The Battle for the Meaning of Religious Freedom Day

Image: Olivier Douliery / Getty Images

There’s an oxymoron embedded in one of the model bills in the Christian right’s state legislative campaign called Project Blitz. Their model resolution for Religious Freedom Day celebrates a day devoted to something they oppose: religious freedom.

Yes, the authors mouth many of the right things, including boilerplate platitudes and cherrypicked historical artifacts as recommended by Project Blitz. But what’s omitted illuminates the intentions of the theocratic Dominionists (notably, David Barton, as we reported in our original story) who have led Project Blitz from the beginning. Their vision of religion is incompatible with most people’s idea of freedom.

Left out of the model Religious Freedom Day (RFD) resolution is the recognition that, with regard to the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom—the 18th century statement the RFD commemorates annually—religious equality, not religious or Christian supremacy, was its guiding and governing principle. Indeed, what the day is supposed to commemorate is that the Virginia Statute effectively overthrew the tyrannical Anglican Church—which had been part of the British monarch’s system of control imposed on the North American colonies. Thus the Virginia Statute stands to this day as perhaps one of the most radical, liberatory, and revolutionary pieces of legislation in the history of the world.

The Project Blitz manuals have been clear that passing legislation based on their models—whether it be posting In God We Trust in public schools and government buildings, or resolutions commemorating everything from Religious Freedom Day to Christmas—is intended to become easier as they systematically build political momentum toward more controversial legislation, like religious exemptions from providing health care to LGBTQ people, and, over the long run, to create a more theocratic society. At least, that’s the plan.

Going down the Jeffersonian road

Dominionist leaders have generally recognized that Jeffersonian notions of religious freedom and the theocratic society they envision are almost entirely mutually exclusive ideas. So they have had to be smart about it.

“We must use the doctrine of religious liberty,” Dominionist theorist Gary North declared in 1982, “to gain independence for Christian schools until we train up a generation of people who know that there is no religious neutrality, no neutral law, no neutral education, and no neutral civil government. Then they will get busy in constructing a Bible-based social, political and religious order which finally denies the religious liberty of the enemies of God.”

I wrote a few years ago that there is often a method at work in the politics of religious liberty:

Dominionist theorists view the Jeffersonian idea of religious equality under the law as inherently tyrannical. “There are two major stages in the attack on religious liberty,” [theologian R.J.] Rushdoony declared in 1965. “First is the state is secularized in the name of freedom and second, every prerogative of the church is attacked in an indirect manner so that … its right to exist is denied.

This is the thinking that informs many contemporary claims of attacks on religious liberty and fears of persecution by a secular totalitarian government. It’s also the kind of thinking behind Project Blitz. That’s why it’s important for everyone else to get the history of the Virginia Statute right. The nugget is this:

Thomas Jefferson drafted the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom in 1777—fresh from having authored the Declaration of Independence in 1776. He was on roll. But it took years and the later leadership of James Madison to shepherd it through the legislature in 1786. The following year Madison traveled to Philadelphia and served as the principal author of the Constitution. Two years later, he was the principal author of the First Amendment. The idea that religious beliefs belong to individual citizens and not to powerful religious and governmental institutions lies behind the most important words in the Virginia Statute—specifying that one’s religious identity should be neither an advantage nor a disadvantage under the law.

To this end, the Virginia Statute declared: “…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.” Jefferson later said that religious freedom as intended in the Statute, encompasses “the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and infidel of every denomination.”

Resolutions and a counter-resolution

Meanwhile, several state Religious Freedom Day resolutions ostensibly claimed by Project Blitz passed state legislative chambers in 2018. The Project Blitz playbook for 2018-2019 notes that resolutions have passed in Kentucky, Tennessee, and New York, as well as the house of representatives in Michigan and Washington.

In an act less of historical revisionism than outright erasure, the Kentucky State Senate and House Religious Freedom Day resolutions failed to even mention the reason for the commemoration—the enactment of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom.

