The struggle for religious freedom — from Thomas Jefferson to Black Lives Matter

Out of America's paradoxical history of religious liberty comes a great push for Black freedom and racial justice

Published January 23, 2021 12:08PM (EST)

Thomas Jefferson | Black Lives Matter Plaza poster is seen on a building on the 16th Street NW next to the St. John's Episcopal Church (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Thomas Jefferson | Black Lives Matter Plaza poster is seen on a building on the 16th Street NW next to the St. John's Episcopal Church (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Falling midway between Donald Trump's second impeachment and Joe Biden's inauguration, Jan. 16 marked a less-noticed but arguably more important commemoration, the 235th anniversary of the passage of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. That is now commonly recognized as the first law to establish religious freedom, and was one of three achievements that its author, Thomas Jefferson, had inscribed on his tombstone. That date has been officially recognized as Religious Freedom Day since 1993, and amid so much political tumult, it went almost overlooked this year. But it goes to the core of what America is all about, what Trump's supporters are trying to destroy, and what Black Lives Matter demonstrators so emphatically affirmed this past year. 

Jefferson's statute provided unlimited freedom of conscience for all — a pluralistic paradise. But ever since Barack Obama's election in 2008, the religious right has seized on Religious Freedom Day as a key part of its Orwellian propaganda campaign to redefine religious freedom as a license to discriminate, an exclusionary license for religious bigotry and sectarian dominance — the exact opposite of what Jefferson fundamentally believed in. So it's only natural that both Jefferson and the Virginia Statute are almost entirely absent from any of the right's gaslighting celebrations of religious freedom.

Since 2016 (as I've reported), a growing chorus of religious and secular progressives — organized in part by people like Frederick Clarkson, senior research analyst at Political Research Associates — have pushed back, seeking reclaim Jefferson's original intent, which he later made explicit, writing that the Statute contained "within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mohametan, the Hindoo and Infidel of every denomination." Recovering the original meaning also entails pushing back against the right's anti-choice and anti-LGBTQ politics, which they've sought to protect under the mantle of their own beliefs, while forcing those beliefs on others. 

Of course, Jefferson has come in for increasing criticism from the left as well, due to his slaveholder status, which looms larger than ever after last year's historic Black Lives Matters protests. But rather than argue over Jefferson's undeniable individual flaws, there's a growing movement in the Black religious community to adopt a much broader and deeper critical view of the discourse of religious freedom, even if it was initially promulgated by a slave-owning empire. These new voices are more in synch than at odds with those previously engaged in the battle to reclaim religious freedom, as seen in a roundtable forum produced by Political Research Associates, "Religious Freedom and the Machinations of the Christian Right," held on Jan. 14. 

African Americans expand our perspectives on religious freedom

Two days earlier, the shared perspective among Black Christians and non-Christians was richly explored in Freedom Forum's book launch and webinar, "African Americans & Religious Freedom: New Perspectives for Congregations & Communities." Black people in the Americas, enslaved with a set of Christian justifications "and displaced from their lands, culture, religions and ancestors, have a unique and fierce historical commitment to the ideals of freedom," Baptist theologian Faith B. Harris writes in the first chapter of the book (pdf here). "With their very presence, New World Africans have a unique claim to religious freedom, despite the rhetoric embedded in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence." 

As the New York Times' 1619 Project reminds us, this presence predates Jefferson's statute by more than a century and a half. Harris continues: "Indeed, Black religion is best expressed by an enduring relationship to a freedom-loving/giving God. Theologian Kelly Brown Douglas argues that in the Black theological imagination, God is free and to be in a relationship with God is to be free."

The Rev. William H. Lamar IV, pastor of the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., raises provocative questions about the very language involved. "The concept of religious freedom strikes me as another rhetorical arrow in the quiver of nationalistic propaganda," he writes. "I am not moved by a nation that trumpets liberty while exterminating First Nations people, brutally enslaving and extracting labor from Africans and crushing the poor masses by hocking the universal benefits of capitalism."  

From the beginning of European colonization in North America, Vanderbilt theologian Teresa L. Smallwood notes, "It was the twin discourses of race and religion which shaped the discourse of religious freedom. … The organizing principle of British colonial societies followed a religious logic and privileged landholding white men. These religious men acted brutally and used the labor of enslaved Africans to generate considerable wealth." In contrast, she notes, "Whatever the convention — Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, non-denominational, Indigenous —African Americans exercised religious freedom largely as a means of resistance and in the face of prolonged tyranny."

