Christian nationalism that fundamentally disregards the rights and liberties of LGBTQ people, women, and non-Christians (as well as Christians who interpret and live out their faith differently than those who are fundamentalists).

Fortunately, they haven’t yet succeeded. And so those who are called by their faith and moral convictions to fight for justice and equality for all people must remember that religious freedom is their right, too, and they must reassert and reclaim its progressive foundation.

Footnotes

1 Under the Obama administration, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission adopted the position that LGBTQ discrimination was covered under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex. The Trump administration reversed this decision in July 2017.

 

The President Gets Paradoxical about Religious Freedom

2017 LGBT Solidarity Rally in front of the Stonewall Inn in solidarity with immigrants, asylum seekers, and refugees. (Photo: mathiaswasik via Flickr)

During the presidential campaign and since assuming office, Donald Trump has repeatedly promised the Christian Right that he would make religious freedom a priority. In an apparent bid for their support, Trump made clear that he would advance the tripartite Christian Right agenda of “Life, marriage and religious freedom” that the Christian Right has focused on since the publication of the Manhattan Declaration in 2009. He also implied he would give them an unprecedented role in governance, in both personnel and policy. But candidate Trump’s claim to be “prolife” seemed opportunistic given his prior views on abortion rights and support for Planned Parenthood. The disconnect between Trump’s support for LGBTQ rights—from which he did not back away, while demurring on marriage equality—compelled him to emphasize religious liberty when he appeared before Christian Right audiences during the campaign even as he featured his support for LGBTQ rights in his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention. He apparently will honor his commitments to seemingly mutually exclusive views—by navigating religious liberty based exemptions to the law.

This—Trump’s dance around LGBTQ rights and his commitments to the Christian Right—promises to be one of the paradoxes of the Trump era.

Trump’s dance around LGBTQ rights and his commitments to the Christian Right—promises to be one of the paradoxes of the Trump era.

Many had expected Trump to issue an executive order that would provide federal employees, contractors, and grantees broad religious exemptions from LGBTQ non-discrimination policies. That would be in keeping with Trump’s promise to sign the profoundly anti-LGBTQ First Amendment Defense Act (FADA) and support the repeal or reform of the Johnson Amendment, which proscribes electioneering by organizations that enjoy the privilege of a federal 501(c)(3) tax- exempt status. The latter has long been a goal of the Christian Right, which has advanced its cause in part by encouraging churches to bend and sometimes break these regulations.

A far-reaching draft executive order surfaced by Sarah Posner in The Nation reads like a wish list of the Christian Right’s goals, including legal exemptions for people and organizations that claim religious objections to same-sex marriage, premarital sex, abortion, and trans identity. The draft order also appeared to require agencies to provide extensive exemptions from numerous federal laws, and in ways that far exceed what the courts have ever allowed to accommodate religious beliefs.

Brian Fischer of the American Family Association was so excited that he declared the draft order to be “a masterpiece… the Sistine Chapel of religious liberty… It is stunningly and brilliantly crafted and ought to be circulated to every nook and cranny in the United States.” He went on to call it “the Magna Carta of religious Liberty” and compared Trump to Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. Fischer is not usually a good source of facts, but his premature excitement is worth noting; Christian Right leaders were indeed pleased.

But the immediate public brouhaha generated by interest groups and intensive press coverage of the draft executive order led conservatives to worry. Ryan T. Anderson, the anti-marriage equality guru at the Heritage Foundation to plead: “Mr. President: Don’t Cave to Liberal Fearmongering. Protect Religious Freedom.”

Donald Trump speaking at the 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. (Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr)

As it turned out conservative concerns were well founded. In the end, Trump not only kept in place the non-discrimination executive order issued by president Obama in 2014, but a White House faction had very publicly prevailed on the president to stay true to his promise to support LGBTQ equality.

The New York Times reported that instead of advancing the draft order, “White House officials pushed out a statement asserting that Mr. Trump ‘is determined to protect the rights of all Americans, including the L.G.B.T.Q. community,’” adding that the president “‘continues to be respectful and supportive of L.G.B.T.Q. rights, just as he was throughout the election.’” David Gibson of Religion News Service (RNS) observed that the statement employed “powerful language that used the community’s own ‘LGBTQ’ identifier while vowing that Trump would be ‘respectful and supportive of LGBTQ rights.’”

The White House statement continued that Trump was “proud to have been the first ever GOP nominee to mention the LGBTQ community in his nomination acceptance speech, pledging then to protect the community from violence and oppression.”

RNS further reported that the prelates who lead the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ religious freedom and family life committees called Trump’s decision not to rescind Obama’s executive order “troubling and disappointing.” Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia and Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore said the workplace discrimination protection order “creates problems rather than solves them,” by creating “new forms of discrimination against people of faith.”

Posner wrote that the draft in circulation among federal staff and advocacy organizations, construed “religious organizations so broadly that it covers ‘any organization, including closely held for-profit corporations,’ and protects ‘religious freedom’ in every walk of life: ‘when providing social services, education, or healthcare; earning a living, seeking a job, or employing others; receiving government grants or contracts; or otherwise participating in the marketplace, the public square, or interfacing with Federal, State or local governments.’”