The Tennessee legislature as well as the Michigan House and the Washington House resolutions did manage to state that the Virginia Statute was a forerunner to the First Amendment and, in the case of Michigan, that the bill disestablished the Church of England, though they laded their resolutions with language about God and religion and how various Founding Fathers thought religion is important. That was not, however, the purpose or significance of the Virginia Statute which neither endorsed the idea of government promotion of religion in general or Christianity in particular. Indeed, the political context in which the statute passed, was a statewide debate and the decisive defeat of a tax proposed by Patrick Henry that would have underwritten the salaries of Christian ministers. (In contrast, and much to its credit, the New York State Senate passed a Religious Freedom Day resolution that commemorates the Virginia Statute and its general purpose and historical significance.)

Many of those promoting versions of the Project Blitz resolution would no doubt disagree with the misuse of religious freedom to steer the nation toward Christian dominion. But that doesn’t change the fact that some are doing just that.

In response to this apparent effort to alter or obscure the meaning of religious freedom in the United States at its historical root, I participated in an effort, advised by experts and the staff of organizations concerned about religious freedom, to draft a model resolution that would accurately commemorate the core ideas and their centrality to our country’s approach to religious freedom.

State Sen. John Marty (D-MN), who stared down a smear campaign by Project Blitz proponents and Fox News last year, is the first state legislator to introduce a version of the counter-resolution commemorating Religious Freedom Day. “In these divisive times, it is important that we look back to our nation’s founders and the fundamental importance of religious liberty,” Marty told RD. “James Madison warned that government promotion of certain beliefs ‘degrades from the equal rank of citizens all those whose opinions in Religion do not bend to those of the Legislative authority.’”

“When some politicians seek to divide us from one another by promoting certain religious beliefs at the expense of others,” he added, “it is important to speak out.”

Caveat emptor

The Christian right has been organizing on the principle of religious freedom for a long time. Indeed, what comes up first in a Google search for Religious Freedom Day is, the work of a California-based Christian right agency called Gateways to Better Education. This group is part of a wider movement that seeks to evangelize children in public schools—as detailed in Katherine Stewart’s book, The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children. Gateways states that they work with such leading Christian right organizations as the Family Research Council, Family Policy Alliance, and American Family Association, and that it was “founded in 1991 to help public schools teach about the important contribution the Bible and Christianity make to the world.” Gateways has also jointly sponsored Religious Freedom Sunday (this year, January 13) with the Christian right legal network, Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF).

Every president since 1993 has issued the annual presidential RFD proclamation, as required by Congress, but Trump was the first to overtly use it to promote the agenda of the Christian right. Trump had referenced a number of recent legal battles over religious exemptions from the law (some of which ADF had been a party to) “As the president’s proclamation says, ‘No American—whether a nun, nurse, baker, or business owner—should be forced to choose between the tenets of faith or adherence to the law.’” This proclamation is reprinted in Gateways’ Religious Freedom Day brochure on its website. If that were not enough, the first thing Gateways suggests that teachers do is to read Trump’s proclamation:

The proclamation is on the White House website at At the homepage, look for a search icon on the top right corner and enter “Religious Freedom Day.” If this year’s proclamation is not posted in time for you to use it in class, consider using previous year’s proclamations found on our homepage:

While arguing over seemingly inconsequential posturing by argle-bargling politicians might not on its face appear to be the best use of anyone’s time, the struggle over the meaning of religious freedom may very well determine the future of democracy in our time, just as it did in the 18th century. As historian John Ragosta told RD last year:

A republic could not work if government and church officials… were trying to control what we think or prescribe what was the ‘best’ religion or which people were the ‘best’ citizens based upon their religious beliefs. If people were to make informed political choices themselves, they had to be free to think for themselves, especially about religion. For Jefferson and his supporters, religious freedom for all was central to our democracy.