Religious Freedom Day came and went, and with all that’s going on, few noticed. In recent years, there has been a move to reclaim the idea of religious freedom back from the Christian Right, which has turned it into an Orwellian project that lays claim to freedom while promoting tyranny. The Religious Freedom Day group here at Daily Kos, has been a part of that effort.
Another part of that effort has been an annual essay by Paul Rosenberg at Salon.com on or about Religious Freedom Day, January 16th. This year, it came a week late, but better late than never!
Falling midway between Donald Trump’s second impeachment and Joe Biden’s inauguration, Jan. 16 marked a less-noticed but arguably more important commemoration, the 235th anniversary of the passage of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. That is now commonly recognized as the first law to establish religious freedom, and was one of three achievements that its author, Thomas Jefferson, had inscribed on his tombstone. That date has been officially recognized as Religious Freedom Day since 1993, and amid so much political tumult, it went almost overlooked this year. But it goes to the core of what America is all about, what Trump’s supporters are trying to destroy, and what Black Lives Matter demonstrators so emphatically affirmed this past year.
Jefferson’s statute provided unlimited freedom of conscience for all — a pluralistic paradise. But ever since Barack Obama’s election in 2008, the religious right has seized on Religious Freedom Day as a key part of its Orwellian propaganda campaign to redefine religious freedom as a license to discriminate, an exclusionary license for religious bigotry and sectarian dominance — the exact opposite of what Jefferson fundamentally believed in. So it’s only natural that both Jefferson and the Virginia Statute are almost entirely absent from any of the right’s gaslighting celebrations of religious freedom.
Recovering the original meaning also entails pushing back against the right’s anti-choice and anti-LGBTQ politics, which they’ve sought to protect under the mantle of their own beliefs, while forcing those beliefs on others.
Of course, Jefferson has come in for increasing criticism from the left as well, due to his slaveholder status, which looms larger than ever after last year’s historic Black Lives Matters protests. But rather than argue over Jefferson’s undeniable individual flaws, there’s a growing movement in the Black religious community to adopt a much broader and deeper critical view of the discourse of religious freedom, even if it was initially promulgated by a slave-owning empire. These new voices are more in synch than at odds with those previously engaged in the battle to reclaim religious freedom, as seen in a roundtable forum produced by Political Research Associates, “Religious Freedom and the Machinations of the Christian Right,” held on Jan. 14.
African Americans expand our perspectives on religious freedom
Two days earlier, the shared perspective among Black Christians and non-Christians was richly explored in Freedom Forum’s book launch and webinar, “African Americans & Religious Freedom: New Perspectives for Congregations & Communities.” Black people in the Americas, enslaved with a set of Christian justifications “and displaced from their lands, culture, religions and ancestors, have a unique and fierce historical commitment to the ideals of freedom,” Baptist theologian Faith B. Harris writes in the first chapter of the book (pdf here). “With their very presence, New World Africans have a unique claim to religious freedom, despite the rhetoric embedded in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.”
There is much, much more in Rosenberg’s story, and behind the links to religious freedom-related articles, books and webinars. Its a worthwhile dive into essential material about one of the central issues of our time.