Category Archives: Religious Liberty

Christian Grievance

Sometimes, a news article will hit several of my hot buttons. This recent one managed to do so. (Not that it is particularly difficult to piss me off…the older I get, the crankier…)

Here’s the gist of the story: a poll taken by Politico discovered that

about 57 percent of Republicans, and 70 percent of Americans overall, believe the Constitution would not allow America to be declared a “Christian nation.” Respondents were then asked “Would You Favor or Oppose the United States Officially Declaring the United States to be a Christian Nation?”

Sixty-one percent of Republicans were in favor of just that, with 78 percent of Republicans who identify as an evangelical Christian backing the idea. Support was even higher among older Republicans.

Regular readers of this blog know of my preoccupation with America’s low levels of civic and constitutional literacy. These percentages reflect that only 57 percent of Republicans understand–or are prepared to acknowledge– the intended effect of the First Amendment, or the history of America’s constitutional debates.

Then, of course, there’s the little matter of America’s still-pervasive racism. Evidently, there are still a lot of White folks who are dogged believers that the pre-Civil War South should rise again, whether or not it actually will…

Per Politico

Our polling found that white grievance is highly correlated with support for a Christian nation. White respondents who say that members of their race have faced more discrimination than others are most likely to embrace a Christian America. Roughly 59 percent of all Americans who say white people have been discriminated against a lot more in the past five years favor declaring the U.S. a Christian nation, compared to 38 percent of all Americans. White Republicans who said white people have been more discriminated against also favored a Christian nation (65 percent) by a slightly larger percentage than all Republicans (63 percent).

Regular readers are also well aware of my language prejudices; I have this old English-teacher belief that words have meanings, and that communication requires that the people using those words broadly agree upon those meanings.

In any sane world, the assertion that White Americans suffer discrimination would be met with incomprehension. I know that political strategists dislike the contemporary use of the term “privilege”–its users sound elitist, and when one thinks of “privilege,” what comes to mind is unfair advantage. (Actually, White skin does confer advantage, just not the kind of material advantage that this particular word brings to mind.)

The fact remains that, in the good old U.S. of A., what is perceived of as discrimination against White people is a very overdue erosion of the considerably privileged status that skin color has historically  afforded them.

When I express my frequent criticisms of Christian Nationalism (which is, in reality, White Christian Nationalism), I try to be very clear that I am not criticizing Christianity. (To appropriate a phrase, some of my best friends are Christian..) I am happy to report that real Christians agree with me, as the following excerpts from a statement from Christians Against Christian Nationalism makes clear.

Christian nationalism seeks to merge Christian and American identities, distorting both the Christian faith and America’s constitutional democracy. Christian nationalism demands Christianity be privileged by the State and implies that to be a good American, one must be Christian. It often overlaps with and provides cover for white supremacy and racial subjugation. We reject this damaging political ideology and invite our Christian brothers and sisters to join us in opposing this threat to our faith and to our nation.

The statement affirms basic constitutional principles: That “one’s religious affiliation, or lack thereof, should be irrelevant to one’s standing in the civic community,” and that
“government should not prefer one religion over another or religion over nonreligion.” And it affirms others:

Conflating religious authority with political authority is idolatrous and often leads to oppression of minority and other marginalized groups as well as the spiritual impoverishment of religion.

We must stand up to and speak out against Christian nationalism, especially when it inspires acts of violence and intimidation—including vandalism, bomb threats, arson, hate crimes, and attacks on houses of worship—against religious communities at home and abroad.

Whether we worship at a church, mosque, synagogue, or temple, America has no second-class faiths. All are equal under the U.S. Constitution. As Christians, we must speak in one voice condemning Christian nationalism as a distortion of the gospel of Jesus and a threat to American democracy.

So Republicans who want to label America as a “Christian Nation” manage to hit several of my hot buttons: concerns about civic literacy and the normalization of racism, annoyance at the misuse of language, and deep, deep fear of the rise of Christian Nationalism.

Politico did it all with one statistic…

 

It Isn’t Just Space Lasers

I’ve made a lot of fun of Marjorie Taylor Greene’s accusation that California’s fires aren’t the result of climate change, but instead were started by Jewish Space Lasers financed by George Soros. Greene and her loony-tunes ilk are perfect representations of an anti-Semitism that continues to attribute super-powers to an invented Jewish “cabal.” (Elders of Zion, anyone?)

If only we Jews were really that powerful…

There’s a robust academic literature attempting to explain some people’s need to pin the world’s woes on an identifiable, deliberate and malevolent group–and as Hitler figured out, it helps if the group chosen to be the bad guys is numerically small and unable to effectively protect itself.

Whatever has made Jews the “chosen” people to blame, it seems the contemporary GOP has become the preferred home for today’s anti-Semites, whose versions are marginally less whack-a-doodle than Greene’s, and for that reason, pose more of a threat.