“The draft order,” Posner concluded, “seeks to create wholesale exemptions for people and organizations who claim religious or moral objections to same-sex marriage, premarital sex, abortion, and trans identity, and it seeks to curtail women’s access to contraception and abortion through the Affordable Care Act. “

Of course, the Christian Right has sought to cast its anti-LGBTQ and anti-abortion views as if they were synonymous with religious freedom itself, and thus seek to give their actions that may conflict with the religious and civil rights of others a privileged position above and beyond the laws that apply to the rest of us. Indeed, the religious views of many people include seamless support for reproductive and LGBTQ rights, including marriage equality. Religious liberty belongs to everyone, not merely those who hold certain views on abortion and aspects of human sexuality.

Religious liberty belongs to everyone, not merely those who hold certain views on abortion and aspects of human sexuality.

That was certainly the view of the leaders of the million-member United Church of Christ, which rejected this effort to elevate four religious beliefs over all other religious beliefs: marriage is between one man and one woman, sexual relations are properly reserved for a marriage between one man and one woman, biological sex is an immutable objective characteristic that is determined before or at birth based on anatomy, physiology, or genetics, and life begins at conception.” The UCC leaders also observed, “The draft reflects a significant shift in position from the religious accommodation rules under the Bush and Obama administrations, to one of religious superiority.”

Resolutions of Trump’s paradoxical approach to LGBTQ issues going forward will turn on the meaning of religious freedom. If it is the version adopted by the Christian Right and the Catholic Bishops, religious freedom will include the right to act on bigoted views, and equal rights will be in jeopardy as groups and individuals are allowed to self-exempt themselves from the law. If on the other hand the administration takes a more traditional approach, comparatively minor issues of religious accommodation will be tailored to the occasion as necessary, as was recommended by the U.S. Civil Rights Commission in 2016.

This hole in the Christian Right’s argument—that illegal actions are necessarily synonymous with constitutionally protected expressions—was inadvertently revealed by Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council and amplified by Ryan T. Anderson of the Heritage Foundation.

Perkins claims that the draft executive order recognized that “religion should not be confined to a home or house of worship alone, but to ‘all activities of life,’ such as those that involve social services, education, health care, employment, obtaining ‘grants or contracts,’ or otherwise participating in the ‘public square.’ Religious expression has every right to exist in the public square as do other forms of expression…”

The self-exposed problem here is that while free expression does enjoy wide protection, and expression can take the form of actions, expression is not to be conflated with acts of discrimination or any other crime. And individuals and institutions, religious or otherwise, have no authority to exempt themselves from the law.

And yet the administration’s apparent intention was to do just that, according to a detailed analysis of the draft executive order by the Center for Constitutional Rights. Most people think of the religious liberty argument as primarily about reproductive rights and LGBTQ issues, and while those have been the high profile battle grounds, the war of exemptions from civil rights and labor laws and pension rights to which conservative religious institutions would rather not adhere is broader and deeper, as the CCR analysis makes clear:

While several provisions clearly target same-sex marriage, gender identity, and the exercise of reproductive rights, other provisions would create special federal immunity from liability for discrimination on virtually any basis–including race, national origin, and religion–and by virtually anyone or any thing, as it expands the scope of who can claim religious exemptions to include corporations, companies, associations, firms, partnerships, societies, and even joint stock companies, with no religious purpose.

“The [Executive] Order” the CCR analysis continued, “would allow for the flouting of any number of generally applicable laws, if such actions or inactions are claimed to be motivated by a sincerely held religious belief or conscience. It would also immunize speech that could constitute workplace harassment or harassment in the spheres of education or housing, and undermine enforcement of laws prohibiting identity-based violence.”

While the president refused to sign any version of this draft executive order, at least for now, the issues that it raised and the paradoxes it helped illuminate may soon be at the center of the debate over proposed congressional legislation. The issues it sought to address will reemerge in legislative form in the proposed First Amendment Defense Act (originally sponsored by Paul Labrador (R-ID) in the House and by Ted Cruz (R-TX) in the Senate); and legislation intended to repeal or reform the Johnson Amendment––both of which Trump has promised to sign if they reach his desk.

 

 

#First100Days Crash Course: Week 3

Coinciding with Trump’s first 100 days in Office — a period of time historically used as a benchmark to measure the potential of a new president — PRA will share readings, videos, and tools for organizing to inform our collective resistance based on principles for engaging the regime, defending human rights, and preventing authoritarianism. Daily readings will be posted on our Facebook and Twitter accounts and archived HERE.

Week 3: Religious Freedom and the Christian Right

Religious freedom is the right of individual conscience; to believe as we will and to change our minds freely, without undue influence from government or from powerful religious institutions.  It also means the right to practice our beliefs free from the same constraints.  The right to believe differently from the rich and the powerful is a prerequisite for free speech and a free press, the other two elements of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.  That is one reason why religious freedom is often called the First Freedom.  Religious freedom is integral to the idea of separation of church and state.  Separation exists not to limit religious expression, but to safeguard against creeping religious supremacism and the theocratic temptations that have persisted throughout American history into the present. 

This conservative Christian alliance is challenging a century or more of social advances and many of the premises of the Enlightenment underlying the very definition of religious liberty in the United States. Its long-range goal is to impose a conservative Christian social order inspired by religious law, in part by eroding pillars of under-girding religious pluralism that are integral to our constitutional democracy. Contrary to the vision of much of the Christian Right, religious freedom is for everyone. 

