Celebrate religious freedom — the way the Founding Fathers originally intended

Christian nationalists have tried to co-opt the idea, but what Jefferson meant was something revolutionary

By Paul Rosenberg

Contributing Writer

Published January 14, 2018 12:00PM (EST)


Before fake news there was fake history, and one of the most significant examples has long been the religious right’s idea that America was founded as a “Christian nation.” It’s a popular misconception sometimes used to promote a profoundly anti-democratic agenda, the "Handmaid’s Tale"-style belief that Christians have a biblical mandate to control all earthly institutions – including government – until the second coming of Jesus.

We arrive once again at Religious Freedom Day on Jan. 16, when the Christian right will claim that its “freedom” to oppress others is under horrendous assault. For the third year in a row, they’ll be countered by a growing movement of modern-day Jeffersonians seeking to reclaim the real meaning of that day, and the real history that it celebrates — the hard-won freedom of all to practice whatever form of religious belief, or non-belief, their consciences guide them to.

“When Christian Right leaders talk about religious liberty, they often really mean theocratic supremacism of their own religious beliefs inscribed in government,” author Frederick Clarkson pointed out in 2016, when I first wrote about Religious Freedom Day. Nothing has changed in their core agenda, but the awareness and willingness to confront it has grown, along with the understanding of how they operate.

In fact, the U.S. Constitution was remarkable precisely because it didn’t claim to derive authority from God in the typical top-down manner, but instead, bottom-up, from the people, following the arguments used by John Locke to justify government, as well as his views on religious tolerance and the distinctions between secular and religious spheres of power. God is never mentioned in the Constitution, nor is any form of religion except in the negative: “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”

What’s more, the Treaty of Tripoli, negotiated by George Washington’s administration and ratified by the Senate in 1797, went out of its way on this point: “As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion … it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.”

Of course, many of the Founders were deeply religious — but that's one reason why they left God out of the constitution. They didn’t want government involved in promoting one group’s religious views over others. That had produced a century and a half of bloodshed in Europe in the wake of the Reformation, and had long been the cause of considerable suffering and strife in the colonies that became the United States. With different states recognizing different state churches, there was another problem: If they had actually tried to establish a national religion, the United States would never have existed in the first place. But the path the Founders took embraced a new way forward, allowing the flourishing of religious freedom we take for granted today, but that was virtually unknown before then.

Thanks to Jefferson and James Madison, Virginia had already shown the way in 1786, passing the Statute for Establishing Religious Freedom, which Jefferson had originally introduced nine years earlier. Clarkson has delved into this history before, as I reported last year, but we've encountered such a wave of disinformation from the religious right that it’s worth revisiting. This year, Clarkson has added another level of understanding to the mix, an analysis of how this false narrative is being put to work in more sophisticated ways.

In a forthcoming article at The Public Eye, “A Manual to Restore a Christian Nation that Never Was,” Clarkson writes about the Family Research Council’s approach to organizing within churches, instead of from outside as the Christian Coalition formerly did. FRC forms “Cultural Impact Teams” and providing them with a 150-page three-ring binder of instructions and resources, the "Culture Impact Team Resource Manual." Clarkson got two copies (one for his pastor) at the FRC’s “Values Voter Summit” last October, and writes:

Originally published in 2011, the manual — which includes, among other things, sample voter guides and instructions for church-based voter registration drives — has served as the primer for church-based, Christian Right political action for the past six years. It certainly played a role in the 2016 elections, and will no doubt continue to be used for the foreseeable future. ...

Culture Impact Teams serve as the footsoldiers of a formidable political army, now waging its war from the center of politics and government, where they’ve been empowered to advance a dangerous suite of theocratic and persecutory policies. What’s often lost amid the consternation over Trump’s support among White evangelicals, is that it they are not just a mystifying demographic, but politically well organized. When people refer to “the base,” they are an important element; when they refer to the infrastructure of the Christian Right, CITs make up its foundation. And when we say that the Christian Right is promoting theocratic Dominionism, the manual is Exhibit A for showing not only that this ideology is shaping national policy, but it is directly related to how leading organizations of the Christian Right plan to continue building their base into the future.

Perhaps the central contradiction in the false history they’re selling lies in how they misrepresent Thomas Jefferson. As explained on the Virginia Historical Society’s webpage devoted to Jefferson’s statute:

To Jefferson, "Nature's God," who is undeniably visible in the workings of the universe, gives man the freedom to choose his religious beliefs. This is the divinity whom deists of the time accepted — a God who created the world and is the final judge of man, but who does not intervene in the affairs of man. This God who gives man the freedom to believe or not to believe is also the God of the Christian sects.

