President Barack Obama issued a Proclamation declaring January 16th Religious Freedom Day. (PDF) In it he invoked the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom -- arguably the philosophical, historical and legal taproot of religious freedom, equality and separation of church and state in the U.S. -- and a powerful argument against Christian nationalism. And unlike the kinds of pols who lead the Republican Party (and some Dems), he made a point of adding: "... it was the genius of America's forefathers to protect our freedom of religion, including the freedom to practice none at all."
This is of course, Obama at his best. There are many across the political spectrum who, mistakenly in my view, seek to pit religious against secular people (and vice versa). I have written against this many times. (But in most detail,here). We are at our best as progressives, as Democrats, and as a nation, when we embrace equality and respect. Obama knows this, and while I differ with him on some things, this is one thing on which we agree.
First, a bit of history.
When Thomas Jefferson first proposed the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom in 1777, he stated that this right of individual conscience must be extended to everyone, including: "the Jew, the Mohametan, and the Hindoo." Jefferson was not arguing the demographics of majority and minority religions, but first principles of equality. It took time to advance them, even then. James Madison as governor of Virginia managed to push Jefferson's bill through the legislature in 1786--the year before the drafting the federal Constitution, of which Madison is credited with being the principal author--as well as the principal author of the First Amendment. Virginia had already disestablished the Anglican Church, the day after it joined the revolution in 1776. So there is no mistaking the meaning of formally extending religious liberty to all in the wake of disestablishment and as a famous forerunner to the Constitution itself.
History is powerful, which is why the Religious Right is so vigorously fighting to revise it to suit their contemporary political and religious interests.
Here is the presidential Proclamation:
THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release January 15, 2010
RELIGIOUS FREEDOM DAY, 2010
BY THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA A PROCLAMATION
Long before our Nation's independence, weary settlers sought refuge on our shores to escape religious persecution on other continents. Recognizing their strife and toil, it was the genius of America's forefathers to protect our freedom of religion, including the freedom to practice none at all. Many faiths are now practiced in our Nation's houses of worship, and that diversity is built upon a rich tradition of religious tolerance. On this day, we commemorate an early realization of our Nation's founding ideals: Virginia's 1786 Statute for Religious Freedom.
The Virginia Statute was more than a law. It was a statement of principle, declaring freedom of religion as the natural right of all humanity -- not a privilege for any government to give or take away. Penned by Thomas Jefferson and championed in the Virginia legislature by James Madison, it barred compulsory support of any church and ensured the freedom of all people to profess their faith openly, without fear of persecution. Five years later, the First Amendment of our Bill of Rights followed the Virginia Statute's model, stating, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . .".
Our Nation's enduring commitment to the universal human right of religious freedom extends beyond our borders as we advocate for all who are denied the ability to choose and live their faith. My Administration will continue to oppose growing trends in many parts of the world to restrict religious expression.
Faith can bring us closer to one another, and our freedom to practice our faith and follow our conscience is central to our ability to live in harmony. On Religious Freedom Day, let us pledge our constant support to all who struggle against religious oppression and rededicate ourselves to fostering peace with those whose beliefs differ from our own. In doing so, we reaffirm our common humanity and respect for all people with whom we share a brief moment on this Earth.
NOW, THEREFORE, I, BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States of America, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and the laws of the United States, do more hereby proclaim January 16, 2010, as Religious Freedom Day. I call on all Americans to commemorate this day with events and activities that teach us about this critical foundation of our Nation's liberty, and show us how we can protect it for future generations here and around the world.
IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand this fifteenth day of January, in the year of our Lord two thousand ten, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and thirty-fourth.
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[Crossposted from Talk to Action]