Commentary

An unexpected win for religious freedom

An unexpected win for religious freedom
religious-freedom

Religious Freedom Day, the most significant national Day that few had ever heard of, emerged from the shadows this year.  There were no picnics or fireworks or speeches by elected officials — and the press largely ignored it.  But so much happened just below the national radar.  We may have witnessed the first stirrings of a renewed movement for the rights of individual conscience.  

It is too early to say whether it was a turning point in our history — but just might have been.

At a time when the Christian Right is making religious freedom the centerpiece of its political program, many of us are beginning to stand up and say that religious freedom is not just for the few. 

This year, for the first time, organizations that embrace LGBTQ equality and reproductive justice decided to seize the day — joining with religious and secular agencies and advocates of separation of church and state to commemorate Religious Freedom Day. 

Instead of leaving the narrative to the likes of Tony Perkins and the Alliance Defending Freedom who bogusly claim that religious freedom means the right of Christians of the right sort to  discriminate, this Religious Freedom Day, many of the rest of us began to tell the story of how religious freedom is a great progressive value – and why it is for everyone and not just a few.

Religious Freedom Day commemorates the enactment of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom on January 16, 1786.  Written by Thomas Jefferson and politicked through the Virginia legislature by James Madison, the statute 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 change their minds—and that this “shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.” 

In the following years, Madison went on to be a principal author of both the Constitution and the First Amendment, and the Virginia bill is understood to this day as the taproot of how the founders sought to address the relationship between religion and government.

In the annual presidential proclamation recognizing the Religious Freedom Day this year, President Obama said that religious freedom “protects the right of every person to practice their faith how they choose, to change their faith, or to practice no faith at all, and to do so free from persecution and fear.”

Meanwhile, more than two dozen organizations affiliated with the Coalition for Liberty and Justice contributed op-eds, blog posts, and a storm of posts on Facebook and Twitter. 

I’m told the Coalition’s “Twitter Storm” — using the hash tag #ReligiousFreedomIs — reached some 590,000 Twitter accounts and more than six million impressions. 

In two hours on Religious Freedom Day alone, there were more than 1,500 tweets and 552 individual contributors.  Among the Coalition members that participated were Americans United for Separation of Church and State, National LGBTQ Taskforce, Secular Coalition for America, the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, and (of course) us here at Political Research Associates.

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Bloggers at Daily Kos contributed a wide variety of thoughts about religious freedom and the Day—and noted the interesting work of people far and wide.  The Center for American Progress suggested three ways to celebrate. 

In Utah, the House Minority Leader Brian King (D), supported by a range of religious leaders, announced the introduction of a bill to commemorate Religious Freedom Day which mirrors the national Day.   

And the executive director of the Joint Baptist Committee on Public Affairs took to The Huffington Post to discuss how “Jefferson’s radical Virginia statute created a vital marketplace for religion that must be based on voluntary belief, not government assistance.” 

It is, he said, up to people of faith and their institutions to persuade others of their views, and to “count on government to do no more than to protect our right to do so.”

It would be an understatement to say that the outpouring was broad, diverse, and enthusiastic. 

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Only a few years ago, the idea that the once obscure Religious Freedom Day, commemorating a piece of 18th century state legislation that few beyond history buffs had even heard of, could now attract such interest is astounding.  But maybe it is less astounding that it might seem at first. 

Increasingly people get it that the Christian Right is trying to redefine religious freedom to advance their theocratic political agenda.

We are looking for ways to advance religious freedom on our own terms, with equal treatments for all beliefs and non-beliefs, not the terms dictated by the Catholic Bishops and their allies in conservative evangelicalism. 

We want our religious freedom back.

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