The last sentence is an important one: It helps us understand why most Deists insisted that they were indeed Christians, while the religious conservatives of their time insisted that they were not. Sound familiar?

Contemporary Dominionists like Kenyn Cureton, vice president of the FRC, argue that they are fighting to restore America to its foundations as a “Christian nation,” based on a “Christian worldview.” Jefferson stands in obvious opposition to this view. His actual worldview helped create the pluralistic realm we know today, in which Dominionists have the right to spread their lies, and we have the right -- and the responsibility, as freedom-loving people -- to expose those lies. In that spirit, Salon interviewed Clarkson about his forthcoming article and the ongoing struggle to preserve the freedom Jefferson actually bequeathed us. 

In discussing the myth that America was founded as a Christian nation, you write, "This feature of the movement — one that stokes much of its followers’ passion — may also contain the seeds of its undoing." What do you mean? 

The problem for Christian nationalists is that it doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. For example, when it came time to forge a coherent national government out of the 13 colonies, the mostly Christian religious and political leaders of the time opted for religious equality under the law, recognizing that if the government could favor a sect or religion, it could control how people think. This is one among many flaws that have always been present in the Christian nationalist narrative, but since most of society didn’t see it, or did not take it seriously, the movement has advanced without being much challenged on the point.

The religious supremacism inherent in Christian nationalism is repulsive to most people, regardless of their political and religious views. I think if we got serious about taking Jefferson and Madison’s foundational ideas of religious equality under the law into the 21st century, Christian nationalism would crumble.

You write that Kenyn Cureton "employs a standard tactic of Christian nationalist revisionism by erasing distinctions between the signers of the Declaration with the Framers of the Constitution, calling them all 'Founding Fathers' to suggest that these men operating in different times and circumstances all agreed and that they meant what Cureton claims." Could you describe these divisions and explain why this issue is important?

This is important because the conflation of the Founding Fathers as if they all thought the same things is so silly that it illustrates the lack of credibility of the Christian nationalist version of history. Nevertheless, it has provided a template of vagueness onto which contemporary Christian right leaders can project whatever visions they want as self-appointed spokespersons for the original intentions of both God and the authors of the Constitution. This goes largely unchallenged in public life, even as it is on vivid display in the FRC’s church political manual.

The Declaration of Independence is used to smuggle God into the Constitution, but it was written by Thomas Jefferson, who by Cureton's standards was lacking in the very "Christian worldview" that he claims as our nation's lost foundation. How do people like him deal with this contradiction?

They mostly avoid addressing it. They sometimes point out that Jefferson invoked God at various time and attended church while president. That he said religious things and attended religious services is not, of course, proof against his very public stances in favor of separation of church and state as the best way to guarantee religious freedom for all. That is a problem they cannot actually solve. History is not on their side.

In the "CRT Research Manual," Cureton quotes evangelical theologian Richard Land on the importance of "restoring" a legal system based on biblical principles. I think the larger quotation is worth citing: 

When those with biblically informed worldviews reach critical mass, they then can begin to influence legislation. That's not called a theocracy, that's called the democratic process. It's the way slavery was eventually abolished. It's the way racial segregation was banished from the law. And it's the way Christians can restore once again to America a biblically based legal system that protects all human life from conception to natural death and everywhere in between.

This raises various questions. First, the Bible was the most frequently cited source of pro-slavery arguments in the decades before the Civil War. While abolitionists also argued on biblical grounds, the Bible clearly accepts slavery as a fact of life. So the role of scripture in getting us where we are today is contested, is it not?

Contested indeed. Many have proof-texted their way through history to justify oppressions of all kinds while ignoring the larger message of liberation one can also find in the sacred text of Christianity. The Bible also has powerful narratives about freeing the captives from the bonds of slavery.  

The same can be said about segregation. The Christian Right got its start defending Bob Jones University's "right to discriminate" — a fight it ultimately lost. So it seems particularly mendacious to cite that example.

Yes, historian Randall Balmer, in his book "Thy Kingdom Come," tells the story well. The Christian right was not originally animated by abortion, but by the defense of private, tax-exempt, racially segregated colleges and schools. Christian right leaders to this day often claim that they originally mobilized in response to Roe v. Wade. This is a lie. The fact is that white conservative evangelicals of the sort that comprise today’s Christian right were mostly either on the sidelines or on the wrong side of the struggle for African-American civil rights. The Bob Jones case is the ugly origin of the contemporary effort to gain religious exemptions from civil rights laws. But they would rather we did not know that.

