When defending 'religious liberty' means courting Christian nationalists

When defending 'religious liberty' means courting Christian nationalists
8 min read
08 Aug, 2018
Comment: Jeff Sessions' 'Religious Liberty Task Force' has nothing to do with guaranteeing the rights of all religious groups, writes Marcus Montgomery.
Will complaints from non-Christians be afforded the same weight as their Christian counterparts? [Anadolu]
To pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States is to pledge allegiance to "the Republic for which it stands" - one indivisible nation under God, the oath continues - "with liberty and justice for all".

But the current Trump administration seems more concerned with religious liberty for one exclusive group, than for the collective "all" described in the pledge.

On 30 July, Attorney General Jeff Sessions appeared at Department of Justice's (DOJ) Religious Liberty Summit, where, flanked by individuals baptised into the ideology of Christian nationalism, Sessions announced the creation of a "Religious Liberty Task Force" (RLTF) within his department.

Sessions and company find this RLTF necessary because "
many Americans have felt that their freedom to practice their faith has been under attack," he said. However, the bulk of those "many Americans" he referenced is undoubtedly socially conservative (and largely white) Christians.

The move by Sessions follows an Executive Order and a series of memoranda all focused on ensuring that the DOJ respects and upholds individuals' rights to practice their faiths as they wish.

But, the pageantry surrounding the attorney general's inauguration of the RLTF was handcrafted to appeal to the Christian nationalists that form a sizable and influential segment of this administration's base of support; it was more political than a good-faith effort to guarantee the rights of all religious groups.

Sessions and others paid lip service to the idea that the RLTF was purposed for the greater good of all religious communities - be they Christian, Muslim, Jewish or otherwise - but the speakers at the event repeatedly expressed support for Christian religious liberty and spoke longingly of an America governed, in part, by Christian values and Christian norms.

In plainer words, 'religious liberty' is tantamount to preserving the waning political and social primacy of Christians

There was a lone Muslim panelist invited to participate in the day's events, but her appearance seemed calibrated to give the task force a veneer of objectivity, especially considering that Asma Uddin is a strong ally of the conservative religious Right in regards to limiting the rights of equal marriage for same-sex couples.

Further, aside from citing a pair of instances in which the DOJ has intervened on behalf of Muslim and Jewish groups that were blocked by their local communities from constructing a mosque and synagogue, respectively, 
Sessions lauded the department's efforts to exempt Christian churches, Christian organisations, and Christian business from anti-discrimination laws in the name of religious liberty.  

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While the notion that individuals of the largest religious community in the country feel they need protecting - despite the First Amendment of the Constitution explicitly prohibiting Congress from passing any law that establishes a religion or prohibits the free practice of one - seems laughable to secularists or religious minorities suffering actual violence and harassment due to their beliefs.

But, regardless of how others might view the situation, the fact of the matter is that Christian nationalists - an umbrella group of individuals that tend to be conservative and that whole-heartedly believe the United States is and will always be a Christian nation - genuinely feel that they are under constant attack in the US.

Indeed, anxiety about the future of the country was among the leading predictors of whether an individual or group voted for Donald Trump in 2016 and Christian nationalists flocked to him in droves at a time when they believe traditional (read Christian) ways of life are being rooted out of the public sphere.

It's not surprising, then, that the Trump administration continues to make overtures to the Christian nationalists that underpin a large part of the Republican base.  

What's the big deal?

The new religious liberty task force will ostensibly field complaints and ensure legal action is pursued to allow every citizen, regardless of faith or lack thereof, to freely exercise their beliefs or refrain from practicing any beliefs at all, however they please.

If this is the case, why would it possibly be bad to want to further promote religious liberty?

Well, suspicions arise in both the administration's definition of "religious liberty," a term that has been co-opted and altered in recent decades to be less than inclusive, and about the task force's lack of transparency on this point, particularly considering that this administration has been rather opaque, even for normal White House standards.

Few, if any, people believe the United States should regulate if and how people can practice their respective faiths - this is a primal tenet of US constitutional law and, even if one did hope the federal government would endorse or prohibit one religion or another, the Constitution flatly outlaws enacting any such regulation.

