Religious “Liberty” Is Rooted In Fear
Most Americans support same-sex marriage, safe and legal abortion, and birth control. Which is why evangelicals like Jeff Sessions and Mike Pence are digging in: They're terrified they're losing ground everywhere.
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In late July, the Trump administration announced the creation of a “religious liberty” task force. It’s the latest step to further push their particularly narrow and conservative version of Christianity on the country. It’s objectively problematic for many reasons, including the fact that it will really harm vulnerable communities like LGBTQ people, but it’s also politically problematic: It’s a tyranny of the minority. The Evangelical Christianity of a Jeff Sessions or a Mike Pence isn’t reflective of the American people or American values, but we’re stuck with it anyway.
This latest move during a religious liberty summit where the administration touted its commitment to international religious liberty, bragging about how they’re sending aid to oppressed religious minorities in other countries. That aid, though, generally flows to Christian minorities, rather than supporting the religious freedom of Muslims when they are in the minority. That’s not surprising given this administration’s clear animus against Muslims, as evidenced by things like the Muslim travel ban and Trump’s dangerous rhetoric equating Muslims with terrorists.
At the end of the summit, Sessions dropped a domestic bombshell: a task force that will ensure that all federal agencies take religious liberty into account when enforcing the law. But what does that actually look like?
Sessions gave some very clear answers to that question when he announced the task force. He referenced the Little Sisters of the Poor, a group of Roman Catholic nuns that run senior living homes. That group keeps going to court so it doesn’t have to provide birth control, even though they’ve already received an exemption and can opt out of providing birth control coverage. Just as it is no accident that Sessions mentioned the Little Sisters, it is no accident that he chose to focus on an entity that provides senior living services. A mere five days before the creation of the religious liberty task force, two women filed a lawsuit against a senior living provider, Friendship Village, that denied them residency because of a “cohabitation policy” that defines marriage as “the union of one man and one woman, as marriage is understood in the Bible.” Sessions is signaling to places like Friendship Village that such discrimination is just fine. Sessions also shouted out Jack Phillips, the Christian “cake artist” who took his bigoted desire to only bake for straight people all the way to the Supreme Court.
Some of the people who are affiliated with the task force also give a clear picture of what it will do. Associate Attorney General Jesse Pannucio will co-chair the task force. Panuccio previously served as an attorney for the litigants Proposition 8—the people who worked to reverse marriage equality in California. And right after he announced the creation of the task force, Sessions metaphorically tossed the mic to Louisville Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, the person who previously ran the Catholic Church’s “defense of marriage” initiatives. These are not people who will be sensitive to the concerns of LGBTQ people when they are discriminated against by conservative Christians. These are also not people who will enthusiastically back non-Christian religious freedom.
We can also see where this is going by looking at recent Trump agency appointees. For example, the new chief of staff of the Office for Civil Rights at the Department of Health and Human Services—the person that is supposed to ensure that people are not discriminated against when receiving medical services—is March Bell. Back in 2015, though, Bell was chief counsel for the House panel that conducted the bogus “investigation” into whether Planned Parenthood sold fetal tissues.
Of course this isn’t the first time the administration has tipped its hand on its desire to collapse the barriers between church and state. Remember how Sessions invoked the Bible to justify the separation of families at the border? But this latest move highlights just how scared evangelicals like Jeff Sessions are. In announcing the task force, he came right out and said that the “cultural climate” in this country is “less hospitable” to people of faith and that those people feel under attack. In other words, they’re frightened of secularism.
And they should be. Because the irreligious—people who are indifferent to religion and don’t believe that it needs to be imposed on other people—outnumber people like Jeff Sessions. People who declare they have “no religion” now number 21 percent of the American population, and that number is much higher—35 percent—for people under 30.
It probably also terrifies Sessions and his ilk that the people who are finding religion in America are “young, non-Christian, and technicolor.” Christian denominations are becoming younger and more racially diverse. To racists like Sessions (and Trump, of course), that poses a problem—a problem that can only be solved by elevating mostly white evangelical Christians, even though they’re losing numbers at a record pace. They dropped from 23 percent of the population in 2006 to 17 percent in 2017. Think about that: White evangelicals are less than one-fifth of the population, but they’re functionally controlling the direction of the United States right now.
There’s more bad news for white conservative Christians: they’re getting old. Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists skew significantly younger than white Christians. Over one-third of the members of those religions are under 30, but 62 percent of white evangelicals are at least 50. In other words, the evangelicals aren’t replenishing themselves. They’re literally going to die out at some point, but right now they’re clinging to their narrow values and their unexpected power.
Their stance really isn’t all that surprising, nor is it novel. The highly regarded religious historian Karen Armstrong, in her book The Battle For God, traced the history of fundamentalist movements, noting that they tend to arise when societies modernize. Modernization—particularly the process of replacing the importance of religious myth with the certainties of science—is, Armstrong notes, a painful process. People who build their life around their religion feel estranged from society when that society moves on.
And we have moved on. Society doesn’t need religion to help us understand right and wrong. Society doesn’t need religion to explain the working of the cosmos. Society doesn’t need religion to govern our daily lives. American society, in particular, was founded on the notion that religion absolutely shouldn’t guide our participation in government, that imposing a single religion’s views on the rest of us was absolutely wrong. It excludes religion from the public sphere precisely because it was intended to do so.
Sessions is right about one thing: Secular values are indeed on the rise, particularly in terms of sexual mores. A solid majority of Americans believe abortion should be legal. An incredible 89 percent of Americans think that birth control is morally acceptable. Over 65 percent of the population supports same-sex marriage. That’s why evangelicals are digging in: They’re losing ground everywhere.
As their numbers dwindle, as their influence wanes, conservative Christians are certain they’re the ones being discriminated against, merely by being asked to accommodate things like same-sex marriage or being asked not to relentlessly harass trans people. Their vision of “religious freedom” is one where the full might of the state backs their view and excludes all others. That’s a theocracy, not a democracy, and it isn’t who we are, and it isn’t who we should become.
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