Featured resources:

Additional Readings:

Media:

Click to download:

Engage:

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.

Religious Freedom is a Progressive Value

Click here to download the article as a PDF.

This article appears in the Winter 2017 edition of The Public Eye magazine.

To read press coverage about it, one might think that religious freedom is a concern only for religious and political conservatives, and not one of the most liberatory ideas in history. One would also think religious freedom and civil rights are at odds with one another.1)Joe Davidson, “Civil rights or religious liberty — what’s on top?,The Washington Post, September 9, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/powerpost/wp/2016/09/09/commission-says-religious-liberty-should-not-top-civil-rights/. Indeed, U.S. history is filled with examples of such competing claims, as resistance to everything from African American civil rights to marriage equality have been cast as matters of religious freedom. But stepping back from the heat of our political moment, there is a different, more fully accurate, story to be told, one I think that as progressives, we need to know and be able to tell.

Religious freedom is a powerful idea—the stuff from which revolutions are sometimes made. It includes the right of individual conscience—to believe or not believe as we choose, without undue influence from government or powerful religious institutions, and to practice our beliefs free from the same constraints. It’s no surprise that the first part of the First Amendment guarantees freedom of belief. The right to believe differently from the rich and powerful is a prerequisite for free speech and a free press.2)Frederick Clarkson, When Exemption is the Rule: The Religious Freedom Strategy of the Christian Right, Political Research Associates, January 2016, https://www.politicalresearch.org/when-exemption-is-the-rule-the-religious-freedom-strategy-of-the-christian-right/. Grounding our politics, journalism, and scholarship in a clear understanding of what it means and where it came from could serve as both an inoculation and an answer to the distorted, self-serving claims of the Christian Right.

Click here to read PRA’s 2016 report, “When Exemption is the Rule: The Religious Freedom Strategy of the Christian Right.”

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.

Such coalitions aren’t always easy. When North Carolina Disciples of Christ minister Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, a leader in the progressive Moral Mondays movement, was asked about squaring religious freedom and marriage equality, he looked to the lessons of history and the wisdom of his own religious tradition. Working within a coalition that had long included LGBTQ advocates, Barber noted that the Christian Right was trying to “divide our ranks by casting doubt either among the LGBTQ community or among the African American community about whether our moral movement truly represented them.”

Rev. Dr. William Barber speaking at a Moral Monday rally in 2013 (Photo via Wikimedia Commons).

In the last century the NAACP had faced a similar challenge over the question of restrictions on interracial marriage. They ultimately opposed the bans, he wrote, as a matter of upholding “the moral and constitutional principle of equal protection under the law.” Faced with yet another fear-based tactic today, Barber wrote, “our movement’s position had to be the same.” He found his response in the First Amendment, which guarantees the right of churches, synagogues, and mosques to discern for themselves “what God says about marriage,” free from governmental attempts to enforce its preferred religious doctrines.3)The Reverend Dr. William J. Barber II with Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, The Third Reconstruction: Moral Mondays, Fusion Politics, and the Rise of a New Justice Movement, (Boston: Beacon Press, 2016), p. 91.

The Revolutionary War era Virginians who created our approach to religious freedom understood religious freedom to be synonymous with the idea of the right of individual conscience. 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.”4)John Ragosta, Religious Freedom: Jefferson’s Legacy, America’s Creed, (Charlottesville:University of Virginia Press, 2013), p. 61. Madison was joined in supporting the rights of conscience by evangelical Presbyterians and Baptists who also insisted on a separation of church and state for fear that mixing would corrupt both.

Invoking the words of the Founders may seem hokey or sound archaic to some. But they knew that the freedom they were seeking to establish was fragile, and likely to be opposed in the future. Understanding the through line that connects the struggles for religious freedom at the founding of the country to today’s helps us fight to defend the principle from redefinition and cooptation.

Such an understanding helped the United States Commission on Civil Rights in 2016 when it issued a major report on issues involving religious exemptions from the law. “Religious liberty was never intended to give one religion dominion over other religions or a veto power over the civil rights and civil liberties of others,” said Commission Chair Martin R. Castro, who also further denounced the use of religious liberty as a “code word” for “Christian supremacy.”5)Martin R. Castro, U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Peaceful Coexistence: Reconciling Nondiscrimination Principles with Civil Liberties, September 7, 2016, http://www.usccr.gov/pubs/Peaceful-Coexistence-09-07-16.PDF, p. 29.

The Commission found that overly broad religious exemptions from federal labor and civil rights laws undermine the purposes of these laws and urged that courts, legislatures, or executive agencies narrowly tailor any exemptions to address the need without diminishing the efficacy of the law.6)U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, “The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights Releases Report: Peaceful Coexistence: Reconciling Nondiscrimination Principles with Civil Liberties,” PR NewsWire, September 7, 2016, http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/the-us-commission-on-civil-rights-releases-report-peaceful-coexistence-reconciling-nondiscrimination-principles-with-civil-liberties-300324252.html.

