Unbeknownst to most Americans, National Religious Freedom Day is celebrated every year on Jan. 16, the anniversary of the adoption of the Statute for Religious Freedom by the Virginia Assembly in 1786.
This legislation, drafted by Thomas Jefferson and guided to passage by James Madison, marked the first time in history that a legislature voted to disestablish religion, preparing the way for the American observation of religious liberty under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Each year, Religious Freedom Day comes and goes with little fanfare beyond a pro forma proclamation from the President. But 2019 might be a good year to start paying attention.
Religious freedom is under siege across the world, a tragic reality that destroys lives and undermines our own security. At home, religious freedom has become a point of contention and division at the very moment our need for agreement on First Amendment principles has never been greater or more urgent.
Angry voices on all sides shout past one another, turning clashes over competing claims into a zero-sum game. Our collective failure to negotiate areas of disagreement in good faith undermines public support for religious freedom — a term that now often appears in media scare quotes — and poisons the well for civil discourse about contentious issues.
Culture wars foment a climate of fear and hate, conditions that history teaches can lead to division, intolerance and even violence. In a chilling tweet sent out last fall, the Auschwitz Memorial put it this way:
“When we look at Auschwitz we see the end of the process. It’s important to remember that the Holocaust actually did not start from gas chambers. This hatred gradually developed from words, stereotypes and prejudice through legal exclusion, dehumanization and escalating violence.”
Case in point: In November, 11 people were murdered and four wounded during Shabbat morning services at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Only days before the Tree of Life attack, a gunman in Kentucky tried to force his way into a black church. Failing that, he went to a nearby grocery store and murdered two African Americans.
Perpetrators of religious and racial hate crimes in America are ecumenical. Synagogues, mosques, churches, temples have all been targets of vandalism, assaults and violence in recent years. From the massacre of six Sikhs in a Wisconsin temple to the bombing of a mosque in Minnesota to the murder of nine people at Mother Emanuel Church in South Carolina, this wave of violence has spared no faith or creed.
Surging intolerance, white supremacy, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and nativism in America are frightening reminders that constitutions and laws alone do not and cannot guarantee religious freedom or peaceful coexistence.
Religious freedom is only possible in a society where people are not only free, but also safe to live their faith openly and freely without fear that someone will tear off their head covering, desecrate their place of worship, or bully their children in school.
Absent a safe environment sustained by the civic virtue of average citizens, the First Amendment becomes what James Madison would describe as a “parchment barrier.” If we are to be truly free, we must be fully safe.
What may save us in the end is the very diversity that triggers so much anger in racists and xenophobes. As James Madison argued more than 200 years ago, religious freedom arises from “the multiplicity of sects … the best and only security for religious liberty in any society. For where there is such a variety of sects, there cannot be a majority of any one sect to oppress and persecute the rest.”
Diversity in and of itself, however, does not ensure peaceful coexistence or create authentic pluralism. As Harvard professor Diana Eck explains, “pluralism is not diversity alone, but the energetic engagement with diversity. Diversity can and has meant the creation of religious ghettoes with little traffic between or among them. Today, religious diversity is a given, but pluralism is not a given; it is an achievement. Mere diversity without real encounter and relationship will yield increasing tensions in our societies.”
Engagement with diversity begins with letting all voices be heard. And that is finally beginning to happen in the United States. Although the U.S. remains majority Christian, growing number of Americans identify with other faiths — and nearly one fourth of the population with no faith at all.
On Jan. 3, the expanding diversity of religion and belief in America was on full display as newly elected members of Congress took their oaths of office using more than a dozen books and documents in their swearing-in ceremonies. Included were a range of religious scriptures including the Bible (various versions), Quran and Bhagavad Gita, as well as the Constitution.
Will we be able to translate the symbolism of religious diversity into authentic pluralism — pluralism built on honest dialogue and mutual understanding? That remains to be seen. But one thing seems clear: Unless we learn to live with our deepest differences, Americans will be neither safe nor free.