A central pillar of Donald Trump’s compact with conservative Christians, which has been immensely useful for him and is critical to his reelection prospects, is his much-professed concern for “religious liberty.” There’s a whole fact sheet about the topic on the White House website. It was the alleged subject of a major executive order early in his presidency. And his administration’s Departments of Justice and Health and Human Services have become very involved in conflicts usually described as religious-liberty issues in the courts and the regulatory agencies.
But as Steven Waldman (founder of Beliefnet, a web portal for all things religious) observes in Sacred Liberty, his recently published comprehensive history of America’s tradition of religious freedom, Trump’s actual record is not so positive:
Donald Trump’s legacy on this issue can seem confusing. He talks about defending religious freedom more than almost any other president. His administration has taken a few positive steps, such as deciding that the Federal Emergency Management Agency could give disaster relief to houses of worship and raising concerns about persecution of Christians overseas. “Nobody’s done more for Christians or evangelicals or frankly religion than I have,” Trump said in November 2018. But much of his religious liberty agenda involves efforts, focused largely on helping conservative Christians, that are minor, symbolic, or actually damaging.
Most obvious, Trump is the first president since the virulently anti-Mormon Rutherford B. Hayes to publicly single out a religious community for opprobrium and (attempted) discrimination. As Waldman notes,
in his attacks on Muslims, he has violated most of the principles that have sustained religious freedom by favoring one religion over another; ignoring First Amendment protections; blurring the distinctions between Americans practicing their faith and extremists overseas; and proposing that practitioners of one faith should have second-class citizenship. He has made the concept of religious freedom partisan instead of universal, a way to divide rather than unite.
Meanwhile, the increased aggressiveness of far-right hate groups in the United States — which Trump did nothing to stop and arguably helped to fuel — led to an increase in attacks on both Muslims and Jews.
Trump is a friend to religion only if your religion happens to be the same as that of his conservative Evangelical and traditionalist Catholic allies, who have a mutually exploitative and very transactional relationship with the 45th president.
Like that of his strong supporters at Fox News, much of Trump’s talk about religious liberty involves reinforcing the fatuous paranoia of some conservative Christians who believe state neutrality toward their faith, as well as the spread of nonbelief or religious heterodoxy, actually represents persecution. This was the theme of the president’s speech at this year’s National Day of Prayer, itself a conservative Christian institution, as the Washington Examiner reported:
President Trump declared victory Thursday in the so-called War on Christmas, saying that retailers are again proud to attract customers by identifying the Christian holiday.
Trump, speaking at a National Day of Prayer service in the Rose Garden, said his 2016 campaign focus on the issue helped turn the tide against political correctness.
“When I first started campaigning, people were not allowed, or in some cases foolishly ashamed, to be using on stores ‘Merry Christmas,’ ‘Happy Christmas.’ They would say ‘Happy holidays.’ They would have red walls, you would never see ‘Christmas,’” Trump said.
“That was four years ago. Take a look at your stores nowadays. It’s all ‘Merry Christmas’ again, ‘Merry Christmas’ again. They are proud of it,” Trump continued. “I always said you’re going to be saying ‘Merry Christmas’ again, and that’s what happened.”
The many thousands of Christian martyrs over the centuries (and those still suffering in other countries) must be laughing or crying at the idea that being disrespected by retailers and seasonal-card senders is some sort of crucifixion. But it reflects Trump’s close identification with the Christian right’s claim that the liberty to practice one’s faith “in the public square” is so absolute that it excludes counter-concerns ranging from simple courtesy (the main problem with shouting “Merry Christmas” at non-Christians) to anti-discrimination laws. Again, Waldman explains how efforts to accommodate religious practice have degenerated into demands for plenary exemptions from norms the rest of society observes, to the point at which conservative Christians began to distort and politicize their own faith traditions — as in the case of those “bakers of conscience” who refused to make cakes for same-sex marriage celebrations:
[T]here are huge risks to this strategy–not so much in terms of the law but rather in terms of the aspirations of Christianity. Remember, like other freedoms in the Bill of Rights, religious liberty doesn’t trump everything. The United States Constitution allows some burdening of religious liberties — if there is a compelling enough reason to justify it. For instance, states can no longer ban interracial dating on the grounds that the Bible disapproves of such relationships. Advocates for gay equality argued — and most Americans would agree — that the right for people to marry whom they love most certainly is one of those compelling purposes.
To override something as profound as the right to marry, conservatives find themselves casting their opposition to same-sex marriage as a deeply significant part of their faith.
Millions of Americans (most notably Catholics, but many Evangelicals, too) go to church regularly without for a moment sharing the hostility to homosexuality (or, for that matter, legalized abortion) that their leaders increasingly treat as fundamental to their beliefs. Such distortion of an ancient faith is a lot more dangerous than any threats to the tender conscience of the occasional aggrieved baker.
Not that long ago, conservative Evangelicals typically regarded church-state separation as the central principle of religious liberty. Most Christian-right leaders have abandoned or even inverted that position. When Thomas Jefferson referred to religious liberty as requiring a “wall of separation” between church and state (a precedent today’s Christian-right leaders either ignore or attack in making the case that the Founders wanted a Christian nation), he was siding with Connecticut Baptists fighting a government that was hostile to minority religious communities. Similarly, James Madison’s commitment to total state neutrality on matters of religion was informed by his relationships with Virginia Evangelicals. When John F. Kennedy ran for president, many Baptists feared that he or his pope would breach the “wall of separation.” All that has changed radically.
In this transformation of conservative Christianity’s political arm from the self-confident advocacy of pluralism in matters of faith to a narrow, sex-obsessed movement fighting to bring back the imagined paradise of the 1950s, Trump was perhaps an inevitable figure. If ever there were a complete product of the most de-Christianized traits of secular culture, it’s Donald Trump. Yet he offers his religious supporters unconditional backing in their wars against abortion, LGBTQ rights, secular public education, and, yes, believers in what they consider false gods. He’s so intimately involved in their skewed ideas of faith that, like him, many conservative Christians rarely see a problem with persecuting Muslims or treating immigrants and migrants, children included, like pesky insects. When Jerry Falwell Jr. — who, like Franklin Graham, represents next-generation conservative Evangelicalism at its most politicized — calls Trump a “dream president” for Evangelicals, it’s a sadder reflection on him than on Trump, who appears to be largely innocent of spirituality and is just hunting for votes where the ducks are.
The president’s combination of warm feelings toward hate-mongers and loud self-identification with Christianity is something we’ve seen before, of course: In 20th-century Europe, authoritarian movements exploited conservative Christians eager to fight socialism and secularism and regain their old power over cultural life. These politicized believers were ultimately corrupted and betrayed. Trump may serve the short-term purposes of those who have convinced themselves he is a modern-day Cyrus the Great, a “nonbeliever appointed by God as a vessel for the purposes of the faithful.” But he is no friend of liberty and, in the longer view, represents a threat to America’s great tradition of religious pluralism.