Today is National Religious Freedom Day, the anniversary of the passage of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, a statute written by Thomas Jefferson disestablishing the Church of England in Virginia, and an important precursor to the Establishment and Free Exercise clauses of the First Amendment.
What does that have to do with me, you ask? Well, 2019 saw the greatest increase in violence against religious communities in almost a decade in this country. Religious freedom, one of our core First Amendment principles, supports the freedom of an individual or community, in public or private, to manifest religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship, and observance. It was visionary for Thomas Jefferson to separate from the Church of England at a time when separation of church from state was practically unheard of, and even today it is a protection for citizens that is pretty unique to America.
So why then is something that is a constitutionally protected right that should be beneficial to all citizens (even those of no faith) so polarizing? Religious freedom has come to be perceived as something that is only meant to protect some citizens at the expense of others. This avoidable clash has fomented the culture wars and only divided us further. In order for our religious diversity to be a strength, we need a radical reimagining of how we perceive religious freedom and its connection to all faith communities.
This begins with standing up for the rights of other faith communities, not just our own, and especially if one is part of the majority faith community. Just days ago, the President tweeted out an Islamophobic image, assigning traditional Muslim dress to his political opponents. The most vocal response was from Muslim leaders and advocates, yet imagine if we heard vociferous condemnation from evangelical leaders based on the premise of religious freedom. By speaking up, we can demonstrate that such rhetoric does not hurt only a subsection of the population, but all of us.
Our increasing division and polarization has also meant far less understanding of other faiths. Recent studies have highlighted that while many Americas can provide a few basic facts about Christianity and the Bible, few know about Judaism, Hinduism, and what the Constitution actually says about religion as it relates to elected officials. So let’s open ourselves up to talking about our faith and learning about the faith of others. There are numerous ways to do this and many are easier and more surprising than one might think: commit to finding and hearing stories from communities that not often heard from, and approach conversations about difference with empathy and humility. There are many resources that can serve as a starting point.
To be sure, our differences are real and should not be glossed over. Religious pluralism should not strive for the lowest common denominator version of engagement, but rather an appreciation and acknowledgement of our differences, a commitment to cooperative and constructive agreement across those differences.
The commemoration of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom should serve as a call to action for each one of us. Let’s commit to holding our political leaders accountable to protecting the religious rights of each and every citizen. If our goal is a just, free, and equitable society, then we must reimagine the relevance of religious freedom for every citizen.
Zeenat Rahman is the director of the Inclusive America Project at the Aspen Institute.