The Trump administration continues to make overtures to the Christian nationalists that underpin a large part of the Republican base

But, critics of the task force are concerned not with the underlying principle, but the narrow definition of the term "religious liberty" that the Trump administration has seemingly adopted from the conservative Christian right.

Though the idea of "religious liberty" has traditionally been seen as a form of protection for all individuals against government overreach regarding one's ability to practice or abstain from exercising his or her beliefs, the current administration, at the behest of Christian nationalists, appears to have a different, less inclusive understanding of the term.

Rather, "religious liberty," in the Christian nationalist sense, is freedom for religious expression under the condition that such expression does not undermine Christianity and its subscribers' supremacy.

In plainer words, "religious liberty" is tantamount to preserving the waning political and social primacy of Christians, particularly those conservative Christians who long to see the United States governed as a Christian nation.

For others, the modus operandi of the RLTF has been cause for concern, in large part due to the plain absence of transparency on behalf of the administration and the DOJ, where the RLTF will be housed.

For religious minorities, many feel as though their complaints won't be afforded the same weight as those of their Christian counterparts. Sheltered from oversight, Sessions and the other members of the task force could prioritise Christian complaints and, given the anti-Muslim rhetoric and actions emanating from this administration, some fear that complaints from Muslim groups would be purposely buried, similar to the media industry's 
"catch and kill" methods.

Aside from neglect, secularists, civil liberties groups, and other legal scholars, fear that more than using the task force to grant legal exemption to groups who feel unduly burdened by a particular law, Sessions and his band of zealots could actually weaponise the DOJ to undermine existing laws that protect vulnerable groups like the LGBTQ community from hiring and consumer protections.

Indeed, Christian nationalists seem to want to impose their vision of the United States on their fellow Americans.

Baptist Minister Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove wrote recently that, "
it is not enough for Christian nationalists to freely exercise their vision of a good life" and there is good reason to believe that it really is not enough for this section of society to be content with living their lives by their values.

"We are actively seeking, carefully, thoughtfully and lawfully, to accommodate people of faith"
said Attorney General, Jeff Sessions [Getty]

Former Republican Senator Rick Santorum was once quoted saying, "[gay marriage] threatens my marriage. It threatens all marriages. It threatens the traditional values of this country."

For more contemporary examples, take a look at the backgrounds of 
some of the individuals that participated in the Religious Liberty Summit.

They include anti-abortion activists, opponents of same-sex marriage, advocates of teaching religiously-based school curricula, and the baker at the center of a Supreme Court case dealing with his refusal to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple.

Anxiety about the future of the country was among the leading predictors of whether an individual or group voted for Donald Trump in 2016

Finally, one need not look further than Attorney General Sessions' own words at the summit. Sessions stated, "we are actively seeking, carefully, thoughtfully and lawfully, to accommodate people of faith".

To Christian nationalists like Jeff Sessions and members of 
Trump's faith advisory board, religious liberty means they are allowed to impose their vision of the United States on the rest of the country. To many others, this appears to be state-sanctioned discrimination against those that do not subscribe to that vision.

Supporters of the religious liberty task force and its initiative argue that the focus on "religious liberty for Christians only" is overblown and unwarranted. Perhaps this is the case and the administration is genuinely interested in protecting all groups' rights to more openly practice their faiths and live life by their values.

But, given Donald Trump's awkward union to the most conservative wing of his Christian supporters, it is difficult to believe that ensuring the rights of all faiths - and those that do not adhere to any faith at all - is of the utmost priority.

Sessions made note of some cases of the DOJ prosecuting individuals for anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic hate crimes, but it is still unclear if the department has moved to address the
uptick in cases involving harassment and violence towards Jewish and Muslim Americans.

It's also no secret that Christian nationalists seek not just the freedom to live their lives by the values of their faith, but they have enlisted Trump as their 
soldier in "spiritual warfare" that pits their "under siege" community against the rest of the country.

When it comes to religious freedoms, it seems like the RLTF is less about "liberty and justice for all" and more about making a 
last-ditch effort to retain the primacy of Trump's Christian nationalist base.

Marcus Montgomery is a Junior Analyst for Congressional Affairs at Arab Center Washington DC.

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.