This larger perspective — grounded in the basic material experience of slavery, resistance and continued struggled — puts the focus on deeds more than words, and on practices, institutions and history more than disembodied arguments, be they theological, philosophical, judicial or political. A key text cited by several contributors was Tisa Wenger's 2017 book "Religious Freedom: The Contested History of an American Ideal." Wenger explained:

Rather than asking how adequately Americans have achieved this freedom or how rapidly it advanced, I wanted to know who appealed to religious freedom, for what purposes, and what it meant to them. Somewhat unexpectedly, race and empire quickly emerged as key themes in my analysis. I found that some of the most frequent and visible articulations of American religious freedom were exclusive, even coercive. The dominant voices in the culture linked racial whiteness, Protestant Christianity, and American national identity not only to freedom in general but often to this freedom in particular. The most audible varieties of religious freedom talk ... helped define American whiteness and make the case for U.S. imperial rule.

But in response, the racialized and colonialized subjects of U.S. empire also rearticulated this freedom to defend themselves and their traditions. For them, religious freedom became a way to redefine communal identities, to carve out space for themselves and their traditions within the confines of a racialized empire, and even to resist its mandates.

Her book focuses on the period from the Spanish-American War of 1898 to World War II, "a pivotal period in our histories of race and empire but one that most scholarship on religious freedom has neglected," she explains. Much the same sorts of observations can be applied all the way from the colonial era to the present. And her perspective frames both the embrace of and skepticism toward the idea of religious freedom. 

"There has always been just enough religious freedom in America for Black folk to nourish dreams of freedom, but hardly ever enough religious freedom for those dreams to be fully realized," writes Lamar. "This conundrum is, in essence, the foundation upon which my reluctant identification with the ideal of religious freedom rests — who has unimpeachable, unassailable religious freedom in America? Wenger reminds us that for Native Americans and Black nationalists it was curtailed. Who then can take this American ideal and use it to craft theological visions unmolested by imperial power? Can Black churches ever fully enjoy this ideal?"

On the other hand, Rahmah A. Abdulaleem, executive director of KARAMAH: Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights, sees a stronger underlying foundation in the lived reality of African-American life — the religious diversity and pluralism she traces back to colonial times in her book chapter, "Race, Religious Pluralism and Religious Freedom," which she brought up to date in her forum presentation. 

"I think it's important to focus on the fact that after 9/11 so many Americans were asked, 'Do you know any Muslims?' and most African-Americans could say, 'Yeah, I know Muslims. I grew up with them. They're in in my family.' We weren't others," she said. "So African Americans really need to focus on the fact that we always welcome others. It's always been important to us because we know what's like to be in the minority. We know what it's like to be otherized."

She continued with a moving and important family example:

My grandmother was blessed with 11 children and she considers herself a Universalist but not as a Universalist for the Universalist Church. She's like, "I'm universalist because my oldest daughter was a Buddhist, I have a daughter who is a deaconess in the Baptist Church, I have a son who's an imam, I have two sons that are Catholic." It's so important that for her they're all her children and they all are having some kind of connection to something bigger than them.

Ongoing discussions

These important Black voices have not yet been woven into the heart of religious freedom debates. But the promise of their imminent inclusion is a cause for renewed hope. While the religious right feeds constantly on victimhood fantasies, the African-American experience — grounded in four centuries of actual victimhood — has produced a rich diversity of humane and sober religious responses, along with its own freethinking and atheist traditions as well. 

Indeed, a fair amount of the discussion held by Political Research Associates intersected with perspectives and concerns raised in the Freedom Forum book and webinar. As Frederick Clarkson put it:

This profoundly liberatory thing we call religious freedom came out of this morass of racism and genocide and extraordinary criminality, that the very people who were opposing Empire colonialism effectively replaced domestically. So what they did do was to give us this extraordinary idea of religious freedom: "OK, we still have an empire of sorts, but you are free to think differently than the people who hold power." You can therefore speak differently and you can have an oppositional press and you can organize politically differently. That was the opening, and they recognized that. But they realized their time as rulers might end, and should end. That is the extraordinary paradox of American culture and democracy that we actually still live through in many respects today.

"When you talk about urgently needing to address religious freedom and decolonization," ex-evangelical writer Chrissy Stroop said, "one thing that I think it's important to point out is how intertwined white supremacy is with white Christianity and particularly the white evangelical tradition. S, the same people who are trying to argue that religious freedom means their freedom to discriminate against other people in a Christian nation are the primary people who are fighting to maintain white supremacism, though many of them would not admit to that."

