Religious wars: With the Christian right on the offensive, activists are fighting back

Trump's administration is pushing a Christian nationalist agenda — but a diverse coalition is pushing back hard

Published January 20, 2020 12:00PM (EST)

Religion and secular iconography (Getty Images/Salon)
Religion and secular iconography (Getty Images/Salon)

These are tough times for independent journalism. If you value Salon's original reporting and commentary, we urge you to support it — by supporting our writers directly. Right here, right now, you can make a financial contribution to help make Paul Rosenberg's work possible. All donations go directly to writers.

Last Thursday, Jan. 16, was Religious Freedom Day. As befits his mendacious nature, Donald Trump "honored" it by promoting two policies profoundly at odds with the original meaning of what religious freedom is all about: a license to discriminate with federal funds, both in employment and in provision of services, and new pressure on public schools to allow student prayer and religious use of school facilities. 

The actual substance of the second policy was vastly over-hyped, noted Amanda Tyler, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty. Religion had never been banned from education by the Supreme Court in the 1960s, she pointed out — only "mandatory Bible readings and prayers written by the government. It should not be controversial to oppose government-dictated religious practice." But that's clearly the direction Trump was signaling toward, and the public pressure of presidential posturing has real-life consequences, regardless of written laws and regulations.

Trump's actions drew swift condemnation from Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and the Center for Inquiry, among others. As CFI noted:

[I]f a homeless atheist or LGBTQ teenager went to a federally-funded Catholic soup kitchen seeking nutritional aid, the organization could turn them away without so much as notifying them that alternative sources of aid exist.

This amounts to a religious litmus tests to access public services. Welcome to "Handmaid's Tale" America. 

But this was no surprise, given Trump's dependence on Christian nationalist support, and the fact that he's touted their line before, as I noted last year at this time. As Americans United president Rachel Laser said to Salon, "The Trump administration's constant entanglement of church and state should make our founders turn over in their graves."

So what is surprising is the dramatic growth of a broad progressive pushback against this attempt to kidnap the meaning of America's most distinctive contribution to the history of human freedom.  

It began in 2016, with the publication of "When Exemption is the Rule: The Religious Freedom Strategy of the Christian Right,"  written by Frederick Clarkson, a senior fellow at Political Research Associates. Last year, Clarkson helped draft a model Religious Freedom Day resolution highlighting the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, whose anniversary the day celebrates. But this year has seen a marked change, Clarkson told Salon. 

"This was the year that the Christian right finally began to show signs of weakness," Clarkson said. "Organized efforts by an historically broad movement began to gain traction in opposing the theocratic politics of the Christian right," he explained. "In my view, a movement is so much more than a coalition or coalitions." 

Laser sees similar signs as well. "The importance of church-state separation and religious freedom has made it back into the progressive community's vernacular," she said, adding, "Concerned citizens are raising church-state separation in town halls with presidential candidates and we are hearing about the misuse of religion to discriminate on the presidential debate stage." And beyond that, "Our recent public opinion research shows that 60 percent of voters see church-state separation as a high-priority issue to them personally. And despite the Trump administration stacking the deck against us, we're seeing victories in state legislatures, in Congress and in the courts."

Those victories reflect a lot more battles, as Lambda Legal Senior Counsel Jennifer Pizer told Salon. "In 2019, our litigation teams were in overdrive, back and forth to courthouses all over the country getting orders blocking examples of the Trump-Pence administration's grotesque religious-exemption overreach," Pizer said. 

There have also been broader results, Clarkson noted:

Religious, secular and civil rights groups have maintained a sustained effort of exposure and opposition, and were joined in 2019 by the [Baptist Joint Committee], which waged an unprecedented campaign, based on a strong manifesto called "Christians Against Christian Nationalism," which was joined in by top leaders of other Christian denominations. This unity frightened Christian right leaders who sought to smear the effort, but who were so fearful that they could not even bring themselves to say the name of the BJC. 