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

Religious freedom advocates of the colonial era faced powerful entrenched interests who actively suppressed religious deviance and dissent that might upset their privileges. In the Virginia colony attendance was required at the Sunday services of the Church of England, and failure to attend was the most prosecuted crime in the colony for many years. Members of these Anglican church vestries were also 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 these theocratic dictates were dealt with harshly.7)John Ragosta, Religious Freedom: Jefferson’s Legacy, America’s Creed, (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2013), p. 40-73. In the years running up to the Revolution, Baptists and other religious dissidents in Virginia were victims of vigilante violence. “Men on horseback would often ride through crowds gathered to witness a baptism,” historian John Ragosta reports. “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.”8)John A. Ragosta, Wellspring of Liberty: How Virgin’s Religious Dissenters Helped Win the American Revolution & Secured Religious Liberty, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 5.

This was the context in which Jefferson drafted the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom in 1777, which took nearly a decade to become law. The statute effectively disestablished the Anglican Church as the state church of Virginia, curtailing its extraordinary powers and privileges. It also decreed that citizens are free to believe as they will and that this “shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.” The statute was the first in history to self-impose complete religious freedom and equality, and historians as well as Supreme Court justices widely regard it as the root of how the framers of the Constitution (and later the First Amendment) approached matters of religion and government.9)John Ragosta, Religious Freedom: Jefferson’s Legacy, America’s Creed, (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2013), p. 99.

John Ragosta, author of Religious Freedom:  Jefferson’s Legacy, America’s Creed.

The principle of religious equality under the law was a profoundly progressive stance against the advantages enjoyed and enforced by the ruling political and economic elites of the 18th Century. Then, for example, as John Ragosta writes in Religious Freedom: Jefferson’s Legacy, America’s Creed, “Marriages had to be consecrated by an Anglican minister, making children of dissenters who failed to marry within the Church of England (or pay the local Anglican priest for his cooperation) subject to claims of bastardy, with potentially serious legal consequences.”10)John Ragosta, Religious Freedom: Jefferson’s Legacy, America’s Creed, (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2013), p. 46.

Such abuses may seem like a relic of the past, but in recent years some 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 varied 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. State Senator Wesley Meredith, for example, cited the Bible in explaining, “We need to regulate marriage because I believe that marriage is between a man and woman.”11)Kay Diane Ansley, Catherine “Cathy” McGaughey, Carol Ann Person, Thomas Roger Person, Kelley Penn, and Sonja Goodman v. Marion Warren, in his Official Capacity as Director of the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts. 2016, Case No.: 3:16-cv-114. The United States District Court For The Western District Of North Carolina Asheville Division, http://www.southernequality.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/Ansley-v.-Warren-Complaint.pdf.

This issue was part of the 2014 case General Synod of the United Church of Christ vs. Resinger, wherein 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.12)Max O. Cogburn, “Memorandum of Decision and Order,” General Synod of the United Church of Christ vs. Resinger, October 10, 2014. It was an historic victory for a progressive version of religious liberty but one soundly rooted in the history of religious freedom. Clergy could now perform same-sex marriage ceremonies “without fear of prosecution,” said Heather Kimmel, an attorney for the UCC.13)Anthony Moujaes, “UCC victorious in lawsuit as judge strikes down N.C. gay marriage ban,” UCC News, October 9, 2014, http://www.ucc.org/north-carolina-marriageequality-10102014.
Jefferson and his contemporaries 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: what Jefferson called an unholy alliance of “kings, nobles, and priests”—meaning clergy of any religion—that divided people in order to rule them. He later wrote that his Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom was “intended to put down the aristocracy of the clergy and restored to the citizens the freedom of the mind.”14)John Ragosta, Religious Freedom: Jefferson’s Legacy, America’s Creed, (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2013), p. 20.

A quarter-millennium later, we are still struggling to defend religious freedom against erosion and assaults by powerful religious institutions and their agents inside and outside of government. Aspiring clerical aristocrats debase the idea of religious freedom when they use it as tool to seek exemptions from the generally applicable laws of the United States—particularly those that prohibit discrimination.

Religious freedom and civil rights are complementary values and legal principles necessary to sustain and advance equality for all. Like Rev. Barber, we must not fall for the ancient tactic of allowing the kings, nobles and priests of our time to divide and set us against one another.

We have come a long way since the revolutionaries who founded our country introduced one of the most powerfully democratic ideas in the history of the world. The struggle for religious freedom may never be complete, but it remains among our highest aspirations. And yet the kinds of forces that struggled both for and against religious freedom in the 18th Century are similar to those camps today. We are the rightful heirs of the constitutional legacy of religious freedom; the way is clear for us to find our voices and reclaim our role.

 

References   [ + ]

