THE BLOG
01/15/2016 06:15 pm ET Updated Jan 15, 2017

President Obama and Progressives: Christian Right Is Wrong About Religious Freedom

President Obama didn't name any names when he talked about the importance of religious freedom in his State of the Union address, when he called on Americans to "respect every faith" and not insult Muslims or vandalize mosques. Nor did he name names in his Proclamation for Religious Freedom Day, January 16 -- but I'm not bound by his constraints. So let's get to naming, shaming, and reclaiming religious freedom!

Let's start with Donald Trump, who bashes Muslims even as armed vigilantes stalk Muslims who are trying to worship in peace, and Republican Congressman Dave Brat, who pretends that only conservative Christians have a right to quote the Bible. I bet the president had bigots like them in mind when he said, in his proclamation:

[W]e will continue to enforce hate crime laws, including those perpetrated based on a person's actual or perceived religion. This work is crucial, particularly given the recent spike in reports of threats and violence against houses of worship, children, and adults simply because of their religious affiliation.

It's as if some Republican presidential contenders and Members of Congress believe that only right-wing Christians deserve the blessings of liberty, including religious freedom.

Rep. Dave Brat (R-VA), an aspiring theocrat who epitomizes Christian right thinking, recently attacked President Obama on a Christian right radio show for citing the Bible's call to care for widows and orphans as the president criticized Republicans' refusal to welcome Muslim refugees. Brat said, "Our side, the conservative side, needs to reeducate its people that we own the entire tradition" of Christian love.

Such pandering poppycock would come as a surprise to Jesus, himself a refugee who advocated caring for strangers, who never joined or endorsed any political organization, and who taught, "My kingdom is not of this world" (John 18:36).

If Brat is wrong about the notion that the Christian Right owns the Christian tradition in America, then who does?

One vital voice of historical American Christianity, whose roots reach back to the Mayflower, is the Rev. Dr. John C. Dorhauer, elected leader of the United Church of Christ (UCC), institutional descendants of the Pilgrims. Dorhauer's prophetic voice on issues such as racial justice and marriage equality speaks from the Congregationalist tradition that fights attempts by The Powers That Be to coopt Christianity as a political sock puppet. This is a Christian tradition that evinces love by welcoming, embracing, and celebrating all of God's children, not just the ones who go to a conservative church and vote Republican.

Dorhauer, who is a Mayflower descendant, writes, "You might say religious liberty is in my blood," in the preface to a new report by Frederick Clarkson, a Senior Fellow at Political Research Associates. (In the interests of full disclosure, I contributed to the research on this report.) The report documents how a well-funded and growing network of Christian Right legal institutions is advancing the redefinition of religious freedom to affect legal, political, and cultural change. But it rebuts the notion that the Christian right owns the Christian tradition. And it provides tools for progressives to reclaim religious freedom, which is under attack by the right to achieve religious supremacist ends.

Dorhauer fully owns the cautionary lessons that come from being a Mayflower descendant and inheritor of Congregationalist traditions. He writes:

As proud as I am of my Pilgrim Congregationalist history, I am also aware that within that history is the Puritan experience of the Salem witch trials and the treatment of indigenous peoples: reminders of how religion writ large as a culture's moral compass can bring out the worst in us. By the time our Constitution was written, both the desire to be free from religious tyranny found in the spirit of the Pilgrims - and the need to protect ourselves from religious zealots like the Puritans - would serve to inform its authors. They treated both as instructive, writing into the Bill of Rights language that would preserve our religious liberty and restrict the government's power to establish any religious point of view as normative.

Dorhauer rejects the Christian right claim that religious freedom gives them license to discriminate against employees, members of LGBTQ communities, or women. He describes what religious freedom is, and is not:

I believe in religious freedom, but not the kind that argues that government should grant me the right to refuse to serve or hire someone because they are homosexual. Removing someone's civil rights by empowering the government to protect and preserve my religious homophobia is not my idea of religious liberty.