Stroop went on to cite the example of six seminaries within the Southern Baptist Convention, which "recently issued a statement condemning critical race theory and intersectionality as incompatible with Baptist theology, incompatible with the Bible as the Southern Baptists understand it." Stroop noted that Southern Baptists formed in the 1840s, in a schism from Baptists in the North over whether a slaveholder could be a Christian missionary.

"The Southern Baptist Convention has apologized for that legacy, and yet fails to fully reckon with it," Stroop said. "This explicit rejection by the official Southern Baptist structures of antiracist scholarship and antiracist analytical tools is quite striking," particularly given what has recently transpired. 

"For someone like Albert Mohler — who is the head of the flagship Southern Baptist seminary — to come along and say after last Wednesday's insurrection that he's shocked that Christians would do this, that they would form a mob and storm the capital in support of the racist president, is really quite rich," Stroop remarked. "He just basically made this very racist move, and now he's saying, 'I can't believe that people would actually take that to the streets [and] try to overturn an election."

Another participant, the Rev. Dr. Cari Jackson, director of spiritual care and activism at the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, has co-authored an article at Religion Dispatches with Clarkson, "We Can't Have Religious Freedom Without Reproductive Freedom." She brought that connection into the discussion as well, with specific reference to the recent Senate election in Georgia election.

"One of the issues that was raised by some regarding the Rev. Raphael Warnock [who took office this past week] was that he could not be a Christian minister and a supporter of reproductive freedom," Jackson said. To Warnock's opponents, it was as if "he didn't have a right to have a conscience of his own that would embrace both of those, that in many ways he didn't have the right to be a whole person and bring his theology and his politics in this intersectional way that came out with a different result from what people thought he should have." 

Individual conscience is supposed to be primary in the Baptist tradition — a fact that has somehow been utterly disappeared over the last 40 years. But Jackson reminded us that Baptists weren't alone in this regard: 

Some of you may know there is a doctrine within Catholic teaching that says the primacy of conscience has greater weight than teachings of the church, and I love that. Martin Luther, who was one of the shapers of the Reformation, also talked about the importance of conscience, and that following behind the church hierarchy was not as critical in his own spiritual and religious understanding as following his conscience. So we're in this era now where people are being villainized if their understanding of their conscience does not align with someone else's. That is a supremacist orientation that really not only flies in the face of what it means to be a human living in dignity, it also flies in the face of what it means to be a democratic republic.

She went on to say that while some people are psychopaths or sociopaths, "For most of us conscience leads us to a deep morality that is rooted in compassion and love. … Conscience, I believe for most of us, guides us to a higher nature that opens our hearts and our minds and our politics to way of being in society with one another that I think is really critical."

Fighting discrimination

Another facet of the fight to reclaim religious freedom was highlighted in a virtual briefing on the recently-heard Supreme Court case, Fulton v. City of Philadelphia. As the ACLU succinctly explains it, "On November 4, the Supreme Court heard a case that could allow private agencies that receive taxpayer-funding to provide government services — such as foster care providers, food banks, homeless shelters, and more — to deny services to people who are LGBTQ, Jewish, Muslim, or Mormon." This briefing was closed to the press, but the moderator, Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons, from the Faith & Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress, spoke with Salon afterwards.

"It's a common purpose across many faith groups we work with that we cherish religious freedom and want to celebrate Religious Freedom Day, and reject the false use of religious freedom to discriminate," Graves-Fitzsimmons said. "We want to do both at the same time." He was admittedly one of the few people who woke up the day after the November election to listen to the oral arguments in the Fulton case. But millions of people stand to be affected. "We are facing a challenge of raising awareness around this case, because there's so much going on and the Fulton case could have far-reaching implications beyond the particular circumstances in the case involving the City of Philadelphia and Catholic Social Services," he said. He explaind: 

It is part of a larger trend we're seeing, which is conservative legal advocacy groups taking something that is a real core value, like religious freedom, and using it in a deceptive way to attack LGBTQ people and create a license to discriminate that extends beyond LGBTQ people — you have this foster care agency in South Carolina that's saying, "We won't work with Catholics or Jews." So the license to discriminate is broader than LGBTQ people, although that's the issue in this case. It then extends to reproductive health and abortion rights, and we've seen recently at the Supreme Court the use of distorted religious freedom arguments as an excuse to spread the coronavirus. We saw a switch in the Supreme Court's views since Amy Coney Barrett joined the Supreme Court. They went in a different direction than what Justice Roberts and the more liberal justices had done earlier in the pandemic. 