Movements draw together a wide range of people, communities, ideas, and aspirations. This was reflected in a range of stories I covered last year — which only scratch the surface of all the emerging activism:

  • The expanding pushback against the state-level legal agenda of "Project Blitz" (the Christian nationalist equivalent of ALEC), which I first wrote about when Clarkson first exposed "Project Blitz" in 2018.  ("Project Blitz lost significant momentum; having introduced and passed fewer bills than the year before," Clarkson told Salon.)
  • Congressional hearings on the "Do No Harm" act, which would curb discriminatory abuse of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. (The act now has 170 House co-sponsors, and 27 in the Senate. "This means the public education process is well underway about how the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act [RFRA] has been distorted and abused both by Supreme Court decisions and the Trump-Pence Administration," Pizer said.)
  • The lawsuit challenging the Trump HHS "Denial of Care" rule, which would have given free rein to a wide range of bigoted decision-making impacting the health and welfare of millions. (Rule since blocked by courts.) While LGBTQ and reproductive rights activists have long battled attacks from the religious right, the right's own reframing has helped allies more directly see those attacks as directed at everyone, not just those explicitly targeted.
  • The creation of Christians Against Christian Nationalism, noted above by Clarkson. [Salon story here]. 
  • Publication of "The Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism is Un-American," [author interview here] which provides a wealth of information & has gained significant attention.
  • The ongoing growth of the "ex-vangelical "movement, exposing the abusive, authoritarian reality behind the "wholesome, all-American" facade of white evangelicalism.

The last story I only covered indirectly, by including ex-vangelical perspectives in my overall coverage. Because they have the most intense first-hand knowledge of the stakes involved, their perspective is necessary for any truly comprehensive coverage — even if (or because) it makes things more complicated. 

"Having grown up steeped in Christian nationalism, which I've come to vehemently reject, I have difficulty performing patriotism, though I do love my country and democracy," ex-vangelical author Chrissy Stroop, co-editor of "Empty the Pews: Stories of Leaving the Church," told Salon. "I don't know the extent to which it's possible for us to reclaim the messaging around religious freedom from the Christian right," she said, "but I do think there is value in trying to reclaim the original meaning of the concept and in celebrating robust pluralism."

Also worth noting is another important story I only touched on in passing — the religious freedom struggles of progressives whose faith is mocked and trampled on by Trump and his allies. I referenced the continued prosecution of humanitarian aid volunteer Scott Warren on two charges related to aiding migrants along the U.S.-Mexico border. 

But Warren is only one example among many. In November, the Law, Rights, and Religion Project at Columbia Law School released a report, "Whose Faith Matters? The Fight for Religious Liberty Beyond the Christian Right," which provides a comprehensive account of the wide range of contexts "in which people of faith engaged in humanitarian and social justice work have fought for the right to exercise their religion." 

Finally, earlier this month American Atheists released its "2019 State of the Secular States" report, authored by Alison Gill, its vice president for legal and policy. States were classified into three categories: Just 10 qualified as having "strong protections for religious equality," including "constitutional guarantees for religious freedom, protections against religious harm, and few religious exemptions," while 21 states — among them Florida and Texas — were found to have "religious exemptions that undermine equality," including  "provisions that instill Christian Nationalism into the law," as well as "a lack of explicit protections to ensure the separation of religion and government." Between those two extremes, 19 states were found to provide "basic separation of religion and government," but with "few protections against religious harm."

This report makes vividly clear the landscape of an ongoing cultural battlefield that's been ignored — or purposely hidden — for far too long. While Project Blitz and Trump's policies were promoted under the banner of "religious freedom," Gill said, "This is nothing more than the cynical misappropriation of this fundamental American principle. In reality, these forces have undermined religious freedom by attempting to enshrine Christian privilege into the law," while eroding separation of church and state. 

"Exposing their agenda is the key to defeating it," Gill said. "This is why the State of the Secular States is such an important tool — the report provides benchmarks and helps us understand whether the states have faithfully executed, or eroded, this historical understanding of religious freedom." 

