Today is Religious Freedom Day, a time to commemorate passage of Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, pioneering legislation that is viewed by scholars as a precursor to the First Amendment.
It’s also a good time to reflect on the status of religious freedom in America. That principle, rightly cherished not just by Americans but by people worldwide, stands in jeopardy in our nation. We are seeing nothing less than an attempt to redefine what religious freedom means.
Increasingly, we’re seeing religious freedom – a great and a glorious concept, a thing oppressed people around the world long for – being pressed into the shabby service of discrimination or being used as a device for one person to take away the rights of another. This is offensive because religious freedom is too precious for that. It’s too valuable and too crucial to who we are as a people.
We must be clear what’s going on here: President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and their allies in the Religious Right seek not religious freedom as it has been historically understood in this country. What they’re after is a radical redefinition of religious freedom.
Under their mutated version, religious freedom becomes a device that allows one person to impose his or her theology onto others. The people who back this are making the mistake that every theocrat in history has made: the belief that if they enlist the raw power of government in helping them promote their “true” religion, if they just apply enough pressure, they can change what is in people’s hearts.
But they can’t. And the idea that they can isn’t just offensive, it is rebuked by hundreds of years of human history. It is denounced by the voices of martyrs long dead who gave their lives for the sake of freedom of conscience. It was rejected by our founders, and that is why it is alien to our Constitution.
We should never doubt the sincerity of belief among many in the Religious Right. Indeed, the depth of their zealotry is part of what makes them so dangerous. And while they are free to believe that they are right and the rest of us are wrong, what they’re not free to do is twist religious freedom into knots as they seek to compel the rest of us not just to listen to them but to obey them. What they fail to understand is that at the heart of religious freedom lies autonomy and choice, not force and compulsion.
At Americans United, we fight these false interpretations of religious freedom every day. We hearken back to first principles: a vision of religious freedom that allows all people to choose for themselves what religion, if any, they want to follow. (And let’s be clear on this: Religious freedom includes the right to reject faith entirely.) Under that vision, people are free to spread their faith and share it with others, using voluntary channels – but they’re not free to use their religion as a cudgel to strike down the rights of others.
On Religious Freedom Day, we ask you to recommit to this crucial principle and join Americans United in the battle to defend it.