A recent article in the Intercept recounted the then-Republican rejection of Pat Buchanan’s version of anti-Semitism, then contrasted it with what is occurring today.

Trump resurrected Buchanan’s strain of populist nationalism. He’s always nurtured business relations and personal ties with Jewish people, but his revival of “America First” — both the slogan and the ideas surrounding it — inevitably excited antisemites. In 2016, he tweeted out an image using a Star of David to symbolize Hillary Clinton’s “corruption.” The Trump campaign tweeted an altered version after an outcry but then ran an ad in the campaign’s closing days decrying “a global power structure that is responsible for the economic decisions that have robbed our working class, stripped our country of its wealth and put that money into the pockets of a handful of large corporations and political entities” coupled with images of Janet Yellen, George Soros, and Lloyd Blankfein — all of whom are financial figures who happen to be Jewish.

Trump attacked his critics as a cabal of “globalists” and fixated on the secret powers exerted by Soros, who has displaced (or in some cases joined) the Rothschilds in the imagined role of secret Jewish financier orchestrating a series of catastrophes for profit. The explosion of militant paranoia that followed Trump’s rise — from the Oath Keepers to QAnon — has appeared both online and in the real world with occasionally deadly consequences in places like Charlottesville and Pittsburgh. Although much of this activity has taken place outside the party system, the energies on the right have crept into the Republican Party.

The article went on to report anti-Semitic statements by high-level Republicans (including a spokesperson for Ron DeSantis) and the close relationship of Doug Mastriano, Pennsylvania’s GOP nominee for governor, with the ultra-right-wing social-media site Gab. (The site promotes Christian Nationalist themes, and its chief executive is an “out and proud” antisemite “who has promoted Mastriano as a fellow enemy of the Jews.”)

Is it fair to criticize the Republican Party for the views of its most distasteful members? The Intercept article is lengthy, with a number of other examples, but I found the closing paragraphs pretty persuasive.

There is a simple test to measure their influence. If antisemites were too marginal to pose any danger, it would be easy enough for the party to cut them off. (If you want to know what it looks like when Republicans decide to really throw somebody out of their party, look at their treatment of Liz Cheney.) Instead, they vacillate. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy declined to comment on Gosar’s attendance at white nationalist Nick Fuentes’s conference. McCarthy has likewise promised to restore Greene’s committee privileges if Republicans regain the majority.

Prosecutors have found that Trump’s January 6 rally attracted a significant number of people who share Hitler quotes, hold membership in neo-Nazi organizations, have a fixation with “white genocide,” and the like, making the party leadership’s desire to sweep the whole thing under the rug all the more dangerous. Whatever misgivings the remaining old-line Republicans may have toward the militant cadres Trump inspired, Republicans fear their political and even terroristic power. They no longer imagine they have the gatekeeping force to exclude the antisemites, less still to steer the party away from the kind of paranoid rhetoric that invites their participation.

The GOP’s overriding goal is to win, and it has decided this means accepting the support of anybody who will provide it. For three-quarters of a century, antisemites were locked out of major American politics or at least had to keep their bigotry quiet. Now the door is open.

I guess a Republican Party that has been deserted by  people who are pro-choice, pro- LGBTQ, pro-public school, pro-gun safety regulation and pro-environment needs to replace those groups with whoever is handy…

However, watching them scrape the bottom of the barrel is making me feel distinctly unsafe.

RFRA For The Rest Of Us…

Indiana’s ACLU has filed a second challenge to the state’s ban on abortion, and this is a challenge focused squarely upon the blatant hypocrisy of the U.S. Supreme Court’s  purported concern for “religious liberty.”

In a series of cases, the Court has handed down decisions favoring Christian fundamentalist doctrines that are at odds with the beliefs held by more liberal Christian denominations, let alone by adherents of other religious traditions. Justice Alito, who authored the decision in the Hobby Lobby case as well as Dobbs, has clearly signaled his belief that his particular definition of “religious belief”  deserves priority–and he now has four other theocratically-inclined colleagues who agree.

Alito’s definition of “religious freedom” as freedom for state-level lawmakers to impose conservative Christian dogma on Americans who hold very different “sincere beliefs,” is inconsistent with both constitutional jurisprudence and common sense. It’s “freedom for me, but not for thee”–and a not-so- tacit endorsement of the MAGA Republican claim that the United States is a “Christian nation” that should be dominated by their particular version of Christianity.

Ironically, the ACLU has filed this lawsuit under the state’s RFRA law–a law originally ballyhooed by those same Christian Warriors.