She went on to say, "Recognizing the threat is just the first step. With this awareness, we can work together to stop this erosion of religious equality." 

With all the activity noted above, and much more, a significant watershed has been crossed. The rich diversity of views outside the religious right has long been a significant disadvantage in confronting a highly focused minority. At long last, that's beginning to change. 

The literal map that American Atheists provides is matched by other kinds of maps that are starting to emerge — maps of history, ideas and experience. Without such maps to help guide us, we can easily be mislead by claims that "here be dragons" that no one has actually ever seen. Or we can think that some very real things can't possibly exist at all. 

One such example is the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty (BJC), founded way back in 1936. It's the only national faith-based group focused solely on protecting religious freedom for all. Not only does such an organization exist — with deep roots in American Baptist history — this past year it played a leading role in reaching out to other like-minded Christians, regardless of denomination, in launching Christians Against Christian Nationalism. 

"Religious Freedom Day provides an annual reminder of how our country protects religious liberty in a unique way — one that has served us well for centuries," BJC executive director Amanda Tyler told Salon. "Americans must reaffirm our promise of equal citizenship without regard to religion in these challenging days. The thousands of people who have signed the Christians Against Christian Nationalism statement are defending these principles." 

A more expected form of opposition to Christian nationalism and its perverted notion of "religious freedom" comes from Andrew Seidel, an attorney with the Freedom From Religion Foundation. But if the form isn't surprising, the scope and strength of his arguments are. 

"Christian nationalism is the false claim that America was founded as a Christian nation, that we were based on Christian principles and, most importantly, that we've strayed from that foundation, from our godly roots," Seidel told Salon. "They use the language of return to justify their harmful public policy," he said. "But there is hope. The very identity of the Christian nationalist [is] based on a host of myths and lies. Right now, America is in a desperate fight against Christian nationalism, a political theology that is an existential threat to our republic. That's why I wrote 'The Founding Myth'."

He ticked through an exhausting list of lies his book refutes:

We're one nation under God; "In God we Trust"; the Declaration of Independence relies on the Christian God four times; the Founders were all evangelical Christians; those founders prayed at the Constitutional Convention; Washington knelt in the snow at Valley Forge in prayer; our country is based on the Ten Commandments. All lies. All wrong. 

Stroop cited Seidel's book for the powerful case it makes. "Andrew Seidel emphasizes the point that there can be no freedom of religion without freedom from religion, and he's absolutely right about that. ... I think he unfortunately undercuts that critical point, however, in devoting so much of the book to pitting the Bible against American secularism and democracy, not considering that there are indeed progressive and inclusive interpretations of the text.

"That move plays into the Christian nationalists' attempt to define 'religious freedom' as exclusive to right-wing Christians, who must, the way they see it, be free to impose their will on others in order for them to consider themselves to have 'religious freedom' at all." 

Consonant with Stroop's point, the "Whose Faith Matters?" report notes that "the commonly held position that 'religious liberty should not be a license to discriminate' seems to accept at face value the notion that carve-outs from antidiscrimination law for religious conservatives do in fact protect religious liberty." Rather, "the very opposite is true: weakening civil rights law necessarily weakens religious freedom. Ceding the domain of 'religious liberty' to the Christian right overlooks the ways in which equality and religious freedom are mutually reinforcing rights, each dependent on the other."

This kind of criticism is actually a sign of the health and growing vitality of the broader movement. We increasingly see multiple different perspectives engaging with each other, producing a richer, more nuanced framework for developing a multi-layered, multi-faceted understanding of the issues involved.  

Today's Christian nationalist ideology builds on much earlier foundations, as historian Steven Green explores in his 2015 book, "Inventing a Christian America: The Myth of the Religious Founding." A presentation on his book by Green precipitated one of the most disturbing attacks ever seen from a Project Blitz group last year, which threatened the funding of Minnesota's nonprofit historical association. 

