There may not be any fireworks or family gatherings today, Religious Freedom Day. Most of us have never even heard of it. This is as remarkable as it is tragic, since it recalls an event that has profound significance for our contemporary debates over the proper role of religion in public life. The Day was created by Congress in 1991 to recognize the enactment of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom on January 16, 1786. It has been commemorated by presidential proclamation every year since.
But something strange, something ugly, has happened in recent years. The Christian Right has successfully turned—we would say redefined— the transformational ideas of the Framers of the Constitution into the ideological phalanx of their culture war campaigns. In 2014 alone, we saw the Hobby Lobby Supreme Court case (which allows corporations to impose certain religious views of owners and managers on employees) and the widespread introduction of bills in state legislatures authorizing anti-LGBTQ discrimination in the name of religious freedom. They call these bills that take away freedom, Religious Freedom Restoration Acts (RFRAs).
That first religious freedom law not only disestablished the Anglican Church as the official church in Virginia, but also provided that individuals are free to believe or not to believe as they will and that this “shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.” In other words — Jefferson’s words— one’s religious identity, or lack thereof, has no bearing on one’s “civil capacities.”
Religious freedom is now invoked as a way of seeking to derail access to reproductive health services as well as equality for LGBTQ people, most prominently regarding marriage equality. And it is presented as form of religious orthodoxy, with religious freedom redefined as the right to impose religious orthodoxy on the rest of us.
This being the case, we might expect that the Christian Right would be making a big to-do about Religious Freedom Day, but they’re not. Why? Because Jefferson’s bill, the history of how it came about, and what it meant, offers no support for their claim that our country was founded as a Christian Nation. It also offers no support for their contemporary political agenda.
But we are not bound by the Christian Right’s claims. And we are free to learn what they would rather we didn’t.
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 individuals?
If we did, we might recall the challenge faced by the Framers of the Constitution when they gathered in Philadelphia. They sought 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.
The problems we face in the 21st century with regard to religion in public life are not unlike those of the 18th century. And like our ancestors we can find solutions by standing strong for the values of religious pluralism, respect, and equality under the law.
Religious Freedom Day provides an opportunity for all people of conscience to stand in the bright light of history with Jefferson and Madison, and embrace religious freedom as a foundational principle for our own time.
Clarkson is senior fellow for religious liberty at Political Research Associates.