For many on the Christian right, following from Christian Dominionist theologian R.J. Rushdoony, lying by God’s people is justified in war. Rushdoony cites the biblical story of Rahab, who lied about the military spies of Joshua’s army she had hidden in her apartment. In exchange, her and her family’s lives were spared when Joshua sacked the city. We need to make no mistake that many understand themselves to be engaged in just such a war. The war may not be being fought with military equipment, but it is a war nevertheless. And lies are among the weapons they use in this war.

What can we learn by comparing the actual history of religion in America to the Christian nationalist fantasy? 

When we learn that Christian nationalism is a lie, we get a much clearer sense of hope and possibility in seeing that we are all in this together. We also learn something about what we are up against and therefore have the opportunity to better figure out what needs to be done. I think we also learn that we have been complacent, taking hard-won freedom for granted. But we can also learn of the weakness of their argument, and begin to formulate strong, fact-based arguments against it.

We can also learn that religious freedom is a powerful, inspiring and authentically revolutionary idea. It is as dangerous to the rich and the powerful today as it was in the 18th century. Religious freedom made possible the best advances in human and civil rights in our history. But we can also see how forces of oppression see that too, and are doing everything they can to neutralize it.

How does this historical comparison relate to the one you focus on, regarding the history of religious freedom in Virginia and the Bill of Rights?

I think looking at the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, and its role in shaping our constitutional approach to religion and government, exposes the lie of Christian nationalism in a way that allows us to clear away the fog of the long, slow religious war they are waging in America. We also get to see their techniques of strategic misdirection. It’s like learning how a magician performs an illusion: They show us a map of history that points to the Declaration of Independence as the source of the Constitution’s approach to religious freedom. But once we know the story of the Virginia Statue for Religious Freedom and the truth about the origins of our Constitution’s approach to religious freedom, the misdirection is revealed. It is helpful to know our actual history and its meaning, and it is humbling to know how we have allowed the Christian right to use this false narrative to its advantage.

How does this relate to the ways the religious right is trying to roll back LGBTQ rights?

The Christian nationalist claim also seeks to conflate religion – their religion – with religious freedom itself, and to fabricate a phony history to justify it. The result is that advances in LGBTQ rights and equality that deviate from their notion of Christian orthodoxy are taken as assaults on religious freedom generally, and their religious freedom in particular. Such a view ignores the fact that other religious traditions, including Christian traditions, support LGBTQ rights. When the likes of Tony Perkins claim that Christian denominations like the United Church of Christ that embrace marriage equality are therefore not Christian and that religious freedom is intended only for orthodox Christianity, they reveal themselves as the theocrats that they truly are.

What is the best way to understand the threat to America that Dominionism represents? How can we best respond to that threat?

First, we need to take the time to understand that the challenge that we face may not be what we think. Dominionism is not as exotic or as rare as it is sometimes portrayed. It is a comprehensive theology relating to conservative Christians taking control over all areas of life, not just church and state. Its influence is getting wider and deeper, partly because there are many dedicated thinkers and capable doers in this movement. Some are political and governmental leaders.

Now one might say, what’s wrong with that? Don’t they have a right to bring their Christian values into the public square? To which we say, of course. But by the same standard, we are not required to turn a blind eye to their words, their actions, and their unambiguous intentions. This is what theocratic theorist Gary North called “the dilemma of democratic pluralism.” North asserts that we are obliged to tolerate views that are in fact antithetical to democratic pluralism. The Christian right knows this, and is smart about exploiting our dilemma. How do we oppose something our philosophy requires us to tolerate?

Let’s not kid ourselves about the profoundly antidemocratic nature of the Dominionist mission. Religious freedom and democracy are not settled matters. We are living the dilemma of democratic pluralism.

How do we address that dilemma?

There are a lot of things we can do, but here are three things for a start. One is that we need to become much better informed about Dominionism and the way it manipulates the idea of religious freedom to advance an agenda that is anything but free.

Second, we need to be much better citizen activists, especially in electoral politics. The system we have is competitive. Let’s not cede the playing field to the Christian right, which has invested so much in ideological development and the building of electoral capacity for several generations. It has worked well for them, but they are a well-organized minority: They cannot prevail if the rest of us mobilize in our own best interests.

Finally, when we hear politicians and religious or interest-group leaders go on about how religious freedom is a “cherished” or “treasured” value, let’s ask them to get real. Religious freedom is not a lovely antique, a family heirloom or a relic of a bygone era. It is a dynamic, progressive value that underlies every other constitutional freedom we have -- and it is under siege. We need to require our leaders to lead in this regard and stop patronizing us.

By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News and columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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