Can progressives reclaim "religious freedom" from Trump and the evangelical right?

Even Trump's wall is a symbol of his alliance with Christian nationalism. But activists are fighting back

By Paul Rosenberg

Contributing Writer

Published January 17, 2019 1:00PM (EST)


In the midst of the longest, most destructive government shutdown in history, with a maelstrom of treason-adjacent scandals swirling around the White House and Democrats finally in a position to do something about it, it’s easy to overlook President Trump’s proclamation of Jan. 16 as “Religious Freedom Day.” As Fred Clarkson, a senior research analyst at Political Research Associates, noted at Religion Dispatches, “Every president since 1993 has issued the annual presidential RFD proclamation, as required by Congress,” but “Trump was the first to overtly use it to promote the agenda of the Christian right.”

This is unsurprising given the nature of Trump’s base and how desperately he clings to it, even more so as his grip on power becomes more threatened. As I’ve written about before, the embrace of Christian nationalism — a religious supremacist ideology — was key to support for Trump in the 2016 election.  It’s a belief system that “draws its roots from ‘Old Testament’ parallels between America and Israel, who was commanded to maintain cultural and blood purity, often through war, conquest, and separatism,” as described in the paper “Make America Christian Again: Christian Nationalism and Voting for Donald Trump in the 2016 Presidential Election." the main focus of that story.  And nothing says “separatism” or "maintaining cultural and blood purity” better than Trump’s mythical, magical wall.

“It's a very important battle to win,” Trump said about the wall on Jan. 6, “from the standpoint of safety, No. 1, defining our country and who we are." That caught the attention of Rachel Laser, president of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “‘Who we are,’ in the eyes of Trump’s base, is a white Christian country,” she told Salon. “The wall is tied into the same movement of the religious right, in their effort to have white Christians regain their power hold over the country.”  

That’s not the only way Trump’s support for this twisted vision of “religious freedom” has been in the news. This week has also seen two federal judges halt the administration's efforts to roll back birth control protections by allowing employers to opt out of providing no-cost coverage under the guise of objections protected by “religious freedom.” On the other hand, activists with No More Deaths went on trial this week for their religiously-inspired life-saving activism along the Mexican border. So the highly-selective and politically motivated nature of Trump-style “religious freedom” could not be clearer.  

At the same time, progressives are fighting back, as I’ve described before in covering Religious Freedom Day in 2016, 2017 and 2018. This year, they’ve taken a big step forward. Clarkson helped draft a model Religious Freedom Day resolution highlighting the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom — authored by Thomas Jefferson— which established religious equality as a guiding principle of American government and whose anniversary the day celebrates.

As Jefferson later made clear, religious freedom encompasses "the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan [aka Muslim], the Hindoo, and infidel of every denomination." It’s been likened to a shield protecting everyone's rights — especially those most vulnerable to exclusion or attack. Resolutions based on that model have been introduced in Minnesota this year, and passed unanimously in the District of Columbia.

“Trump made a deal with the Christian right during the campaign, and he has kept his promise to them," Clarkson told Salon. "That is, he's going take their religious agenda and make it public policy in every way he could. He has delivered far more than anybody on any side of these questions could ever have imagined.” In addition to Trump's burn-down-the-house fight for the wall, this includes judicial appointments as well as regulations reflecting the right's upside-down notion of “religious liberty.”

What’s more, Trump’s commitment to these actions were hidden in plain sight. In his Religious Freedom Day proclamation last year, Clarkson noted, the president “used a series of code words referring to the different elements of public policy, where he is advancing the Christian right approach to religious freedom. He said specifically, ‘No American, whether a nun, nurse, baker or business owner, should be forced to choose between the tenets of their faith or adherence to law.'" Each of those refers to a specific example the Christian right has pushed to advance its version of “religious freedom.”

“In the case of the nun, he’s referring to the Little Sisters of the Poor,” Clarkson said, the nursing home chain that "didn't just want an exemption in terms of providing contraception to their employees -- not all of whom are [members of] Little Sisters of the Poor, they're just employees -- but didn't even want to have to sign the paperwork.” The Obama administration settled that out of court.

In the case of nurses, Clarkson said, “The reference there is whether health workers should have to be, as they put it, ‘complicit in abortion,’ or whether they can exempt themselves from a variety of normal activities, providing health services to LGBTQ people or to women seeking normal reproductive care.”

Many people, not necessarily affiliated with the religious right seem to find such “religious freedom” claims plausible nowadays — a “right” to pick and choose what parts of your job to do. So it’s helpful to recall that when John F. Kennedy sought to assure the nation of his ability to make important national decisions independent of the Roman Catholic Church, he concluded by saying exactly the opposite:

But if the time should ever come — and I do not concede any conflict to be even remotely possible — when my office would require me to either violate my conscience or violate the national interest, then I would resign the office; and I hope any conscientious public servant would do the same.