"We warned you": The military's religious freedom problem

But if the Fulton case, and others like it, have gotten too little attention, that's even more true of religious freedom issues in the military, where long-standing Supreme Court doctrine subordinates religious expression to the military mission, which is to preserve freedom for all Americans. That in turn depends on maintaining unit cohesion, good order, morale and discipline — which religious proselytizing necessarily undermine. The Military Religious Freedom Foundation has been fighting Christian nationalism as a destructive force in the military for more than 15 years, warning that it is fundamentally incompatible with the military's mission.

Some branches of the military are better, some worse, at restraining this corrosive force. The Air Force Academy, where MRFF founder and president Mikey Weinstein graduated, is arguably the worst. One of its graduates, Larry Brock, was one of two insurrectionists wearing combat gear arrested in the wake of the Jan. 6 Capitol invasion.

"The Air Force Academy is an unconstitutional train wreck of fundamentalist Christians, disgrace and shame," Weinstein told Salon. "Everybody at the Air Force Academy, the cadet wing, the staff and the faculty, all swear an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States, not the gospel of Jesus Christ." The failure to live up to that oath can be seen in the fact that MRFF still has "hundreds of clients there, the vast majority of whom are Christians being persecuted by other Christians," Weinstein explained. "For years we've had — we still have — cadets at the Academy pretending to be fundamentalist Christians," purely because "they hope they'll be left alone."  

in an open letter to the Air Force Academy, posted at Daily Kos, the MRFF wrote: "We warned you that this radical, right-wing influence found not only at USAFA, but tolerated or even endorsed by senior officers throughout the Air Force, caused a toxic leadership environment and eroded unit cohesion, good order, morale, and discipline. We constantly worried and warned that these seemingly (to some) innocuous events would lead to embarrassment for our Air Force Academy or worse — and that's exactly what's happened." The letter goes on: 

The MRFF now calls on the Air Force Academy to not only clearly and publicly condemn the actions of its graduate, Mr. Brock, in the harshest possible manner, but also to call on all other USAFA graduates who attended the insurrection to identify themselves and either turn themselves in to police if they broke the law or disavow the violence and storming of the Capitol — if they, themselves, behaved in an otherwise peaceful manner.

To further clarify, Weinstein told Salon, "When you retire and accept a paycheck, you are still under the [Uniform] Military Code of Justice." Brock, like other ex-military insurrectionists, he argued, "should be brought back into the Air Force and should face a general court martial. He should be visibly and aggressively punished for what he did, as should anyone else that is getting a retirement check."

This is only a small and selective slice of activities related to Religious Freedom Day. In PRA's roundtable, for example, author and journalist Kathryn Joyce discussed her 2019 New Republic article, "The Man Behind the State Department's New 'Natural Law' Focus," illuminating how premodern Catholic teaching about natural law was used by Trump's State Department to delegitimize modern concepts of human rights — concepts that the U.S. government has played a crucial role in developing and promoting. Another roundtable participant, Minnesota State Sen. John Marty, has introduced a resolution honoring the true meaning of Religious Freedom Day. 

In the Freedom Forum webinar, Charles Watson Jr., director of education at the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, gave a spirited articulation of the centrality of freedom, in a sense that takes nothing away from anybody else:

I always tell people, I don't want a Biblical noose around my neck, and I don't want God shackles around my feet. I have to be free to change my mind, if I get better information, and my faith has to be free.  And the only way for me to have that freedom is to be free to change my mind, think about God how I see fit to think about God, without government interference, and especially without somebody else that doesn't even care enough about me and my body to take up the mantel and fight for me.

This sense of freedom has Baptist roots that long predate Thomas Jefferson — and, as Jackson noted, has Catholic and Lutheran roots as well. But Jefferson's contribution was to enshrine that sensibility in law, protecting it as never before. Because Jefferson's vision is so central to the American project and its entire history, there are inevitable ramifications everywhere throughout our public life. And because the religious right has mounted such a sustained attack on his vision, seeking to turn it into a vampiric, soulless caricature of itself, there are countless battlefronts — large and small — on which Jefferson's vision must be defended and, of absolute necessity, enlarged. 

By Paul Rosenberg

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

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