For "Religious Freedom Day," Take Back the Term's Revolutionary MeaningBreaking News
tags: civil liberties, First Amendment, Religious Freedom, Church-State Separation
Frederick Clarkson is a Senior Research Analyst at Political Research Associates in Somerville, Massachusetts. He is the editor of Dispatches from the Religious Left: The Future of Faith and Politics in America (Ig Publishing, 2008), and Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy, (Common Courage Press, 1997)
Religious freedom has been at the center of American history since the founding. (And by the founding, I mean of the United States of America, not including the roughly century-and-a-half of colonial era.) There’s a story of religious freedom in the U.S. that isn’t widely or well understood—and is fiercely contested by the Christian Right.
Religious freedom was and is a revolutionary and liberatory concept that can disrupt entangled religious and political establishments and corrupt alliances of convenience. On Religious Freedom Day (January 16th) some will praise faith, and maybe the Founding Fathers, and some will call for interfaith understanding. Nothing wrong with all that. But if they fail to discuss the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which the day is intended to commemorate, they will have muffed the meaning and power of the moment.
There are many roots of religious freedom, but the story of religious freedom as a constitutional right in the US begins with the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which was originally drafted by Thomas Jefferson in 1777 and shepherded through the Virginia legislature by James Madison in 1786. The following year, Madison served as the lead author of the Constitution, and in 1789, as the lead author of the First Amendment. Thus, the Virginia Statute is rightly understood to be the clearest statement of the intentions of the Framers in matters of the right relationship between the individual, religion, and government.
Historian John Ragosta’s thumbnail history of the bill at the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello recognizes this. He quotes Madison saying that the Virginia Statute “is a true standard of Religious liberty: its principle the great barrier agst. usurpations on the rights of conscience. As long as it is respected… these will be safe.”
But so much of this has been lost in the mists of time and the robust efforts of the historical revisionists of the Christian Right, who falsely claim that the founders intended the country to be a “Christian nation.” In an effort to rescue the story of the origins of religious freedom, Congress sought in 1992 to commemorate the enactment of the Virginia Statute, designating January 16th as Religious Freedom Day, stipulating only that it be commemorated by a presidential proclamation.
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