Saturday is Religious Freedom Day. While it’s not one of our most well-known or popular holidays, Religious Freedom Day shouldn’t be overlooked. Our country is in the middle of a campaign, spearheaded by far-right religious groups and their political allies, to redefine religious freedom. We cannot allow this to happen.
This campaign takes several forms. We see efforts by Religious Right groups and the U.S. Catholic bishops to take religious freedom, a key individual right, and turn it into something that allows one person to control or make moral decisions for others.
The birth control cases pending before the U.S. Supreme Court are a good example of this. Under the compromise crafted by the Obama administration, houses of worship are wholly exempt from the mandate to provide birth control to employees. Religiously affiliated colleges and religious non-profit groups do have to comply, but they are given a generous work around and don’t have to spend one dime of their money paying for contraceptives. They merely have to tell the government that they don’t want to pay for it. At that point, a third-party provider steps in and provides birth control only to those employees who say they want it.
Yet even this is too much for the tender sensibilities of some religious non-profits. They assert that the mere presence of contraceptives in a health-care plan, and the fact that this medication is made available to those who ask for it, is enough to violate someone else’s “religious freedom.” Such claims stand the concept of religious freedom on its head. Person A’s decision to use birth control in no way prevents Person B from attending a house of worship, praying, reading religious books, singing hymns and so on.
This attempt at redefinition is not the only threat religious freedom faces. We are also seeing attempts to literally rewrite American history. The story of religious freedom in America is a tale of liberty extended to all. Thomas Jefferson said it best. Speaking of his landmark Virginia Statute for Religious Liberty, a measure historians cite as an influence on the First Amendment, Jefferson observed that religious freedom is for “the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and Infidel of every denomination.” (Religious Freedom Day is intended to celebrate the Virginia’s legislature’s passage of this bill, which occurred on Jan. 16, 1786.)
Yet Religious Right efforts to promote the “Christian nation” myth continue apace. David Barton, a far-right activist based in Texas who is not a historian, has just reissued a book about Jefferson that was so error-laden that its original publisher pulled it from circulation. The book’s new publisher is WorldNetDaily, a right-wing website with little concern for accuracy.
What can you do to combat these efforts to redefine religious freedom? First off, arm yourself with some facts. My 2014 book Taking Liberties: Why Religious Freedom Doesn’t Give You The Right To Tell Other People What To Do is a good place to start.
Warren Throckmorton and Michael Coulter have debunked much of Barton’s propaganda. Chris Rodda has also body-slammed Barton more than once. Chris has a new book out, Liars for Jesus: The Religious Right’s Alternate Version of American History, Volume 2. My copy is en route from Amazon, and I look forward to reading it.
Books by authors like Steven K. Green, Frank Lambert, Robert S. Alley, Ed and Michael Buckner, Edwin S. Gaustad, Marci Hamilton, Fred Clarkson, AU’s Barry Lynn and a host others will give you the facts you need to battle Religious Right pseudo-history and stand up for real religious freedom. Use them.