A manifesto on religious freedom called The American Charter of Freedom of Religion and Conscience was rolled out at an invitation-only event at the National Archives Museum last week. Original copies of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights are on display in the museum’s “Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom,” but proximity to the founding documents of the United States and the founding-sounding name, were not enough to salvage a deeply-flawed initiative.
Behind earnestly-worded appeals for religious toleration and respect is an exercise in historical revisionism—a pretense that the Framers of the Constitution and the First Amendment somehow intended the recently contrived deviations that now allow the idea of religious freedom to justify discrimination against others. As I reported for Religion Dispatches in October, behind the rhetorical bunting of the American Charter lies an effort to press the best of American democratic aspirations into the service of the religious and political agenda of the Christian Right and the Roman Catholic Bishops.
These things said, good faith efforts to seek compromise on difficult issues at the heart of our nation’s most democratic values, and to achieve greater civility in public life are good things. But they’re not ends unto themselves. And it’s certainly possible that some of those involved in the Charter initiative approach it in that spirit. That’s also why it’s important that people of good will take a hard look at this project with the idea that it may not be quite as benign as it first appears.
Briefly, let’s recall that the Charter advocates the core language of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act which lies at the core of so many contemporary issues, due largely to its role in the controversial 5-4