1. Joe Davidson, “Civil rights or religious liberty — what’s on top?,The Washington Post, September 9, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/powerpost/wp/2016/09/09/commission-says-religious-liberty-should-not-top-civil-rights/.
2. Frederick Clarkson, When Exemption is the Rule: The Religious Freedom Strategy of the Christian Right, Political Research Associates, January 2016, https://www.politicalresearch.org/when-exemption-is-the-rule-the-religious-freedom-strategy-of-the-christian-right/.
3. The Reverend Dr. William J. Barber II with Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, The Third Reconstruction: Moral Mondays, Fusion Politics, and the Rise of a New Justice Movement, (Boston: Beacon Press, 2016), p. 91.
4. John Ragosta, Religious Freedom: Jefferson’s Legacy, America’s Creed, (Charlottesville:University of Virginia Press, 2013), p. 61.
5. Martin R. Castro, U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Peaceful Coexistence: Reconciling Nondiscrimination Principles with Civil Liberties, September 7, 2016, http://www.usccr.gov/pubs/Peaceful-Coexistence-09-07-16.PDF, p. 29.
6. U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, “The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights Releases Report: Peaceful Coexistence: Reconciling Nondiscrimination Principles with Civil Liberties,” PR NewsWire, September 7, 2016, http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/the-us-commission-on-civil-rights-releases-report-peaceful-coexistence-reconciling-nondiscrimination-principles-with-civil-liberties-300324252.html.
7. John Ragosta, Religious Freedom: Jefferson’s Legacy, America’s Creed, (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2013), p. 40-73.
8. John A. Ragosta, Wellspring of Liberty: How Virgin’s Religious Dissenters Helped Win the American Revolution & Secured Religious Liberty, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 5.
9. John Ragosta, Religious Freedom: Jefferson’s Legacy, America’s Creed, (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2013), p. 99.
10. John Ragosta, Religious Freedom: Jefferson’s Legacy, America’s Creed, (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2013), p. 46.
11. Kay Diane Ansley, Catherine “Cathy” McGaughey, Carol Ann Person, Thomas Roger Person, Kelley Penn, and Sonja Goodman v. Marion Warren, in his Official Capacity as Director of the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts. 2016, Case No.: 3:16-cv-114. The United States District Court For The Western District Of North Carolina Asheville Division, http://www.southernequality.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/Ansley-v.-Warren-Complaint.pdf.
12. Max O. Cogburn, “Memorandum of Decision and Order,” General Synod of the United Church of Christ vs. Resinger, October 10, 2014.
13. Anthony Moujaes, “UCC victorious in lawsuit as judge strikes down N.C. gay marriage ban,” UCC News, October 9, 2014, http://www.ucc.org/north-carolina-marriageequality-10102014.
14. John Ragosta, Religious Freedom: Jefferson’s Legacy, America’s Creed, (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2013), p. 20.

Religious Freedom

Portal Page

Religious freedom is a central issue of our time. The rights of individual conscience, religious pluralism and separation of church and state are under sustained assault by the Religious Right. And the rest of society has some catching up to do.

Religious freedom is the right of individual conscience; to believe as we will and to change our minds freely, without undue influence from government or from powerful religious institutions. The right to believe differently from the rich and the powerful is a prerequisite for free speech and a free press, the other two elements of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. This makes religious freedom a progressive value by any measure – and is exactly why the rich and powerful of the 21st century are hell-bent on redefining it to their advantage.

But the Christian Right is bringing a vast set of distortions into public life in the name of religious freedom. Their goal is to impose a conservative Christian social order with theocratic elements inspired by religious law. To achieve this goal, they seek to remove religious freedom as an integral part of religious pluralism and constitutional democracy, and redefine it in Orwellian fashion to justify discrimination by an ever wider array of “religified” institutions and businesses.

The main reason for the reemergence of religious liberty as a major issue is that the evangelical Protestant Christian Right and the American Roman Catholic bishops have forged a lasting alliance with religious liberty as its leading issue frame. They aim to create zones of exemption across a vast array of society where religious institutions and individuals would not be subject to federal civil rights and labor laws. Together they seek to challenge not only a century or more of social advances, but many of the premises of the Enlightenment underlying the very definition of religious liberty in the United States.

Top Resources:

Religious Freedom is a Progressive Value by Frederick Clarkson
We have come a long way since the revolutionaries who founded our country introduced one of the most powerfully democratic ideas in the history of the world. The struggle for religious freedom may never be complete, but it remains among our highest aspirations. And yet the kinds of forces that struggled both for and against religious freedom in the 18th Century are similar to those camps today. We are the rightful heirs of the constitutional legacy of religious freedom; the way is clear for us to find our voices and reclaim our role.

religious exemption report coverWhen the Exemption is the Rule: The Religious Freedom Strategy of the Christian Right

Ground-breaking report on the history and development of the religious freedom strategy, including the growth of the personnel, budgetary and institutional capacity of the Christian Right to wage the long term campaign. Includes a number of recommendations of what to do.

Jefferson StatueThe Christian Right Does Not Want Us to Celebrate this Day

Contrary to the Christian Right’s false notions of religious freedom, every January 16th marks National Religious Freedom Day, honoring the definition as put forward by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. In this article, PRA discusses why the left should be discussing the meaning of Religious Freedom Day and why the Christian Right should be concerned if we do.

Oaks Becket Fund croppedGrowing Mormon-Catholic Alliance: Quiet Partners Behind Christian Right’s Religious Discrimination

At one point enemies, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) and powerful Catholic leaders and organizations have quietly spent the last few decades partnering to advance the Christian Right’s religious freedom agenda. Bringing complementary political, financial, and PR strengths, the partnership is being spearheaded by two key figures.

Ted CruzDominionism is the New Religious Freedom

Historians may someday see the 2016 election season as the turning point in how our society understands the Dominionist movement that is seeking to recast society in its own image. While PRA’s researchers and many others have long been panned for warning of the growing dominionism movement and how it uses religious freedom to front for a theocratic agenda, the near-nomination of Ted Cruz may have finally gotten the mainstream on board.

