The Religious Right’s Hijacking of “Religious Freedom“

It’s not a national holiday; there are no parades, no special sales, nothing to buy or sell. To be perfectly honest, most Americans are likely unaware that since 1993, January 16 has been the day set aside to celebrate Religious Freedom Day, a day that honors the 1786 passage of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom.

In 2015, President Obama’s Religious Freedom Day proclamation noted that the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom “was one of the first laws in our Nation to codify the right of every person to profess their opinions in matters of faith, and it declares that ‘no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any’ religion. Drafted by Thomas Jefferson and guided through the Virginia legislature by James Madison, this historic legislation served as a model for the religious liberty protections enshrined in our Constitution.”

Obama went on to declare:

The First Amendment prohibits the Government from establishing religion. It protects the right of every person to practice their faith how they choose, to change their faith, or to practice no faith at all, and to do so free from persecution and fear. This religious freedom allows faith to flourish, and our Union is stronger because a vast array of religious communities coexist peacefully with mutual respect for one another.

Obama’s proclamation and similar ones issued since the George H.W. Bush presidency have been aimed at universalizing the idea of religious freedom.

“Traditionally, religious freedom has meant many things: the right to open and maintain houses of worship; the right to meet with fellow believers and worship God in a way that is meaningful to you; the right to spread your beliefs and encourage others to adopt them; the right to pass your faith onto your children, among other things,” Rob Boston, director of communications for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, told Truthout in an email. “It was interpreted as an individual right, not something that gives one person power or control over another.”

Boston, author of the 2014 book Taking Liberties: Why Religious Freedom Doesn’t Give You the Right to Tell Other People What to Do, shared these additional thoughts with Truthout:

Many Americans today either don’t know this history or think of it as some abstraction from the past. Our politicians wax philosophically about religious freedom, but the fact is that most Americans who belong to large, politically powerful and respected Christian denominations have never faced a real threat to their religious freedom. It is the members of small, often unpopular groups that have to deal with these threats. A contemporary example is found among members of Muslim communities who in some areas of the country have had to go to court to win the right to even open mosques or who must endure harassment and vandalism of their facilities as a regular part of life.

For the religious right, “religious freedom” has become a major tool in the never-ending culture wars. In the book A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars, Andrew Hartman points out that for Christians in the United States, especially evangelical Protestants, “the culture wars, more than a battle over national identity, have served as a struggle for the soul of America, a clash over what it means to live in a world in which all foundations had been pulled out from under, a world in which, at its starkest, ‘God is dead.'”

In 2015, NewsBusters, a project of the conservative Media Research Center, ran a piece headlined “5 Reasons Libs Won’t Celebrate Religious Freedom Day Friday.” Kristine Marsh and Matt Philbin opined that “From ObamaCare to gay marriage to public prayer, the left and its media friends are squeezing the acceptable space religion is allowed in American’s lives – into a couple of hours on Sunday, and even that isn’t sacrosanct.”

Like many other issues in the modern era, religious freedom has become a cudgel and a fundraising tool wielded by the religious right. As cultural norms have shifted and the United States is becoming increasingly secular, the religious right – having lost culture war battles, most recently the fight against same-sex marriage – has increasingly invoked the “religious freedom” meme, which has not only become a catchall slogan, but also a call to action.

The owners of Hobby Lobby maintained that their religious freedom was at stake when they successfully argued before the US Supreme Court that the Affordable Care Act violated their personal religious beliefs. Kentucky’s Kim Davis cited “religious freedom” when she bucked a court order – which resulted in a few days in jail – and denied marriage licenses to same-sex couples, even after the Supreme Court’s decision had legalized them.

The American Family Association (AFA) recently announced that it would be establishing “the Corporate Religious Liberties Index” (CRLI), which it described as “a new educational campaign to inform the nation about which companies value religious freedoms – and those that don’t.”

According to the AFA, the CRLI “is a short, simple questionnaire … that seeks to gauge the importance of the broad issue of religious liberty for the nation’s major companies, including large-scale retailers, restaurants and manufacturers. The index is in direct response to the growing threats against religious liberty in the U.S., including but not limited to, faith in America.”

The religious right maintains that its religious freedom is being threatened. I asked Americans United for Separation of Church and State’s Rob Boston for his assessment. “There is a deliberate campaign to redefine religious freedom as an individual right and turn it into something that gives religious right activists and supporters a new tool to control and harass others,” he said. “They are essentially attempting to use a noble concept as an excuse for shabby forms of bigotry.”

“Thus, ‘religious freedom,’ they argue, should allow a taxpayer-funded government clerk the right to refuse service to a same-sex couple seeking a marriage license,” he added. “It should also, they assert, give the owner of a secular business the right to refuse service to anyone who falls short of the owner’s theological beliefs. In other words, ‘religious freedom’ is being turned into an instrument to justify discrimination and oppression. Obviously, that is the opposite of what the concept is supposed to be.”

The religious right’s use of the term “religious freedom” is calculated. “If religious right groups had bluntly stated, ‘We would like to be able to discriminate against LGBT Americans and treat them like second-class citizens because we don’t much like them,’ most Americans would have recoiled,” Boston said. “So instead theocratic groups wrap their bigotry in a concept we all value – religious freedom – even though what they are doing has little to do with that concept.”

If, Kentucky’s Kim Davis had been denied the opportunity “to meet, pray and worship with her coreligionists, that would be a real violation of her religious freedom,” Boston said. That clearly wasn’t the case as “nothing that has happened to Davis prevents her from going to church, reading the Bible, praying or worshiping alongside her fellow adherents,” Boston added. The Davis case was an example of the religious right using “religious freedom as a device to take away and ignore the rights of others.” While her strategy failed in the courts as well as in the court of public opinion, Davis continues to be a favorite of religious right organizations.

There is no doubt that religious persecution throughout the world is real: People have been imprisoned and/or tortured because they dared to stand up to a government’s imposed version of orthodoxy. “These individuals truly value religious freedom because it has been denied them,” Boston said. Complaints of religious persecution, charged by the United States’ religious right, pale in comparison.