Donald Trump is Threatening James Madison’s Vision of Religious Freedom

WaldmanI haven’t had a chance yet to read Steven Waldman‘s new book Sacred Liberty: America’s Long, Bloody, and Ongoing Struggle for Religious Freedom, but I have heard good things about it.  I was hoping to catch him next month at the Midtown Scholar Bookstore in Harrisburg, but, unfortunately, I will be out of town.

Here is a taste of his recent piece at Washington Monthly: Breaking the Faith“:

At the heart of James Madison’s vision was a system of fair competition among religions: the power of the state should not be used to favor one over another. Trump’s ascent to the presidency has challenged that principle directly: he proudly advertises his desire to favor one group, white evangelicals, over others, especially Muslims. 

“The Christians are being treated horribly because we have nobody to represent the Christians,” Trump said during the 2016 campaign. He promised not only to protect Christians from persecution but also to restore their dominance: “We have to band together. . . . Our country has to do that around Christianity.” Although Trump has advocated a few legitimate expansions of rights for religious people generally, he mostly has defined religious liberty downward, using the concept, for instance, to justify allowing tax-exempt churches to endorse political candidates. 

Meanwhile, Trump stocked his government with men allied to the most extreme anti-Muslim activists. Michael Flynn, his first national security adviser, dismissed Muslims’ claims that they should be protected by the First Amendment as a treacherous tactic. John Bolton, the current national security adviser, appointed as his chief of staff Fred Fleitz, the senior vice president of Frank Gaffney’s Center for Security Policy, one of the leading groups peddling conspiracy theories about the looming threat of sharia. After the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, then a member of Congress, claimed that the “silence of Muslim leaders has been deafening” and that therefore “these Islamic leaders across America [are] potentially complicit in these acts.”

Trump and the anti-Muslim extremists he has empowered have already degraded the basic rules that had long propelled America’s unique model of religious freedom. But things could still get much worse. After ten years of propaganda from Fox News, right-wing trolls, talk radio hosts, and now the president of the United States, a substantial minority of Americans don’t believe that Muslims are worthy of First Amendment protections. The foundation of religious freedom has been soaked with gasoline. 

Now imagine there’s a large-scale terrorist attack on American soil committed by a Muslim radical. Does anyone expect Trump to caution his followers against blaming Islam as a whole? He would more likely add fuel to the fire. How many hours would pass before we heard him say, “See, I was right about the Muslims!” And since the whole thrust of the anti-Muslim movement of the last decade has been to blur the line between Muslim terrorists and ordinary Muslims, Trump’s reaction could embolden more of his supporters to take matters into their own hands. And history is full of reminders that once animus is normalized against one religious minority, others are at risk of being next in line.

Read the entire piece here.

2 thoughts on “Donald Trump is Threatening James Madison’s Vision of Religious Freedom

  1. The book probably has some interesting and accurate facts, but Mr. Waldman is far from being a disinterested observer of the current political scene. He held an appointive position in the early years of the Obama Administration.

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  2. Thanks John. May I also recommend to your readers Steven Waldman’s previous book: Founding Faith: Providence, Politics, and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America and his archived blogs at BeliefNet.

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