Founding Philosophies | Museum | Style Weekly

When the Virginia General Assembly adopted Thomas Jefferson’s landmark Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom on Jan. 16, 1786, it had repercussions beyond Virgnia’s borders.

That statute was the basis for the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment, ultimately leading to a promise of freedom of religion for every citizen in the country. Since 1993, National Religious Freedom Day has been officially proclaimed on Jan. 16 by every U.S. president.

The Valentine Museum’s “Life, Liberty and Happiness: New Perspectives on Founding Ideas” lecture series explores the evolution and contemporary relevance of America’s founding philosophies by highlighting scholars whose work contributes to reinterpreting what life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness means in the 21st century. To honor Religious Freedom Day as well as Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, the museum is presenting Dr. Sabrina Dent, the president of the Center for Faith, Justice, and Reconciliation on Tuesday, Jan. 17. The event is free, but reservations are required.

The Center for Faith, Justice, and Reconciliation is a theological think tank and education organization focusing on advancing justice issues. Dent’s scholarship addresses the complexities of religious freedom, public policy and race, and religion and American public life. “We, as Americans, often say our rights are being infringed upon, but the bigger issue is what do our First Amendment rights mean to everyone?” Dent says. “Because everyone sees this issue through the lens of their experience in this country.”

Enslaved people didn’t have the ability to practice their own religions, so many had to practice in secret. In other instances, both African Americans and Indigenous people had the Christian Bible forced on them. “Religious freedom means that everyone is given their freedom to practice their beliefs or to not believe at all,” she says. “It’s an erroneous assumption that you have to be part of some religious community.”

Dent’s talk will address what happens when one group begins deciding for others what public policy will be. She says that’s the case with Christian nationalists, who primarily focus on internal politics, such as passing laws that reflect their view of Christianity and its role in political and social life. “We need to pay attention because they’re working to shape public policy and public-school policy,” Dent explains. “These are things that impact everyone.”

The talk at the Valentine is a reminder that the U.S. was not founded as a Christian nation. It’s also an opportunity for the community to discuss the personal freedoms of a country built on a flawed foundation, one that excluded entire populations from its benefits. “The current administration has been very intentional about being inclusive and inviting different religions to the table,” says Dent. “Everyone needs to have a voice at the table as a way to find common ground and allow every person human dignity.”

Part of that inclusiveness involves allowing students and employees of all religions to have days off to observe their traditions, which includes public schools making accommodations for non-Christian holiday observances. Working toward a greater inclusiveness is part of the mission of the Center for Faith, Justice, and Reconciliation. “We partner with organizations –Jewish, Muslim, non-religious groups, women’s groups—because it takes a community to do this work,” Dent says. “Dr. King’s letter from Birmingham jail was a call to leaders of all faiths to get involved together as part of an interfaith movement. We diminish ourselves when we exclude others.”

Because freedom of religion ties into other issues such as voting accessibility, housing security, marriage equality and racial justice, Dent insists that they should all be looked at through an intersectional lens. Her talk will touch on what areas needs to be acted on and the ways people can choose to show up and make a difference.

Progress has been made in this country, but Dent says there’s a long way to go. “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness means everybody has the right to be and exist and thrive. We need to act on issues that matter because they all intersect with religious freedom.”

Life, Liberty, and Happiness with Dr. Sabrina Dent will be held on Tuesday, Jan. 17 from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. at the Valentine, 1015 E. Clay St. The event is free and open to the public, go here for more info or to register.

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