ADF latin america croppedLatin America in the Crosshairs: Alliance Defending Freedom Takes Aim

In the Summer 2015 issue of The Public Eye magazine, Gillian Kane provides an in-depth profile of the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF, formerly Alliance Defense Fund), and their vast work abroad to curtail both LGBTQ and reproductive rights using a twisted version of religious freedom.

PE cover Summer 2015When the Exception Is the Rule: Christianity in the Religious Freedom Debates

The 2014 case of General Synod of the United Church of Christ v. Cooper was a landmark event because, although the case was ostensibly about opposition to marriage equality, the decision upheld foundational notions of religious equality and equal protection under the law that bind this diverse and often fractious nation. It at once affirmed the equal standing under the law of all religious and non-religious points of view and showed that the Christian Right does not represent all of Christianity.

BibleChristian Right Seeks Renewal in Deepening Catholic-Protestant Alliance

Despite recent losses in the culture war, the Christian Right is forging a path forward by rallying around a few key issues: anti-choice, opposition to marriage equality, and the defense of religious liberty. These themes—set forth in the influential Manhattan Declaration in 2009—have proved powerful enough to unify conservative Catholics and Protestants against their common enemies.

Redefining Religious Liberty COVERRedefining Religious Liberty: The Covert Campaign Against Civil Rights

PRA’s original 2013 report on the Christian Right’s campaign to redefine religious freedom, documenting how religious conservatives have succeeded in reframing the debate, inverting victim and oppressor, and broadening support for their agenda. Such arguments for religious liberty are calculated to subvert the traditional progressive framing of freedom versus discrimination, effectively accusing women, gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender individuals of infringing on the right of conservative Christians to discriminate against them.

A Forthcoming Fortnight of Demagoguery

Religious liberty is already a central feature of the 2016 election campaign.  But the Unites States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) intends to enlarge and escalate the debate when it wages its fifth annual Fortnight for Freedom this summer. The campaign will feature two weeks of events—from June 21st to July 4th—in most, if not all, of the Catholic dioceses around the country. Their aim is to highlight interest in, and mobilize support for, their religious freedom agenda. The beginning date is significant because it falls on the date the Church commemorates the martyrdom of St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More—English Catholic leaders who defied and were executed by the King in the 16th Century. The campaign will include a nine-city tour of relics of these “martyrs of the English reformation.”

Image via YouTube.

Image via YouTube.

In preparation for the campaign, the bishops recently released a ten minute video produced by the Knights of Columbus, titled “The Right to Religious Freedom.”  If the video is any indication, Church leaders are urging their flock to militancy – warning of the threat to religious freedom in America and in the world; mixing soft-focus Catholic evangelism with edgy political propaganda that by any reasonable standard has more in common with the garish partisanship of election years than thoughtful commentary on contemporary issues.  Indeed, the video’s claims that religious persecution and martyrdom may be at hand play into the hyperbolic Christian Right narrative of a looming tyranny in America – a tyranny that the faithful must prepare to resist, violently if necessary.

It is worth focusing on and answering a few themes of the Christian Right’s current campaigns, which are well crystalized in this election year video. The USCCB’s Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty’s tweet announcing the video states: “New video on #TheLittleSistersofthePoor & what Catholic Church teaches on religious freedom!” Another tweet calls it a “conversation starter.”

The reference to the Little Sisters of the Poor involves the Supreme Court case Zubik v. Burwell, and its implications is the focus of the video. The case is a consolidation of seven similar cases questioning whether religiously-affiliated non-profit organizations such as charities and hospitals must conform to the contraception mandate in the regulations under the Affordable Care Act.  The video highlights one of the cases, that of a Catholic order that operates nursing homes. The Little Sisters of the Poor did not want to have to file the simple paperwork requesting a religious exemption from the regulations – claiming that the very act of signing the form that would exempt them from contraception mandates would violate their religious freedom.

The USCCB’s video, however, says little about the substance of the case. The good works of the order are highlighted, while leading Catholic scholars suggest that there is an imminent and inexplicable governmental threat to the rights of the Litter Sisters of the Poor that will lead to a broad and escalating siege against the rights of all.

First they came for the nuns

“A government that doesn’t acknowledge limits on its power to regulate religious institutions is probably going to come after others as well,” Professor Rick Garnett of Notre Dame Law School gravely warns in the video.  As footage of rioting and fire in the night in some unidentified place and time scrolls by in the background, Garnett continues, “Governments that try to squash religious freedom tend to face political fragmentation; political disunity.”  His words thus come across as more of a threat than an observation.

The stakes, in the view of the bishops, are illuminated by Professor David L. Schindler of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute at the Catholic University of America.  “When you are confronted with a tank,” he declares in the video, “it’s clear your freedom is being deprived, and you… have an identifiable enemy.”

Schindler further suggests that the current situation is not “so benign” as it is presented.  He and the bishops seem to be suggesting that if things do not go their way in Zubik, the faithful may have to face military tanks in much the way that reform-minded Chinese students famous did in Tiananmen Square.  In fact, video footage from that episode appears in this video, as well as footage of East Germans breaking through the Berlin Wall.

Thomas Farr. Image via YouTube.

Thomas Farr. Image via YouTube.

