What Does the Trump Administration Mean by “Religious Freedom?”


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.

More on the "War on Christmas"

Morgan Lee, a reporter for The Christian Post, interviewed me for a story on the so-called “War on Christmas.”  Here is a taste:

Holiday trees. Seasons Greetings. Carols devoid of religious references. Is there a “war on Christmas,” as some cable news commentators and politicians believe?
John Fea, a Messiah College history professor, does not deny that there has been a shift in how Christmas is celebrated in the United States in the 21st century. But as he looks back into the country’s past, investigating arguments by conservative political personalities like Sarah Palin and Bill O’Reilly calling for a return to the United States’ “golden age” of Christmas, he is not convinced that such an era ever existed.
Fea, who recently authored Why Study History?, a book he hopes will convince Christians to delve more deeply and critically into the past, pointed to the earliest days of Americans history to illustrate the various ways that the holiday’s meaning has been distorted.”I would argue historically that Christmas in the sort of truly Christian understanding of the idea—that Jesus Christ came in the form of a man—that has never, never in American history been the primary motivation for why people celebrate Christmas,” Fea told The Christian Post.
Read the rest here.

Facebook Post of the Day

From Christopher Jones, Ph.D candidate in early American history at the College of William and Mary:

I’m currently transcribing the journal of Isaac Bradnock, a Methodist missionary in the British West Indies, from December 1802. Without fail, he abbreviates “Christ” as “Xt” and “Christian” as “Xtian.” And he doesn’t even mention the word “Christmas” (or “Xmas”) in his entry for December 25.

Why does Isaac Bradnock hate Christmas?


BackStory Takes on Church and State

Tis the season for historians to write op-eds about the so-called “War on Christmas.”  I did my part. So did Michael Hammond.  And so have the American history guys at BackStory.  Check out their most recent show entitled “Wall of Separation: Church and State in America.” Here is a description:

The holidays are upon us – and that means debates about holiday displays. Are Christian Nativity scenes, Jewish Menorahs, or even atheistic symbols appropriate for display at public buildings? And what about other expressions of religion in the public sphere – like prayers during local government proceedings? The Supreme Court will soon be deciding that issue. So BackStory is following the Court into the thicket, taking up the tricky issue of government in our religion – and religion in government. Where have Americans drawn the line between the two, and have they ever erected a “wall of separation”?
In this episode, the Guys explore the relationship of church and state across American history. We’ll consider the meaning of “freedom of religion” and find out why Baptists in 1802 actually favored Thomas Jefferson’s “wall of separation.” We’ll learn why the dramatic wartime deaths of three ministers – each of different faiths – shaped public ideas about American religion during the 1940s and 50s. And we’ll explore how legal decisions about the relationship of church and state have shaped how Americans understand faith and what it means to have “a religion.”
Guest include Adam Jortner, Kevin Schultz, David Sehat, Sarah Barringer Gordon, and Tisa Wenger. That’s a pretty good lineup!

Was There a Golden Age of Christmas in America?

My recent piece at The Pacific Standard. 

Here is a taste:

The so-called “War on Christmas” has reared its ugly head again. Conservative Christians—most of them evangelicals—have hit the airwaves and lecture circuits to warn their followers about the supposed threat to the only event on the Christian calendar to have the status of a federal holiday.

Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin visited Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, recently to promote her new book and alert undergraduates and other assorted culture warriors to the way “revisionists” are trying to turn December into a “winter solstice season.” She told her audience that “protecting the heart of Christmas” (the subtitle of her book) is “really about protecting the heart of America.”

Leave it to Palin to use this most sacred of Christian celebrations for political purposes by comparing its “message of hope and change” to the “stuff you hear coming out of Washington.”At the heart of Palin’s defense of Christmas is an understanding that the United States was founded as, and continues to be, a Christian nation. In her talk to Liberty students she connected the “War on Christmas” to a much larger assault on the country’s Judeo-Christian heritage as embedded in our history and founding documents, concluding that Christianity has made America an “exceptional” nation.

Read the rest here.