“Baker” is of course a reference to the Masterpiece Cakeshop case, while “business owner” broadened the claim to practically anyone, “such as photographers, wedding caterers,” etc. In any of these cases, had the claims been made in order to refuse service to black people 30 or 40 years ago, they would have gone nowhere — a powerful reminder of how far we have strayed from our clearest national ideals of equality before the law.

“People can live out their faith and adhere to the law,” Clarkson said, “If they were really following in the tradition of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, or for that matter, Jack Kennedy, then if you find your religious conscience or your moral conscience conflicts with the law, you either break the law and go to jail as an act of protest, or in certain cases, as Kennedy said, you would resign your office.” Using “religious freedom” or “moral conscience” to justify bigotry, he added, “is something we thought we had left behind a long time ago.”


Rachel Laser of Americans United noted that all these efforts reflect how the religious right feels “very emboldened in the time of the Trump-Pence administration," and hopes "to change the Zeitgeist around religious freedom in this country and redefine it to mean the right to cause harm to someone based on your religious views.” Her organization is playing a leading role in developing a progressive response to the right-wing campaign for state-level legislation known as “Project Blitz,” whose playbook Clarkson first uncovered last year, as I reported here.

Progressive politicians have begun to take action as well. Last year, Minnesota State Sen. John Marty, who comes from a prominent family of Protestant ministers, spoke out against a Project Blitz-inspired bill to place "In God We Trust" in school classrooms, saying that "a government-sanctioned motto doesn't strengthen our religion, but it demeans, devalues and cheapens our religion." Marty was smeared for that on Fox News, but defended himself so ably that the bullies decided it was wiser to back off. Clarkson interviewed Marty for Religion Dispatches last September, and this month he introduced a Religious Freedom Day resolution in the Minnesota legislature.

“As I’ve seen how some people are trying to use the words ‘religious freedom’ in order to promote their own Christian nationalism, or Christian supremacy, that's troubling to me,” Marty told Salon. “Religious freedom means religious freedom for Christians, it means that for Muslims and Jews and atheists and everyone.”

Marty said he was particularly struck by a passage from Clarkson’s Religious Freedom Day preview at Religion Dispatches, quoting "dominionist" theorist Gary North in 1982:

We must use the doctrine of religious liberty to gain independence for Christian schools until we train up a generation of people who know that there is no religious neutrality, no neutral law, no neutral education, and no neutral civil government. Then they will get busy in constructing a Bible-based social, political and religious order which finally denies the religious liberty of the enemies of God.

Marty paraphrased that this way: “'We want to use religious liberty to help our cause, then we can crush everybody else and ... deny the religious liberty to others we call the enemies of God.’ To me, that's fundamentally the opposite of what religious liberty is about.”

In Washington, D.C., Councilmember David Grosso introduced a resolution that was passed unanimously. “We are a sanctuary city,” Grosso told Salon. “We do believe in same-sex marriage, we were one of the first jurisdictions to do it. We also strongly believe in undocumented rights and things like that. So for us to allow this to be chipped away at by Christian nationalists would be a huge mistake. I felt like we needed to step up to do something, and we did.”

There's more that remains to do in the nation's capital. “It frustrates me” when the newly-elected D.C. city council is sworn in with a Christian prayer, Grosso said. “We’re a government body, we have an obligation to make sure that this is an open space for everybody, and that includes people that aren’t Christian and people with no beliefs. There has been a lack of attention and a lack of commitment to that core principle that this country was founded on, and I think it's important, any time we can, to elevate this conversation.”

According to Laser, there will be many more efforts to elevate the conversation in the year ahead. Details are still being worked out, but a broad coalition of groups is now working together to push back against the Trump administration and Project Blitz.

“You can unite Americans across so many different sectors under the banner of separating religion and government," Laser said. "So from lemons, lemonade: What we've done is bring together all the affected communities.”

In addition to connecting the dots between seemingly innocuous acts like the “In God We Trust” resolutions and the overt discrimination that can follow, Americans United is also in the process of generating faith-specific organizing tools, Laser said. These will include “liturgies and statements from different denominations about the importance of separating church and state, and the importance of not allowing religion to turn into an instrument of hate and discrimination.”

One important voice that needs to be heard in all this is the growing community of self-identified “ex-vangelicals,” who have first-hand experience of the authoritarian reality behind all this talk of “religious freedom.”

“Because of our experience of living and leaving evangelicalism, ex-vangelicals are well aware that evangelicalism is thoroughly authoritarian and, as such, a threat to democracy,” author Christopher Stroop told Salon.

"We know what evangelicals say among themselves, and in many cases we've been mobilized for culture wars activism. So we see right through evangelicals' opportunistic ‘religious freedom’ rhetoric and understand that it is not about pluralism but about manipulating the system to grab as much power and influence as possible, with the goal of imposing their religious norms in the public square with the backing of coercive law.” 

Is it any wonder that such power-manipulators would flock to Donald Trump? Now progressives, including many people of faith, are fighting back as if our nation’s future depended on it.

By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News and columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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