January 16, 2019
When George H.W. Bush died in November, he was remembered for so many things -- his leadership in the Cold War, America's invasion of Kuwait, his World War II service. What almost never came up was January 16, 1993. Four days before President Bush left office, his dream of a second term lost, he did something significant. He heeded Congress's call to set this day apart, so that we could honor what sets our nation apart: religious freedom.
In a tradition carried on by every president since, Religious Freedom Day gives us the opportunity to pause and reflect on a concept that -- 233 years later -- doesn't seem nearly as radical as it did in Thomas Jefferson's day. Like so many things we take for granted, Americans don't always appreciate their liberties until they're threatened. Even then, the smallest taste of persecution we experienced pales in comparison to the fear and oppression suffered by half of the world's Christians today. We bow our heads in public, drive to and from Sunday services, or sing along to praise and worship without a second thought. But for millions of families huddled in underground churches or behind prison bars, faith still exacts a price.
They understand, better than any of us, what drove America to a bloody Revolution more than two centuries ago. They know the shackles of a government that attempt to dictate what people believe -- and punish the ones who refuse to conform. And they long for men and women as brave as our founders, who were willing to give their lives for a nation that lets everyone order their lives by their own beliefs.
Twenty-six years, five presidents, and two deeply divided parties later, our country could use a reminder of what Religious Freedom Day means. When Jefferson wrote the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom in 1786, he was trying to stop the government from dictating what Americans believe. Now, a full two centuries later, his fears are suddenly relevant again. Under Barack Obama, we saw the dawning of a new age -- one where men and women of faith were singled out for attack. They were chased out of jobs, hauled to court, vandalized, ridiculed, and financially ruined. They were forced to violate their beliefs -- or pay for them.
Over time, the legislative and political attacks gave way to actual violence. Even now, President Trump warns, two years into his work to cajole faith out of hiding, "efforts to circumscribe religious freedom -- or to separate it from adjourning civil liberties, like property rights or free speech -- are on the rise." This day, which, as FRC's David Closson points out, should be an opportunity to celebrate our shared principles, only reminds us of how fractured we are on what should be the common values of religious liberty and freedom of conscience.
That's not to say both sides won't commemorate the day. But there are two very different parties now -- one who embraces religious freedom in theory, and another who defends it in practice. One who sees conscience as a necessary casualty on the road to political correctness, and another who sees it as the only avenue to co-existence. One who gets its way through force and coercion, the other who wants ideas to compete openly. One whose spokesmen wonder if 230-year-old principles still apply, and another who knows America couldn't exist without them.
Our country has a long way to go in healing these rifts. But when we do, it will be because we dug down to the roots of who we are as a people. Nothing defines us more -- then or now -- than the dignity of the human person and the freedom of everyone, everywhere, to live out their beliefs. Two hundred forty-three years later, they're what makes the experiment called America work. Today, we celebrate the sacrifices that bought that freedom -- and pray for the courage to keep it burning.
For more on the significance of January 16, check out these new columns from FRC experts David Closson, "Religious Freedom Day" on NRO; "When Free Exercise Comes at a Price" by Alexandra McPhee; and, "On Religious Freedom Day, Consider Life in Countries without It" from Travis Weber.
Tony Perkins' Washington Update is written with the aid of FRC senior writers.