Commentary

Marking the 232nd anniversary of the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, President Trump proclaimed January 16, 2018, as Religious Freedom Day. An annual presidential act, the text of Trump's proclamation fashioned himself as a champion of the Constitution’s first amendment.

“No American — whether a nun, nurse, baker, or business owner — should be forced to choose between the tenants of faith or adherence to the law,” the president said in his statement.

Many evangelicals may celebrate this act as an symbolic example of Trump’s commitment to the faith community, but I cannot join them. The “freedom” they celebrate today is the religious liberty of the slaveholder.

This has not always been the case for religious liberty in American public life. Roger Williams, a Baptist who left the Massachusetts Bay Colony to establish Rhode Island, and originator of the idea of separation of church and state, imagined religious liberty as a wall around the garden of faith — there to protect religion against the inevitable overreach of the government. The liberty he championed made room for women like Anne Hutchinson to teach the Bible in her home — a dangerous notion to the state-sponsored church of the time.

And no one was more influential in Thomas Jefferson’s drafting of the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom than Baptist abolitionist John Leland. When he lobbied for the separation of church and state in the Virginia colony, Baptists like him were jailed for preaching without a license from the Church of England. His insistence that the governing authorities of Virginia could not exercise political power to force their convictions on other human beings did, indeed, lay the foundation for religious freedom in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

But Leland’s freedom from the state religion of his day is a far cry from evangelicals using the power of the state to justify refusing to serve LGBTQ patrons or validate same-sex marriage licenses on the basis of their faith. How, then, did religious liberty come to mean nearly the opposite of what its founders intended?

Sadly, any honest answer to this question illuminates how the teachings of the Old Testament, and Jesus were and are used by extreme religious arguments to justify a multitude of sins. In the 19th century, when the United States was torn in two by the issue of race-based chattel slavery, the arguments against holding fellow humans in bondage were moral arguments. Abolitionists and their opponents alike knew that they had the moral high ground. Nineteenth-century white theologians had to work very hard to explain why slavery was not only justifiable, but also a good to enslaved people and their masters alike. Their outlandish arguments are recorded in the annals of our nation’s best theological libraries.

While the Civil War and the Reconstruction amendments to the Constitution settled the legal issue of slavery, they did not resolve the moral issue. Southern Christians, whose way of life had been baptized by generations of preachers, saw Reconstruction as a great moral evil imposed upon them by the federal government. They imagined they could only be redeemed by a revival of true religion that would, in their words, “drive out the satraps.” They refashioned religious liberty as freedom from the “corruption” of federal intervention in their domestic and commercial affairs.

Whiteness became a matter of faith.

It is easy to dismiss this as solely Southern history, but the 20th century demonstrated both the success of Southern white evangelical religion in most regions of the country, and resistance to any federal expansion of democracy along with it. When evangelical ministers criticized Dr. King for straying from “the gospel” to get involved in politics, they were echoing the Redeemers of the 19th century, in both rural Alabama and America’s growing Sunbelt.

This is the same posture toward religion that celebrates President Trump as a champion of “religious liberty” today. For these adherents, faith is about believing that no government can tell its citizens that they must recognize the basic rights of their neighbor, if that neighbor chooses to marry according to the laws of the United States. This view of American religion relies on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act — which requires any law restricting religions expression show a compelling need — and precedent set by Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, which allowed employers to deny access to contraception if they religiously object to the practice. The only redemption they can imagine is a political movement that promises to free them from the “corruption” they see all around them.

And so, as a matter of faith, they are willing to trade the religious liberty that the Constitution guarantees for the a charade that makes them feel like winners over and against neighbors who currently have less power. This is, of course, a great injustice to our LGBTQ sisters and brothers. But it is also a great loss for those who celebrate today. When they thank their god for this president who fights for them, they march willingly into a hell from which Jesus died to save them.

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove directs the School for Conversion in Durham, N.C. He is a member of the National Steering Committee of The Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival and author of the forthcoming Reconstructing the Gospel: Finding Freedom From Slaveholder Religion.

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