Thomas Farr, a Catholic neoconservative who heads the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University also appears in the video, highlighting a running theme on the Christian Right which seeks to conflate domestic issues (such as marriage equality) with anti-Christian genocide abroad. “We can’t love God, we can’t do our job, if we don’t have religious freedom,” Farr declares, “and there are Christians around the world who are being denied that right.”

Such false equivalences and analogies between the horrors of religiously-motivated genocide in the Middle East and domestic issues are the rule rather than the exception for many Christian Right leaders.  In 2015, Farr gave a talk titled “ISIS and Indiana: The Global Crisis of Religious Liberty and Catholic Responsibility,” in which he implied that the terror group ISIS had some bearing on the debate at the time over LGBTQ discrimination in the Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Religious liberty, he suggested, is in danger of being “lost in America.” (Farr’s talk was promoted by the USCCB.)

Helen Alvaré, a former staffer at the bishops’ Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, and now a professor of law at George Mason University is similarly apocalyptic in the video, claiming “When religious freedom goes away, and there is no transcendent authority, there is only majority will, then the law is the only norm, and the people in power now, are always the only power.”

Alvaré’s claim that religious freedom is subject to “majority will” ignores the actual constitutional system in which we live. Our system of government is intended to be a check against majoritarianism and factionalism. And it is explicitly intended to prevent the undue entanglements between church and state. Governments, political parties and individual politicians come and go, but only those with conspiracist worldviews believe that the people who populate the government at any given time are the only power. What Alvaré suggests is that her church represents the correct and permanent “transcendent authority,” and therefore their parochial approach to religious freedom should hold sway.

What is religious freedom? It’s all about religious and non-religious pluralism. As Thomas Jefferson put it: when one’s religious identity “shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.”

It can be difficult to take seriously the hyperbole and seemingly twisted perspectives of such soft-spoken and scholarly figures as Schindler, Alvaré, and Farr and their sponsors, the leading Catholic bishops in the United States. But it would be foolish to ignore them.

Thomas Farr goes so far as to equate the idea of religious liberty with his own religious identity. He says, “the dignity of the human person, that’s what religious freedom is. Every human being has dignity as a human person because he or she is created in the image and likeness of God.”

In fact, religious freedom has always been defined as having nothing to do with such parochialisms. Indeed, claims like Farr’s are the fount of all theocratic reasoning. His bibliocentric claim that because people are made in God’s image, that this is therefore the meaning of religious liberty, conflates his explicitly religious view with the Enlightenment idea of religious equality when it comes to citizenship. As Thomas Jefferson put it in his landmark Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, one’s religious identity “shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.”

Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore, who leads the USCCB’s Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty (which organizes Fortnight for Freedom), has denied that he and his fellow bishops are right-wing culture warriors bent on imposing their agenda on everyone else. But he also essentially acknowledged that they want to do just that by, among other things, blocking access to legal and otherwise constitutionally protected contraception and abortion care wherever they can.

Lori has also served as a director and Supreme Chaplain of the Knights of Columbus for a decade. That he and his fellow bishops and the Catholic scholars that appear in this Knights of Columbus-produced video seem to adhere to views that have more in common with the most militant elements of the Christian Right should be fair warning to those who value religious pluralism and constitutional democracy.

When Exemption is the Rule: the Religious Freedom Strategy of the Christian Right

A groundbreaking 2016 report by PRA senior fellow Frederick Clarkson details the strategy and agenda inside the Christian Right’s campaign to exempt not only religions, but individuals and businesses from civil rights and labor laws using a false notion of religious freedom.

By creating zones of legal exemption, the Christian Right seeks to shrink the public sphere and the arenas within which the government has legitimacy to defend people’s rights, including reproductive, labor, and LGBTQ rights.

However, the Christian Right’s religious freedom strategy is part of its long-game and is not merely an anti-LGBTQ tactic. Its long-range goal is to impose a conservative Christian social order inspired by religious law, in part by eroding pillars of undergirding religious pluralism that are integral to our constitutional democracy.

 

Read the Report in HTML

religious exemptions html

Download the PDF

religious exemption report cover

Read the Executive Summary

religious exemption exec summary

 

Dominionism is the New Religious Freedom

Historians may someday see the 2016 election season as the turning point in how our society understands the Dominionist movement that is seeking to recast society in its own image.  The herald of this new understanding is—ironically, as I will discuss below—a Washington Post commentary by historian John Fea, titled:  “Ted Cruz’s campaign is fueled by a dominionist vision for America.”  The Post’s publication of Fea’s piece follows years of both scholarly and journalistic tip-toeing around this elephant on the table of American public life – a dynamic modern theocratic religious and political movement that prior conventional wisdom notwithstanding is not fringe.

Ted Cruz speaks to supporters gathered at a late-night campaign stop at Penny's Diner in Missouri Valley, Iowa, in Jan. 2016. Image via Matt A.J. on Flickr.

Ted Cruz speaks to supporters gathered at a late-night campaign stop at Penny’s Diner in Missouri Valley, Iowa, in Jan. 2016. Image via Matt A.J. on Flickr.

Fea, who chairs the History Department at the evangelical Messiah College in Pennsylvania, matter of factly discusses the influence of “seven mountains dominionism” on Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) – who may be the most openly theocratic candidate ever to be a serious contender for a major party presidential nomination.  Perhaps just as remarkably, the Dominionism advocated by the likes of the Cruz family is wrapped in a claim that religious freedom is under assault in the U.S.

