Let’s Not Trump Religious Freedom for All
Chelsea Langston Bombino, January 19, 2017
In recent months, religious freedom For many, religious freedom has become simply a proxy for bigotry. Whether accurate or not, religious freedom advocates have, over the past few years, had to take these accusations seriously. The increasing frequency with which religious freedom has been placed in scare quotes has necessitated, at the very least, some introspection by advocates of religious freedom about how they can start to shift this perception.
Some Christian faith leaders concerned about religious freedom for all have proactively engaged with people of different religious backgrounds, political ideologies, and core beliefs. Leading up to the election, many of these religious freedom advocates, regardless of their own personal political leanings, prepared and strategized for how to advance religious freedom under a Clinton administration. They focused on how to make the case for religious diversity in the public square and, especially, tolerance for increasingly countercultural religious beliefs about sexual ethics.
Now, with President-Elect Trump and a Republican-led Congress, some concerned with the religious freedom of individuals and institutions are breathing a sigh of relief. It seems unlikely that a Republican administration and Congress will try to roll back the freedom of faith-based organizations to engage in employment practices or teachings based on their faith doctrines. For many, especially evangelical Christians, their religious freedom outlook is much sunnier than perhaps expected.
But that is not necessarily the case for everyone and it is religious freedom for everyone that matters. Religious freedom advocates of all faith backgrounds still have their work cut out for them. Trump has consistently supported policies which would, directly or indirectly, discriminate against Muslims traveling to or already in this country. His hostile language about Syrian refugees and undocumented immigrants places many faith-based organizations, who have been serving these populations for years, in a precarious position.
Faith-based organizations that resettle refugees and provide social services for undocumented immigrants engage in these activities out of sincerely held religious commitments, these acts are part of their core identity. Last year, when the governor of Texas issued a directive ordering refugee resettlement agencies in Texas to stop serving Syrian refugees, an interfaith coalition spoke out against this directive as a violation of their religious freedom. Texas Impact’s board released a statement which stated: “We are deeply concerned that the Governor’s letter directs those agencies to interfere with the religious freedom of faith-based humanitarian agencies working in Texas.”
If there has been anything positive about the diminishing of religious freedom’s reputation, maybe it is that it has made religious freedom advocates more self-aware and more willing to engage with people across difference. In Utah in 2015, religious freedom advocates came together with LGBT activists. The unlikely partnership resulted in legislation protecting the civil rights of both groups, making it possible for people and organizations with very different animating beliefs to continue to live out their core identities.
In January 40 faith leaders from a variety of backgrounds came together in the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania to sign a statement addressing the mounting threats to the religious freedom of Muslims. The statement did not assert that people of different religions all worship the same God, nor did it try to downplay the very real differences that exist in the fabric of the American religious landscape. Rather, the statement used religious difference as a launching pad toward common freedom. The statement, in part, reads: “[T]he First Amendment stands as the foundation upon which has been built the world’s most religiously diverse nation, and . . . infringing the religious liberty of one group diminishes the rights of all.”
And very recently, hundreds of faith leaders from different religions came to express support for the religious freedom of Native Americans in Standing Rock, North Dakota, to protect their sacred lands and water. “As I’m looking around the circle of 524 faith leaders from all over this country, I feel like I’m watching reconciliation,” the Rev. Stephanie Spellers, canon for evangelism and reconciliation to the Presiding Bishop, told Episcopal News Service.
Christian religious freedom advocates should not ignore the perception held by many in this country that religious freedom is still simply a guise for bigotry. Rightly or wrongly, critics of a Trump presidency will likely see both religious freedom and the actions of a Trump administration as expressions of racism, sexism, homophobia, and Islamophobia.
Now is the time to ensure both a different perception and a different practice for the benefit of all. Now is the time for religious freedom advocates to work with the Trump administration and with Americans across ideological, racial and faith backgrounds to demonstrate that religious freedom must apply to people of all faiths, including Muslims. Advocates of religious freedom must also stand up for the religious organizations whose capacity to serve all the people their faith calls them to serve would be restricted under Trump’s policies.
We live in a pluralistic society where individuals and organizations have highly differentiated ideas about what is best for human flourishing. The election further emphasized this diversity of views in America. Yet we also know that daily, hundreds of thousands of diverse religious communities continue to welcome the stranger, love the orphan, and advocate for the oppressed. That was true yesterday, and it is true today, regardless of the result of the election.
A vision of religious freedom in a pluralistic society must be one where individuals and organizations of varying faiths can make their unique contributions. Religious freedom advocates should continue to advocate for space in society not only for their own organizations, but also for the Muslim community center, for the pagan food bank, for the Native American homeschool resource center, and for the Buddhist chaplain services.
Now is not the time for Christian faith leaders to become complacent simply because they are less concerned about their own religious freedom over the next four years. Now is the time to pursue religious freedom for the full diversity of individuals and institutions in our society. Now is the time to renew the call for Christians to treat their very different neighbors as they would like to be treated and stand up for religious freedom for others to live out their own central beliefs in the public square.
Allowing space for diverse individuals and organizations to serve diverse communities is perhaps now more important than ever. In a public square with a thriving variety of ideas, individuals, and institutions, we must make space for each to make their distinctive contributions to society.