"I believe in religious freedom, but not the kind that argues that government should tolerate employers or medical care professionals who want to deprive women of their full range of health care options. Depriving women of choices that our courts deem legal and appropriate to preserve my religious misogyny is not my idea of religious liberty.

A high-profile example of the Christian Right's misappropriation of religious freedom to justify discrimination is seen in the U.S. Supreme Court's 2014 Hobby Lobby ruling, which set a precedent by recognizing religious rights for private corporations to deny the Affordable Care Act's contraceptive mandate. Therefore, the Court allowed business owners' religious beliefs to trump the consciences and health interests of their employees.

Dorhauer declares that what the Christian right calls religious freedom "is in fact the kind of oppressive religious tyranny that my ancestors left their homeland to escape." Moreover, in response to the likes of Congressman Brat, he argues, "We can't allow the Religious Right to twist the meaning of religious liberty to the point that it becomes the means by which their theocratic vision is finally and fully realized."

As President Obama says in his 2016 proclamation on Religious Freedom Day, which marks the 230th anniversary of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom:

When the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom was adopted on January 16, 1786, it formed a blueprint for what would become the basis for the protection of religious liberty enshrined in our Constitution. Drafted by Thomas Jefferson, the statute proclaims 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.' The First Amendment prohibits Government from establishing religion, and it protects the free exercise of every faith. Our Government does not sponsor a religion, nor does it pressure anyone to practice a particular faith, or any faith at all. The United States stands for the protection of equal rights for all people to practice their faith freely, without fear or coercion, and as Americans, we understand that when people of all religions are accepted and are full and equal members of our society, we are all stronger and freer.

The idea of what religious freedom means is not a settled matter. But Clarkson offers a definition that allows progressives to reclaim religious liberty from conservative Christians who have perverted its meaning in service of theocratic agendas.

Clarkson writes:

"Let's first state what religious freedom is so we can better understand how the Christian Right is appropriating it to advance their agenda. Religious freedom is the right of individual conscience; to believe as we will and to change our minds freely, without undue influence from government or from powerful religious institutions. It also means the right to practice our beliefs free from the same constraints. The right to believe differently from the rich and the powerful is a prerequisite for free speech and a free press, the other two elements of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. That is one reason why religious freedom is often called the First Freedom. Religious freedom is integral to the idea of separation of church and state. Separation exists not to limit religious expression, but to safeguard against creeping religious supremacism and the theocratic temptations that have persisted throughout American history into the present."

This definition of religious liberty, which is often called our first freedom, is in keeping with the spirit of Thomas Jefferson. The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom which he drafted disestablished the Anglican Church as Virginia's state church and declared that citizens are free to believe as they will, and that this "shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities."

Clarkson notes, "Historians widely regard it as the root of how the framers of the Constitution approached matters of religion and government. It was as revolutionary as the era in which it was written."

Religious freedom is core to America's values because it is the right to believe and behave differently from the rich and powerful, and thus is a prerequisite to free speech. Yet the rich and powerful are trying to purloin the definition of religious freedom by making it a tool of oppression and discrimination.

As Political Research Associates Executive Director Tarso Ramos has tweeted: "#ReligiousFreedomIs under attack by those who would convert our first freedom from coercion into a tool of discrimination."

This year, as America celebrates Religious Freedom Day, it is important to remember that this freedom is the right to believe and behave as one chooses without fear, because church and state are separated, but it is not a license to discriminate or to impose one's religious beliefs on others. Thomas Jefferson wanted to be remembered for drafting this statute, which establishes that people are free to worship, or not, as they please without discrimination.

You may hear much pious palaver from the Christian right about Religious Freedom Day being all about them and their supposed special privileges to impose their beliefs and discriminatory practices on others who think differently from them and their rich, powerful friends. But friends, we know our history, and we won't let 'em hijack our Thomas Jefferson, will we? No, we'll remember him as the proud drafter of a statute that upends such false claims, promotes religious pluralism, and continues to serve as a vital part of the foundation of America's democracy.