Our Unalienable Rights Include Freedom of—and from—Religion

I recognize the language in some of the below quotations is problematic for contemporary readers, but the historic importance of the quotations has led me to include them as they were written.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s goal for the Trump administration’s new Commission on Unalienable Rights is for the group is to provide “fresh thinking” about human rights with a focus on “natural law” and “natural rights”—but human rights organizations and progressive religious groups have decried the commission as a step toward rolling back rights for LGBTQ people and women in favor of religious rights.

(erin m / Creative Commons)

Natural law, supposedly, derives from objective moral laws that arise from the “universal nature of human beings,” which is created by God. Natural rights are those related rights that are inherent in human nature and given by God—which means that this new Commission rests on the assumption that the framework of international human rights that has evolved over the past few decades exceeds natural law and natural rights.

By narrowing rights to natural law and natural rights, the Commission can remake the official view of human rights into a contracted reflection of a particular conservative religious stance. Within a framework of natural law as envisioned by the Commission, gay sex, abortion and contraception may be morally wrong; thus, no right to them can exist. Socio-economic rights may not exist either, nor the right to request asylum. The Commission’s findings may also decrease the likelihood of the U.S. speaking out on LGBTQ human rights abuses, such as we’re seeing in Poland, around the world.

It’s also worth nothing that the Commission’s members are not State Department employees with years of diplomatic experience, or internationally recognized scholars and leaders in human rights. They are instead people with histories of opposing marriage equality, trans rights and abortion.

The Commission’s chair is Mary Ann Glendon, a Harvard professor and former U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican and vocal opponent of marriage equality. In 2015, she argued that “religious freedom is well on its way to becoming a second-class right—in the sense that it is being demoted from the status of a fundamental right to just one of many competing interests—one that can all too easily be trumped by other rights, claims and interests.”

She points to “erosion of conscience protection for religious individuals and institutions.” She lauds the Hobby Lobby decision that allowed the crafts store chain to deny employees contraception coverage. She worries that organizations like Catholic Charities will give up adoption and foster services rather than be forced to place children with same-sex couples. She blames the sexual revolution and its challenge to “the rule of law, the Church, and the marriage-based family,” and she bemoans the “new public morality that turns the Judeo-Christian moral inheritance upside down.”

While Glendon laments a loss of religious liberty, however, she means a very narrowly defined kind of religious liberty that was not the religious liberty of the founders or the Baptists in the 17th century who gave birth to the idea.

“[N]o man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place or ministry whatsoever,” Thomas Jefferson wrote in Virginia’s Statute for Religious Freedom, “nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge or affect their civil capacities.

In the century before, Baptists began to articulate a doctrine of full religious liberty—both freedom for religion and freedom from religion—that shaped understandings of religious rights in the U.S. In his 1612 treatise, “A Short Declaration of the Mistery of Iniquity,” Thomas Helwys, one of the pioneers of Baptist tradition, advocated for complete religious liberty for all people.

“Let them be heretics, Turks, Jews or whatsoever,” Helwys declared. “It appertaines not to the earthly power to punish them in the least measure.” He argued that people’s “religion to God is betwixt God and themselves.” So radical was his declaration that he was thrown into prison where he died in 1616.

Roger Williams, who founded the first Baptist church in the United States in Providence, Rhode Island in 1639, similarly wrote: “It is the will and command of God that, since the coming of his Son the Lord Jesus, a permission of the most Paganish, Jewish, Turkish, or anti-christian consciences and worships be granted to all men in all nations and countries.”

Baptists also advocated for those who desired freedom from religion. “Let every man speak freely without fear, maintain the principles that he believes, worship according to his own faith, either one God, three Gods no God or twenty Gods,” Baptist John Leland wrote in the 18th century, “and let government protect him in so doing.”

In the early 20th century, E. Y. Mullins explained: “We stand for the freedom of the atheist, agnostic,and materialist in his religious or irreligious convictions.” George W. Truett added: “Our contention is not for mere toleration but for absolute liberty.”

Glendon, Pompeo and the Commission seem to have missed these memos—and the danger of Trump’s Commission is exactly that its understanding of religious liberty extends only to a certain kind of religion, conservative Christianity.

Many progressive Christians support reproductive justice, sexual freedom within ethical parameters and marriage equality, yet this vision of progressive Christian engagement and religious liberty is certainly not what the Commission means. It also certainly does not mean the rights of practitioners of other faiths—can you imagine the outrage if a Muslim or Jew or Buddhist or Hindu denied conservative Christians a service based on their religious convictions?

A pluralistic secular democracy cannot impose old standards of homogeneity—not that the U.S. was ever homogenous, nor was it ever a Christian nation. Religious freedom has always meant that we have to live together and respect one another within a context of a shared value of public spirit.

Within this public, rather than religious, framework, we can support both a broad and deep religious freedom and human rights that recognize and respect differences and human dignity. The question for a baker whose religious convictions do not support marriage equality is not “does baking this cake violate my belief that homosexuality is a sin?” Instead, it should be “does baking this cake serve the public good by treating all people as equal members of the public?” 

Seeking a return to natural law and natural rights, as defined by conservative Christians, is not an act of supporting religious liberty; rather, it is the opposite. It is an attempt to impose the belief system of a narrow faction of one religion on a pluralistic U.S. public and the rest of the world. This Commission is a dangerous enterprise that threatens human rights progress and perverts the notion of religious liberty for political gain.


Susan M. Shaw, Ph.D., is a professor of women, gender and sexuality studies at Oregon State University.