Archives For Religious Freedom Day

On Monday Republican South Carolina Representative Tim Scott, at a South Carolina Tea Party conference that also included presidential hopefuls Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, made a rather dubious assertion concerning religion in America.

Rep. Tim Scott in SC: "The greatest minority under assault today are Christians. No doubt about it."
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Matt Viser

Christians are the “greatest minority under assault today?” Where does that come from? While it’s true that “the religious beliefs and practices of Americans do not fit neatly into conventional categories,” the statistical pie, no matter how you slice it, shows Christianity is the dominant form of religion in the United States. In addition, Christianity remains the world’s largest religion, with nearly 37% of the world’s Christians making their home in the Americas. Now, are there countries where Christianity is an endangered minority? Of course, but the United States is not even close to being one. Yet time and again we hear a persecution narrative that paints Christians in North America as though they were living in Iran or North Korea. Conservative Christians have painted the Obama administration as waging a “war on religion,” with figures like New Gingrich decrying the “bigotry” of the current president. That’s nothing new for Gingrich, who claimed  in 2009 that Christians were “surrounded” by “paganism”.

“I am not a citizen of the world. I am a citizen of the United States because only in the United States does citizenship start with our creator. [...] I think this is one of the most critical moments in American history. We are living in a period where we are surrounded by paganism.”

So it seems we really need to start clearly defining terms like “minority” and “persecution” when we are talking about religion in this country.  Consult any dictionary or encyclopedia, and they’ll tell you that a minority faith is smaller than the majority faith in a country or region. In South Carolina, home to Rep. Scott, 45% of residents are evangelical Christians, 18% are mainline protestant Christians, and 8% are Catholics. Guess what that adds up to? You guessed it! A majority! Catholicism taken alone outnumbers all non-Christian faiths in South Carolina combined. Yet we are led to believe that it is Christians who are under “assault.” As I’ve said before, Christianity has a historical and theological persecution narrative, which can unfortunately become something of a complex that distorts reality,  instead of calling its adherents towards a witness of tolerance and coexistence for all.

Republican Rep. Tim Scott and Newt Gingrich in November, 2011. Photo by Richard Ellis/Getty Images.

Republican Rep. Tim Scott and Newt Gingrich in November, 2011. Photo by Richard Ellis/Getty Images.

If Rep. Scott were clear-eyed on the issue of religion he’d see which religious groups were truly struggling in his state. He’d see a Wiccan ostracized and harassed when she objected to sectarian government prayer (and later held up as an example of Christians being denied their freedom of religion), he’d see Pagans in local interfaith groups fighting to be recognized as something other than “other,” a place where any religion can get a religiously-themed license plate, so long as it isn’t a Wiccan wanting one. Despite this, we are forced through the looking glass into an inverted world where the increase of freedom and rights for a non-Christian group somehow decreases their rights and freedoms. It’s as if anything short of total hegemony were oppression.

Yesterday, in addition to it being Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, it was also National Religious Freedom Day, the anniversary of when the Virginia General Assembly adopted Thomas Jefferson‘s landmark Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. That statute provided the framework for religious liberty in the United States, ensuring free exercise for all citizens.

“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.”

As Jefferson himself said, “neither Pagan nor Mahamedan nor Jew ought to be excluded from the civil rights of the Commonwealth because of his religion.” So even if Scott’s nightmare scenario were true, if Christianity were shrunk to the size of Paganism, Hinduism, or Buddhism in America, they, like us, would still have the secular protections of State to save us from the worst excesses of religious majoritarianism. If Scott, and Gingrich, and other politicians truly believe that Christianity is under threat, all the more reason to vigorously defend religious liberty, and the separation of Church and State, lest the tyranny of a imaginary non-Christian majority sweep into power.

On this day in 1786, the Virginia General Assembly enacted the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. Drafted by Thomas Jefferson, the statute would help shape the Establishment Clause and Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, which today (largely) protects the rights of religious minorities from the tyranny of the majority.

“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.”

In honor of that statute’s passage, United States Presidents, starting with Bill Clinton in 1993, have proclaimed this day Religious Freedom Day. Here’s an excerpt from President Obama’s 2011 proclamation.

“The writ of the Founding Fathers has upheld the ability of Americans to worship and practice religion as they choose, including the right to believe in no religion at all. However, these liberties are not self-sustaining, and require a stalwart commitment by each generation to preserve and apply them. Throughout our Nation’s history, our founding ideal of religious freedom has served as an example to the world. Though our Nation has sometimes fallen short of the weighty task of ensuring freedom of religious expression and practice, we have remained a Nation in which people of different faiths coexist with mutual respect and equality under the law. America’s unshakeable commitment to religious freedom binds us together as a people, and the strength of our values underpins a country that is tolerant, just, and strong.”

Naturally, some Christian groups have tried to hijack the day and its true meaning, telling educators that Religious Freedom Day isn’t “celebrate-our-diversity-day,” but that shouldn’t prevent religious minorities from stepping forward on this day and celebrating the rights, freedoms, and responsibilities handed down to us by our Founding Fathers.

And remember, the Statute means all religions – not just Christian faiths. When the measure was being deliberated, an attempt was made to limit its protections to Christians only. That failed. When he learned of this, Jefferson rejoiced. He later wrote that he was pleased that this gambit “was rejected by the great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, the infidel of every denomination.

Despite the efforts of some revisionists, religious freedom in the United States was always meant to include us. The Hindu, the non-Christian, the “infidel of every denomination,” are protected under law. The moment we stop believing that, and stop fighting to have religious freedom mean all religions, not just the popular ones, we cede ground to those who would twist the meanings of Jefferson and the Founders to their benefit. As Pagans, we should stand up, speak out, and remind everyone that religious freedom, if it is to have any meaning at all, includes and protects us all.