The myth Green describes originated in the revolutionary period and was solidified shortly after that. "It was in the early 1800s, however, that the narrative that the nation had a Christian founding and was specially blessed by God took hold," Green said, "as members of the second generation sought to sanctify the nation's origins and to distinguish it from other countries." Heirs always have insecurities, it seems, and we were no different as a nation. Since then, the narrative has waxed and waned, he said, with a resurgence in the last 30 years. "These Christian nationalists are reacting to the nation's shifting racial and religious demographics, as well as to decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court limiting government promotion of religion and extending protections to previously marginalized groups such as members of the LGBTQ community."  

White Protestants are still culturally predominant, but that power is waning, so a different sort of insecurity is driving the current resurgence. "Even though much of their work is rhetorical, convincing religious conservatives that they are under attack," he notes, they have gained some tangible victories

such as convincing the Texas State Board of Education to incorporate material about the nation's Christian origins into the state's social science curriculum. The Congressional Prayer Caucus' Project Blitz has also mounted an ambitious agenda to encourage state legislatures to enact policies that reflect a Christian perspective.

Likely the greatest success of Christian nationalists and their allies has been to convince legislators and judges to adopt an exaggerated understanding of regulatory burdens on the free exercise of religion.  

In contrast to Green's broad historical perspective, stands the chilling concrete issue of personal survival raised by the Trump administration's Denial of Care rule. As I noted last June, when the lawsuit to challenge it was filed, religious conscience exemptions are neither new nor controversial in themselves: 

There have long been provisions for health care providers to abstain from practices for religious reasons, in carefully balanced ways that preserve patient access to care and maintain patient health as the central focus of medicine. But the "denial of care" rule turns all this upside down, placing an imaginary right to discriminate at the center, and requiring everything else to accommodate them. 

Indeed, it extended religious exemptions to virtually all employees, not just medical personnel. Three different federal courts have thrown the rule out, but those decisions are under appeal, and with so many Trump-appointed judges throughout the judicial, there is legitimate concern over what may happen. Freya Riedlin, federal policy counsel at the Center for Reproductive Rights, explained:

The vacated rule, if reinstated on appeal, could embolden an immensely broad array of health care workers, including receptionists and ambulance drivers, to turn away and refuse to serve patients based on moral or religious grounds. Patients seeking services like contraception, abortion or gender-affirming care would be most impacted by the rule. Because the rule does not provide exceptions even in emergencies, it could even mean being denied life-saving medical care.

The Denial of Care Rule applies to virtually every kind of health care provider.  Health care facilities risk losing all federal funding if they do not grant employees carte blanche to deny information and services.   Because the Rule is infeasible to implement, if allowed to go into effect, it could coerce many health care facilities to eliminate reproductive health care and LGBTQ health care, leaving millions across the United States without access to critical health care.

This is only one of multiple "attacks on women and other vulnerable populations" from the Trump administration "that are purportedly in the name of religious liberty [and] front and center of its ideological agenda," Riedlin said. "This trend shows no signs of abating and we expect to see more of the same throughout 2020."

Pizer agreed: "As the next election approaches, we are seeing a fast-accelerating pace of regulatory changes aiming to expand religious rights to discriminate across the areas governed by federal law, and to secure the flow of federal tax dollars to private religious agencies that want to perform public functions and impose their religious views on as much of society as possible."  

So the battle to reclaim the true meaning of religious freedom has inextricably become increasingly central to the 2020 election, and to the political concerns of virtually all Americans, whether they realize it or not.

"These snowballing threats have prompted stronger partnerships, growing public awareness, growing congressional support and public distancing from discrimination by some who led the national charge against LGBT equality not long ago," said Pizer. 

"In all that progress lay the seeds of public awareness that can blossom into public rebuke of the outrageous distortion and misuse of religious liberty that put so many of us at risk."


By Paul Rosenberg

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

MORE FROM Paul Rosenberg