At the State Department’s recent “Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions claimed that there is a “dangerous movement, undetected by many” that is “challenging and eroding our great tradition of religious freedom.” This “dangerous movement,” Sessions added, “must be confronted and defeated.”
I am part of the camp that believes people with deeply-held religious beliefs on social issues should be free to uphold those beliefs in a pluralistic society. In other words, there are times when liberty of conscience in matters of religion should be protected despite the fact that others might see these beliefs as discriminatory. When it comes to living together with such deeply-held convictions, I hope for what Washington University law professor John Inazu has described as “confident pluralism.”
Having said that, I am not a fan of the way the Trump administration uses “religious liberty” to invoke fear. I wrote about this kind of fear-mongering in my book Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump. Sessions’s use of words like “dangerous” and “undetected by many” and “confronted and defeated” wreaks of political scare tactics and culture-war rhetoric. I am surprised he did not roll out the phrase “deep state.”
Sessions claims that “ministers are fearful to affirm, as they understand it, holy writ from the pulpit.” First, I don’t know of any contemporary cases, if any, in which government has threatened ministers from preaching from the Bible. Fear is often based on false information. Second, I suspect Sessions is conflating the preaching of “holy writ” from the pulpit with the endorsement of political candidates from the pulpit. This is how many pro-Trump evangelicals understand “religious liberty.” This is why Sessions and Trump get so bent out of shape by the “Johnson Amendment.” (Frankly, I think Trump could care less about the Johnson Amendment, but if he can promise its repeal he can gain political points with the evangelicals in his base).
Sessions goes on. He talks about the ways the Pilgrims in Plymouth, the Catholics in Maryland, the Quakers in Pennsylvania, the Scots-Presbyterians in the middle colonies (Sessions apparently does not realize that Pennsylvania is a middle colony and most Scots-Irish came to Penn’s colony), and Roger Williams in Rhode Island championed religious freedom. He adds: “Each one of these groups and others knew what it was like to be hated, persecuted, outnumbered, and discriminated against.” What Sessions fails to note is that the Pilgrims (and Puritans in Massachusetts Bay) did not provide this precious religious freedom to people who did not have the same religious beliefs as they did. He fails to note that Roger Williams founded Rhode Island because he was kicked out of Massachusetts Bay for failing to conform to Puritan orthodoxy (among other things). He fails to note that Puritans executed Quakers in Boston Commons.
I could go on, but I don’t have the time or inclination right now to exegete Sessions’s entire speech. It is worth noting, however, that all of Sessions’s examples of religious liberty are Christian examples. There is no mention of religious liberty for Muslims, Jews, or other people of faith. Parts of Sessions’s address read like a Trump stump speech. He lauds Trump for making it safe to say “Merry Christmas” again. Really? Is this what the Trump administration means when they say they are going to champion religious liberty? This sounds more like the kind of Christian civilization those “liberty-loving” Puritans and Pilgrims wanted to create back in 17th New England. (Ironically, these early American Calvinists did not celebrate Christmas because they thought it was a pagan holiday).
OK, I am rambling. But if you want some context on the way Trump and his minions think about religious liberty, I encourage you to check out Jason Lupfer’s recent piece at Religion & Politics. It is worth your time.