Dear President Trump,
I know that reading and facts aren’t really your things. But as I perused your proclamation declaring January 16 as Religious Freedom Day, I noticed that you were in desperate need of both. Here are a few notes I jotted down while reading that somewhat deficient announcement.
“Faith is embedded in the history, spirit, and soul of our Nation.”
I get that you’re going for soaring rhetoric that still panders to a certain group, but right off the bat you’ve alienated Americans who are not willing to set reason aside in favor of faith. The law you are celebrating on Religious Freedom Day — the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom — was definitely intended to protect faithless citizens too. In his autobiography, Thomas Jefferson (he’s the guy who wrote the law) explained that law is:
“meant to comprehend, within the mantle of it’s protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and infidel of every denomination.”
So, in your first sentence, you’re betraying the spirit of the law you are supposedly venerating.
“Our forefathers, seeking refuge from religious persecution, believed in the eternal truth that freedom is not a gift from the government, but a sacred right from Almighty God. “
OK, this is sort of crafty. It’s a bit of a bait and switch. Some of our forefathers came here with this idea. But it was an idea that the founding fathers then rejected more than a century later. And it’s not quite right that those forefathers were seeking refuge, though this is a myth we’re all guilty of repeating. The Plymouth Pilgrims and Massachusetts Puritans were not seeking religious freedom. They were seeking the ability to form a government and society dedicated to their particular brand of religion. They wanted a theocracy. Oh, and the Pilgrims actually had the refuge you mentioned. They didn’t come to North America immediately after fleeing England. Instead, they fled to the world’s most tolerant nation at the time, the Netherlands. They were there for 12 years and only left because their flock, after tasting tolerance, began to lose sheep. Tolerance and religious freedom meant that the Pilgrim elders could not enforce their beliefs with the help of civil law.
“History has shown us that what is given by a god can be taken away by those who speak with or for that god. Slavery was God’s will, until it wasn’t. Segregation and anti-miscegenation laws were meant to keep the races separate, as God intended. . . . Human rights are absolute and universal; not susceptible to religious whim and fancy. Simply by virtue of being human — just because you were born — you have certain inherent, inalienable rights.”
“This seminal bill, penned by Thomas Jefferson, states 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.’ Five years later, these principles served as the inspiration for the First Amendment, which affirms our right to choose and exercise faith without government coercion or reprisal.”
You were doing so well here. Let’s just do a tiny correction: “. . . affirms our right to choose and exercise faith or none at all, without government coercion or reprisal.” Much better.
“Our Constitution and laws guarantee Americans the right not just to believe as they see fit, but to freely exercise their religion. Unfortunately, not all have recognized the importance of religious freedom, whether by threatening tax consequences for particular forms of religious speech, or forcing people to comply with laws that violate their core religious beliefs without sufficient justification.”
The truly unfortunate aspect of this assertion is that so many Americans, yourself included, fail to understand that the right to believe and the right to act are not coextensive. The right to believe, what we also call the freedom of thought or the rights of conscience, is absolute. The government cannot criminalize, coerce, burden, prohibit, or infringe our freedom of thought in any way. But the right to act on those beliefs can and should be limited. I explained this the same day you issued your proclamation.
The very law you are celebrating makes this exact point. In it, Jefferson and Madison explain that religious freedom is not absolute. After defending the freedom of thought, the Virginians clarify that the government can step in when opinions become action: “It is time enough for the rightful purposes of civil government for its officers to interfere when principles break out into overt acts against peace and good order.” So if, for instance, a bakery violates a civil rights statute and discriminates against a gay couple, it has acted. That action can be regulated. While the government can step in on the act, the baker is still free to believe, as he claimed, that “Jesus was a carpenter” and that he would not “have made a bed for their wedding.”
“…soon after taking office, I addressed these issues in an Executive Order that helps ensure Americans are able to follow their consciences without undue Government interference…”
Is that the same order that FFRF sued you over? I thought so. You know that your own DOJ went into court and explained to a federal judge that your order does no do nearly as much as you claim, right? I hope so, because it actually happened twice. Hell, even the religious right groups the order was meant to pander to were upset with you because it didn’t do anything.
“…tenants of faith…”
It’s actually “tenets of faith.” I’m glad you fixed this error on the WhiteHouse.gov version of the proclamation.
“Faith breathes life and hope into our world.”
I guess this is meant to be a bookend to the attempt at soaring rhetoric that opened the proclamation. I’d say it missed the mark. It reads a lot like a deepity.
Next time you want to write a proclamation about religious freedom, you might want to mention the most important part: the separation of state and church. There is no such thing as freedom of religion without a government that is free from religion.
Andrew L. Seidel
Director of Strategic Response
Freedom From Religion Foundation