Yesterday may come to be considered as a landmark in our national history, the occasion being a ceremonial proclamation, not even an actual speech, rather posted on the Whitehouse daily reports since 1996. Here's the most prominent website, Religious Freedom Day, (RFD) with a somewhat conservative tilt that provides every official proclamation made by the three Presidents since the first one in 1993. (I was informed in this comment of a website covering this day with a more liberal perspective, First Freedom Center.)
The Religious freedom clause of our first amendment is a one sentence version of the 1786 Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom authored by Thomas Jefferson, and found on the page 8 of this teachers guidebook published by the RFD organization linked above. Jefferson was quite a writer (would have gotten many recced diaries here on DK) along with being a lawyer who used words precisely -- and a politician, knowing the emotional impact of language.
The guidebook has the 18th century document followed by a shorter version for today's students and teachers. Yet, both of these, along with our own constitution and derived laws are vague on one vital issue. This is whether freedom of religion means allowing the choice of which one, or whether refusing to participate in any is equally protected. I don't think this ambiguity is an oversight, but was as far as Jefferson the politician would push the people of his time to support what came later in the document. The great wars of the world that he knew were mostly secular, but combatants often defined by religions, such as the Crusades, and between Catholic and Protestant. His document specifically allowed equality between Christians and Muslims, although there were few of the later in the Colonies.
Jefferson, among the those of highest intellectual achievement of his time, and certainly considered by many, of all times; began this statute of religious emancipation with these words:
Whereas Almighty God hath created the
mind free; that all attempts to influence it by temporal
punishments or burthens, or by civil incapacitations, tend
only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and
are a departure from the plan of the Holy author
of our religion, who being Lord both of body and
mind, yet chose not to propagate it by coercions
on either, as it was in his Almighty power to do;
If this were meant as a proclamation for equality for those who deny the existence of a creator, it certainly doesn't sound like it! In fact, it gives credence to those who say that this nation was created on Christian, or at the least, monotheistic values. Yet, even if this were Jefferson's conclusion, should it bind us to this day? All of our foundational documents described the rights of "men" which was not an oversight, as they did apply only to white men, among whom it was all but universally understood this world having a creator.
And why not. Science, meaning knowledge which is based on verifiable evidence, was in its infancy, with the biblical creation myth being as good an explanation as any others that could be offered. Charles Darwin hadn't even been born; and his schema of an alternative to creation was so revolutionary that he hesitated to publish it for decades. For me, understanding our national foundations are not to be found in the preamble of this seminal work of Jefferson, one that he was as proud of as his authorship of the Declaration of Independence. It is in the text that follows, which is found in his expostulation of the relationship between organized faith and another sacred institution, government, that provides his guidance for our own era:
Be it enacted by the 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 opinion in matters
of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish
enlarge, or affect their civil capacities
I contend that the phrase "religious opinions," given the context of his times, should be construed as "philosophic or existential views" as during his time religion was the idiom of conversation of these ultimate thoughts on mankind's purpose and place in existence. As such, the nihilism and materialism of atheism would be conveyed as a tone of a less dogmatic sect of Christianity, or even incorporated into those exotic religions that Jefferson had some knowledge of. A common riposte of evangelical Christians in debates is that atheism of just another belief system, that it no more than a religion, meant to negate any sense of claims of superiority of intellectual rigor. In many way's I agree. But if atheism be no more than a religion, it certainly is also no less. And as such should fall clearly under the protections and prerogatives of Jefferson's principles. While there are vast differences in approach between the two rubrics, both are identity groups that satisfy the human need for belonging that require transcending the vicissitudes of scientific discovery. So, conviction must be held in some ways that are beyond logical discourse by both.
This argument that atheism is a religion, (and certainly there are those such as Buddhism and Scientology that are recognized by the I.R.S in spite of the a-theistic nature of their tenets), provides a different reading of our foundational national documents. While our constitution can preclude any laws that punish atheism, it cannot stop public opprobrium, so the politician part of all who require public votes for accession to higher office meant marginalizing an already unpopular group. This process explains why non-believers have been excluded from the protection and benefits of every other religion simply by perpetuating this linguistic quirk, supported by political inertia and self interest.
This explains why only when this electoral calculation was no longer relevant unlike the first two proclamations, only now can Barack Obama include these words as part of the principles that underlie this country's protection of religious freedom. From the 2015 annual proclamation of Religious Freedom Day:
The First Amendment prohibits the Government from establishing religion. It protects the right of every person to practice their faith how they choose, to change their faith, or to practice no faith at all, and to do so free from persecution and fear. This religious freedom allows faith to flourish, and our Union is stronger because a vast array of religious communities coexist peacefully with mutual respect for one another.
It is only a single phrase, but I see it as a small first step which, as we have learned from recent history, can become a movement that gathers force. I'm convinced from a careful reading of his most prized legislative achievement that Thomas Jefferson would be cheering us on.