In 1777, the all-American rock star/Founding Father/Mount Rushmore head Thomas Jefferson penned what would become the Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, A.K.A. the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom.
The Act, which the Virginia General Assembly passed on Jan. 16, 1786, concludes with ideas that might sound familiar:
“Be it enacted by General Assembly that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief, but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of Religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge or affect their civil capacities.”
You won’t be surprised to learn that Jefferson’s ideas inspired religious freedom protections in the First Amendment, which leads with:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;”
In this year’s Presidential Proclamation on Religious Freedom Day, Barack Obama (or more likely an intern on his staff), writes:
“Today, America embraces people of all faiths and of no faith. We are Christians and Jews, Muslims and Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs, atheists and agnostics. Our religious diversity enriches our cultural fabric and reminds us that what binds us as one is not the tenets of our faiths, the colors of our skin, or the origins of our names. What makes us American is our adherence to shared ideals — freedom, equality, justice, and our right as a people to set our own course.”
That’s nice, and I like to think it’s mostly true, thanks in large part to the First Amendment. But America’s still got issues, which Obama’s proclamation makes clear.
In the paragraph above, he says that America embraces people of all faiths and none. Four paragraphs down, he references “the year of our Lord two thousand fourteen.” On behalf of America’s polytheists and atheists alike…ouch!
American traditions, like this phrase, often privilege monotheistic Abrahamic faiths, most often Christianity, above other belief systems. We see that on our money (“In God we trust”) and in our Pledge of Allegiance (“one Nation under God”).
Then there’s gay marriage, the contraceptive mandate and and a host of other church-state issues some American groups frame as today’s greatest threats to religious freedom.
Let’s back up for a second…
- 5.3 billion people live in countries with harsh religious freedom restrictions. America’s not one of them.
- In 13 countries, atheists face execution for their lack of faith. America’s not one of them.
- In Pakistan, Ahmadiyya Muslims are considered heretics and are shunned from society.
- In Iran, Baha’is are systematically discriminated against and denied access to employment, education and housing.
- Christians caught with a Bible in North Korea face imprisonment, torture or even death.
Does that put things into perspective? I can go on and on with examples from the 100+ countries where religious freedom constraints and restrictions are far far worse than they are in America.
On this National Religious Freedom Day, let’s continue to debate domestic issues. But let’s not forget how good we’ve got it compared to much of the world.