Opinion | The Weaponizing of Religious Freedom

As Trump uses the evangelicals, they use him back.

In early August, as the COVID-19 pandemic raged and the president of the United States lied and passed the buck, 550 supporters attended an “Evangelicals for Trump” rally, hosted by the Trump campaign, at the Ahern Hotel in Las Vegas, NV. They had wanted to hold the event in a church, but churches, event organizers claimed, had been unfairly targeted by the state’s emergency directive limiting the size of public and private gatherings to 50 people. What had actually happened—just two weeks earlier—was that the U.S. Supreme Court, with Chief Justice John Roberts siding with the court’s four liberals, had rejected a local church’s claim that being held to the emergency health rule violated its religious freedom.

The hotel, owned by a Republican donor, was slapped with a $250 fine for flouting the emergency order. Governor Steve Sisolak, a Democrat, accused event organizers of “callous and dangerous behavior.” But for the attendees, the event was a celebration of their revered president. Trump’s refusal to take responsibility for combating the COVID-19 crisis, shifting the burden to state and local governments, has created yet another opening for his Christian right base to advance their grievances against secular government.

Conservative churches, some represented by powerful Christian right law firms, have filed dozens of lawsuits claiming that restrictions on large gatherings violate their religious freedom. Roberts, who has twice voted with the court’s liberal wing in rejecting churches’ requests for emergency exemptions from these orders, is under attack from the right for doing so. Vice President Mike Pence, in an appearance on the Christian Broadcasting Network, deemed Roberts a “disappointment.” Jim Garlow, a pastor and longtime activist against marriage equality, called him a “disaster.”

Even before COVID, Trump’s loyalists in the Christian right hailed him as “the most pro-life” and “the most pro-religious freedom” president in history. But under Trump’s presidency, religious freedom, once considered the bedrock of our pluralistic democracy, has been fashioned into a bludgeon for a Christian nationalist agenda. One of the first executive orders drafted for Trump’s approval after he took office in 2017 was an attempt to allow government employees, government contractors and grantees, nonprofit organizations and even businesses to raise religious objections to transacting business with or serving people based on their sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status or even because they had had premarital sex or an abortion. After an outcry, Trump signed a scaled-down version, directing federal agencies to “protect religious liberty.”

The original executive order may have been scuttled, but many of Trump’s cabinet secretaries and powerful political appointees within federal agencies treated it as a roadmap. Then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions wrote a 25-page guidance document for the agencies to follow. The Justice Department created a Religious Liberty Task Force, lauded by Christian right allies outside the administration, like the Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins, for putting “bureaucrats on notice: you will respect the freedom of every American not only to believe but to live according to those beliefs.” (Several speakers at the Republican National Convention in August echoed that wording.) The Department of Health and Human Services created a Conscience and Religious Freedom Division inside its Office of Civil Rights, which solicited complaints from religious objectors such as health care workers claiming that to perform certain medical procedures violated their religious rights. And the department, through various attempts at regulatory rollbacks, is seeking to unwind Obama-era regulations protecting LGBTQ rights, including specific protections against discrimination against transgender patients by health care providers.

Despite the conservative attacks on Roberts, the Court’s conservative majority did deliver a number of key victories to the Christian right. In a July ruling, the Court expanded the types of employers who could, based on religious objections to contraception, opt out of the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that employers cover birth control cost-free in their health care plans. That case was just one of three in which the Court ruled in favor of conservative Christian arguments this term.

The crowning irony—and danger—is that despite these victories, Trump and his allies insist that their religious freedom is under siege by, as his current Attorney General Bill Barr has put it, “militant secularists.” You can see their single-mindedness in the way Trump attacks even religious people such as his opponent Joe Biden, a practicing Catholic, who Trump says will “hurt” God and the Bible. For Trump’s fervent base, Biden’s support for LGBTQ, reproductive and other civil rights proves he’s not a “real” Christian.

Trump’s personal pastor Paula White says on a campaign website, “Now more than ever before, we must join together and denounce Joe Biden’s harmful, anti-Christian policies.” For these Trump diehards, only by the hand of Trump, who shares their vision for a white Christian America, can their religious freedom be secured—everyone else’s be damned.

Sarah Posner is the author of Unholy: Why White Evangelicals Worship at the Altar of Donald Trump.

Opening picture: Anti-lockdown protesters in Ohio, April 18, 2020

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