Today is National Religious Freedom Day in the United States. It was on January 16, 1786, that the Virginia State Assembly adopted Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, the Church of England in Virginia was disestablished, and people of different faiths were granted freedom of religion. The Virginia statute became the basis for the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
What is often forgotten in the celebrations is that everyone has the right to manifest belief or religion, change religions, or not to follow any religion. Yes, the day celebrates freedom of religion. The First Amendment, as confirmed over and over again by the courts, also protects freedom from religion, although we have always had some Supreme Court justices who have trouble understanding this issue.
The Constitution doesn’t protect people who have different religious beliefs from criticism. If an individual wants to celebrate the work of an evangelical group working to eradicate deadly disease in Africa or criticize a conservative charismatic Catholic group for suggesting that women should be subordinate to their husbands, that’s their right. Likewise, if someone wants to celebrate the support for Black Lives Matter by Unitarian Universalists or criticize the Episcopal church’s support for same-sex marriage, that’s their right. What the Constitution does is to bar courts and governments from preferring one set of religious views over any other set — or over nonreligious views.
And that is important to know because any serious study of religious life in America uncovers how quickly the persecuted become the persecutors in this country.
Conservatives on the court too often rule as if they only want to protect one particular set of religious interests: those of other conservative Christians. There is less support for the rights of the progressive person of faith who favors equality because it aligns with their religious beliefs. And if your views are decidedly nonreligious, you may have trouble breaking into the conversation. As with most rights, maintaining religious freedom is an ongoing struggle.
Over the years I’ve written about the history and places associated with freedom of religion. In honor of National Religious Freedom Day 2022, here are a few of interest.
- Let’s take a road trip to help understand the history behind religious liberty (2020) — As a preservationist, I wrote this rather long piece on place as the Supreme Court was debating religious liberty and the civic duties of a county clerk in Kentucky. The reader will visit Providence and Newport in Rhode Island, as well as James Madison’s Montpelier in Virginia, and Mount Taylor in New Mexico.
- Religious liberty and the founding myths (2016) — This post looks at two important works on religious liberty. Historian John Barry’s 2012 work Roger Williams and The Creation of the American Soul details the life of a founding father who believed it “’monstrous’ to compel another person to believe what he or anyone else believed, or to compel conformity to his or anyone else’s belief.” Historian Kevin Kruse’s One Nation Under God: How Corporate American Invented Christian America looks into the obliteration of the separation of church and state at the hands of anti-New Deal corporate CEOs.
- Religious freedom and the American experiment (2019) — Steven Waldman’s book, Sacred Liberty: America’s Long, Bloody, and Ongoing Struggle for Religious Freedom is one of the best works I know of in increasing our understanding of this important right. It isn’t perfect but it is very helpful.
- The Chosen One (2019) — Finally, when outgoing Energy Secretary Rick Perry tells Fox & Friends that he saw Donald Trump as “God’s Chosen One”, no better example exists as to why we need a true and robust understanding of religious freedom. You’ll find a few things to make you laugh (or cry) in this one.
Happy National Religious Freedom Day!
More to come…
NOTE: As the country celebrates the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, my posts this week focus on various aspects of understanding, justice, tolerance, love, and reconciliation with the hope they may be useful as we each take our own journeys to create the beloved community.