Monday, January 16, is Martin Luther King Day. It’s also National Religious Freedom Day, first proclaimed by President H.W. Bush in 1993. President Obama’s proclamation of 2010 reads, “On this day, we commemorate an early realization of our Nation’s founding ideals: Virginia’s 1786 Statute for Religious Freedom.”
It guaranteed Virginians the right to practice the religion of their choice and it separated church and state. Encyclopedia Virginia notes, “The statute influenced both the drafting of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the United States Supreme Court’s understanding of religious freedom.”
Not long ago I watched a PBS documentary First Freedom: The Fight for Religious Liberty. The program covers the development of religious liberty in our country from colonial times to the early 1800s. The filmmakers remind us of an astounding fact: “A government without the interlocking authority of religion was utterly unprecedented in Western history and within a generation of its creation, it produced a vibrant religious culture still unmatched anywhere in the world.”
Religious freedom was a revolutionary idea. And so it remains.
Some people accused President Obama of waging a war against religion, and curiously to me, many of these same folk supported the President-elect who during the campaign promised to enact a ban against Muslim entering the U.S. Democrats have been accused of having a “religion problem” because not enough of them have it and those who do, don’t understand it the same way as some less-liberal believers.
This week, Breitbart.com posted an article with the rather sensational headline: Pew Report: Religion Plummeted in America During Obama Era. The implication being that somehow this tragic trend is Obama’s doing. Read the Pew report for yourself.
Here’s a tidbit of history from First Freedom: “Somewhat surprisingly in America in the mid 18th century somewhere around 20 to 30 percent, at the most, of European American colonists had any kind of significant relationship with a Christian congregation.” (Jon Butler, Yale University)
Only 20 to 30 percent.
Not only that, but some of those who came to these shores to escape religious persecution then went on to practice religious persecution. Baptists and Presbyterians were favorite targets, and so were Catholics. For instance, prior to the American Revolution, if you were Catholic you were forbidden by law from entering New York.
Religious bans and trends of dwindling interest are nothing new. Our “religious problem” is context. We are missing the context of history. We’re largely illiterate about history. It’s our political problem as well.
And we tend to forget, or accept, that religious liberty is not only freedom of religion, it’s also freedom from religion. You don’t have to have a faith. There’s no law that says you must believe… in anything.
I am not always tolerant toward certain religious beliefs. I feel conflicted about how much respect I should show to the teachings of some religions. Is there a line you cross over and become an abettor, an enabler, with teaching you feel are misguided? I do not have to respect a religion’s teachings. But I must respect the right for people to follow those teachings.
“We should begin by setting conscience free. When all men of all religions shall enjoy equal liberty, property, and an equal chance for honors and power we may expect that improvements will be made in the human character and the state of society.”
– John Adams, founding father, April 8, 1785
We could also begin by going back to our history. Not just the fun stuff, like war. I mean peering back beyond the popular images to see the forces and ideas that shaped the men who shaped America, and to read the words, planted like seeds beneath the slogans, which by themselves, out of context, are merely the echoes of the bells of liberty, and not their true ringing.