When Americans celebrate Religious Freedom Day tomorrow, not everyone will be happy about it. Liberals are already blasting the tradition that honors the 1786 signing of one of the most influential documents in American history: the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom. Now, more than 230 years into the tradition that sparked a revolution, the Left is ready to recast history.
In Salon, hardly the bastion of conservative thought, Paul Rosenberg tries to persuade readers that freedom is the oppression, insisting that when Christians talk about religious liberty, it’s really just code for “theocratic supremacism of their own religious beliefs inscribed in government.” Taking aim at FRC in particular, Rosenberg points to Frederick Clarkson, who insists that our Church Ministries team has been “empowered to advance a dangerous suite of theocratic and persecutory policies” (while producing absolutely zero evidence to the effect). Instead, he talks suspiciously about our Culture Impact Teams (CITs), our network of on-the-ground activists in churches across America. Operating under the authority of the church’s leadership, CITs serve as the command center for a church’s efforts to engage the culture.
Then he starts to play fast and loose with the Constitution. He quotes Rosenberg: “I think if we got serious about taking Jefferson and Madison’s foundational ideas of religious equality under the law into the 21stcentury, Christian nationalism would crumble.” And then Perkins adds: “Our own Constitution closes with the words, ‘In the year of our Lord, 1787.’ That’s a reference to Jesus! The signers not only embraced Christianity, they anchored our most important document in it.”
OK. I have written about this before. First, the Constitution says “year of our Lord.” It does not say anything about Jesus. Second, this phrase hardly serves as an “anchor” of the Constitution. Third, “In the year of our Lord” was a standard eighteenth-century way of referencing the date. We need to be careful about giving it too much theological meeting. Fourth, it is worth noting that an appeal to God does tell us something about the eighteenth-century world that the founders inhabited. We don’t sign documents like this today. Fifth, because the phrase “In the year of our Lord” is boilerplate, it was probably not added until after the delegates had left Philadelphia. Sixth, the minutes of the Constitutional Convention reveal that there was no discussion about the phrase “In the year of our Lord.” In other words, NO ONE said anything like: “Let’s end the document with the phrase ‘In the year of our Lord’ because it will send a message to everyone that we are creating a Christian nation.”
Perkins is correct when he says that Jefferson included the writing of the Virginia Statue of Religious Freedom on his tombstone. Jefferson was a champion of religious freedom. He believed that everyone had the right to worship God freely without government interference. Jefferson did not comment on whether or not it was appropriate to have a Ten Commandments display in a courthouse or a prayer before a football game. It is very difficult to appeal to his writings (or the writings of James Madison) to argue for or against such things.
Perkins writes: “Before President Trump, Jefferson would barely recognize his country.” Really? Jefferson lived in a different era, but he would certainly be able to spot Christian nationalists like Perkins. He did battle against them in his own day (Christian Federalists) and would probably do battle with them today. Jefferson regularly slammed pious New Englanders and their Christian political establishments. He worried that they were trying to create a Christian nation, not a nation informed by religious liberty.
I have mixed feelings about this whole religious liberty debate:
- When Christian Right evangelicals talk about religious liberty they use this idea in a negative way–to protect themselves and their views. In other words, they are rarely interested in articulating a positive view of religious liberty that defends the right of all people to worship freely.
- There are real religious liberty issues at stake in our country right now. Will Christian institutions who uphold traditional views of marriage, for example, remain in a position to receive government funds or maintain a tax-exempt status? I wrote about this yesterday.
On the one hand, people like Rosenberg and Clarkson need to offer a vision of religious liberty that protects the rights of churches, Christian schools, and other Christian institutions to practice their faith in the way they see fit, even in areas of sexual politics. Frankly, I think Hillary Clinton’s failure to defend religious liberty in this way may have, among other things, cost her the election in 2016.
On the other hand, Christian Right activists like Perkins need to stop manipulating history. When it comes to Jefferson, Perkins could probably learn a great deal from what David Barton went through when he published The Jefferson Lies. In the end, if Perkins believes in liberty then he cannot, at the same time, defend the idea that the government should privilege one form of religious belief over another.