As I reported in the recent report, When Exemption is the Rule: The Religious Freedom Strategy of the Christian Right:

“I believe that 2016 is going to be a religious-liberty election,” Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) declared before a raucous crowd of some 7,000 Southern Baptists in October 2015.  “As these threats grow darker and darker and darker, they are waking people up here in Texas and all across this country.”

Unsurprisingly, Cruz features this claim at many of his presidential campaign rallies. This is the new normal.

But of course, Cruz’s notion of religious freedom is all about creating religious exemptions to the legal requirements to recognize the civic equality of LGBTQ people, and the rights of people seeking their sexual and reproductive health care, as well as the rights of people – including many Christians – whose religious views are different than those of the Cruzes and their ilk.

The term “Dominionism” was first popularized in the 1990s by researchers, including Chip Berlet, scholar Sara Diamond, and myself, who needed a term to describe the political aspirations of Christian Rightists who believed that they have a biblical mandate to control all earthly institutions –including government – until the second coming of Jesus. But the idea of conservative Christians gaining political power sufficient to take dominion over society predated our use of the term by decades.

The two main schools of Dominionist thought include Christian Reconstructionism, founded by the late R.J. Rushdoony, which advances the idea not only of the need for Christians (of the right sort) to dominate society, but institute and apply Old Testament “Biblical Law.”

The other, closely related form of Dominionism is advocated by the Pentecostal  New Apostolic Reformation, which exuberantly advocates for Christians to “reclaim the seven mountains of culture”: government, religion, media, family, business, education, and arts and entertainment.

The religious vision and political aspirations of Ted Cruz and his father Rafael are widely known in conservative Christian religious and political circles and are being discussed in his home state of Texas.  So much so, that reporter Jonathan Tilove of the Austin American Statesman wrote last summer about how Raphael Cruz was compelled to insist, “We are not talking about theocracy.”  But Fea reports that the Cruzes are close to Christian Nationalist author, historical revisionist and longtime Texas Republican leader David Barton, who declares that the United States was founded as a Christian Nation but has fallen away from this foundation and must be restored to avoid punishment from God.

Fea writes:

“Anyone who has watched Cruz on the stump knows that he often references the important role that his father, traveling evangelist Rafael Cruz, has played in his life. During a 2012 sermon at New Beginnings Church in Bedford, Texas, Rafael Cruz described his son’s political campaign as a direct fulfillment of biblical prophecy.

The elder Cruz told the congregation that God would anoint Christian “kings” to preside over an “end-time transfer of wealth” from the wicked to the righteous. After this sermon, Larry Huch, the pastor of New Beginnings, claimed Cruz’s recent election to the U.S. Senate was a sign that he was one of these kings.

According to his father and Huch, Ted Cruz is anointed by God to help Christians in their effort to “go to the marketplace and occupy the land … and take dominion” over it. This “end-time transfer of wealth” will relieve Christians of all financial woes, allowing true believers to ascend to a position of political and cultural power in which they can build a Christian civilization. When this Christian nation is in place (or back in place), Jesus will return.

Rafael Cruz and Larry Huch preach a brand of evangelical theology called Seven Mountains Dominionism. They believe Christians must take dominion over seven aspects of culture: family, religion, education, media, entertainment, business and government. The name of the movement comes from Isaiah 2:2: “Now it shall come to pass in the latter days that the Lord’s house shall be established on the top of the mountains.”

Fea also notes that Barton, who runs the Keep the Promise Super PAC that supports Cruz’s campaign, shares this vision:

“Barton’s Christian nationalism is a product of this theological approach to culture. Back in 2011, Barton said that if Christians were going to successfully “take the culture” they would need to control these seven areas. “If you can have those seven areas,” Barton told his listeners to his radio show, “you can shape and control whatever takes place in nations, continents and even the world.”

This is remarkable, in part, because a few years ago, journalists and scholars who wrote about Dominionism found themselves facing a smear campaign by, among others, writers at the same paper in which Fea’s commentary appears. Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson and then-religion writer Lisa Miller were part of this national effort to discredit the idea that Dominionism was a real thing or that even if it was, that it was of much significance. This despite the fact that then-Gov. Rick Perry (R-TX) had made his de facto presidential campaign announcement at a massive prayer rally organized by leaders of the movement for Seven Mountains Dominionism, and that then presidential candidate Rep. Michele Bachman’s (R-MN) mentor at law school was John Eidsmoe, a prominent Christian Reconstructionist theorist, (who now works at the Foundation for Moral Law, founded by Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore.)   Perry’s campaign later imploded, (for reasons other than the Dominionism controversy) and Bachman’s campaign never gained traction, but the episode certainly prefigured current events.

Now, some four years later, former Gov. Perry has endorsed Ted Cruz for president. Cruz has won the Iowa caucuses, and The Washington Post has published a major article about the Seven Mountains Dominionism of Sen. Cruz and his father.  A great transformation in American politics and religion, once pooh poohed by established interests (which also denounced those of us who recognized and wrote about its importance) is now accepted as uncontroverted fact.  And the attack dogs of the various political establishments are not yet snarling.