“Indiana’s RFRA law protects religious freedom for all Hoosiers, not just those who practice Christianity,” said Ken Falk, ACLU of Indiana Legal Director. “The ban on abortion will substantially burden the exercise of religion by many Hoosiers who, under the new law, would be prevented from obtaining abortions, in conflict with their sincere religious beliefs.”

The complaint points out that the new law violates the beliefs of the Muslim, Unitarian Universalist and Episcopalian faiths, as well as those who follow Paganism. (Rather obviously, it also violates the liberties of  the growing numbers of non-religious Americans.)

As I have previously argued,  a very large number of Americans believe that “liberty” is defined as the right of all citizens to follow the doctrines of their particular religions. When applied to the issue of abortion, any rational understanding of liberty means that people whose beliefs prohibit it are protected from measures requiring it, and people whose beliefs allow (or even, in some situations, require) it are equally free to follow their beliefs.

A free country–a country that takes liberty seriously–does not empower legislators to  decide what prayer you say, what book you read, who you marry, or whether and when you procreate. Perhaps the most eloquent statement of that constitutional principle was that of Justice Jackson in West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette. In a much-quoted portion of his decision, Justice Jackson wrote:

The very purpose of a Bill of Rights was to withdraw certain subjects from the vicissitudes of political controversy, to place them beyond the reach of majorities and officials, and to establish them as legal principles to be applied by the courts. One’s right to life, liberty, and property, to free speech, a free press, freedom of worship and assembly, and other fundamental rights may not be submitted to vote; they depend on the outcome of no elections.

Justice Alito’s decision in Dobbs essentially reverses Jackson’s 1943 definition of the meaning and  intended operation of the Bill of Rights–a definition that has been endorsed by the courts for decades. Jackson’s definition has been taught in the nation’s law schools and is firmly embedded in the popular culture. In America, We the People make lots of decisions about our governance.  We vote on who will represent us in our various legislative bodies, and–depending upon the state– participate in referenda and recalls.

We don’t vote on fundamental rights.

As any first-year law student (or anyone who took any of my  Law and Public Policy classes) will confirm, the Bill of Rights is taught as a “counter-majoritarian” document. That means that, while a majority of voters can influence innumerable policies, that majority does not get a vote on whether it is permissible to deny other Americans the fundamental rights protected by the Bill of Rights.

We don’t get to vote on our neighbors’ First Amendment right to the free exercise of their religion.

A contrary decision by Indiana Courts would confirm Alito’s profound departure from and disrespect for the essential purpose of the Bill of Rights–and his obvious contempt for people who hold religious beliefs contrary to his own.

It would also highlight the hypocrisy of those Hoosiers who defended RFRA on the grounds that it protected “sincerely held” religious beliefs.

 

 

Religious Liberty?

Remember when Hillary Clinton outraged the Chattering Classes with statements like  “basket of deplorables,” and accusations of a “vast right-wing conspiracy.”

According to Wikipedia, the phrase “vast right-wing conspiracy” preceded Clinton’s 1998 use. It was listed as a conspiracy theory in a 1995 memo by political opposition researchers. Wild conspiracy theories are everywhere you look these days–mostly but not exclusively  on the political Right (are Jewish Space lasers the grandchildren of the Elders of Zion?). When Clinton leveled the accusation, the blowback was both overwhelming and understandable.

But a recent data breach at the shadowy Liberty Counsel suggests she may have been on to something.

LIBERTY COUNSEL, an evangelical Christian nonprofit that provided a brief cited by the Supreme Court in its decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, has been hacked, revealing a 25-gigabyte internal database that contains nearly seven years’ worth of donor records. The hacker, who identifies with the Anonymous movement, released the data on the hacktivist site Enlace Hacktivista, and the transparency collective Distributed Denial of Secrets is providing it to journalists who request access.

“Noticing a worrying trend of far-right and anti-abortion activists aligning themselves with the evangelical Christian movement, hiding their funding sources behind laws that allow church ministries to keep their donations secret,” the hacker wrote in a press release, “we decided to bring about some much-needed radical transparency.”

In addition to fighting abortion, Liberty Counsel — a Southern Poverty Law Center-designated hate group — has focused its legal efforts on challenging LGBTQ+ rights and vaccine mandates in the name of religious freedom. Because it is registered with the IRS as an “association of churches,” Liberty Counsel is not required to file a public tax return, meaning that its finances are largely shielded from the scrutiny applied to other tax-exempt organizations.

The disclosures showed that “nonprofit organizations” controlled by Liberty Counsel not only encouraged supporters to vote for Trump –in violation of IRS rules that prohibit such endorsements– they also documented the ways in which Liberty Counsel has deployed  disinformation about election integrity and the Covid-19 pandemic.

Are you wondering why I titled this blog post  “Religious Liberty”? As the linked Intercept article goes on to explain, the legal privileging of (some) religion has not only facilitated the lack of transparency illustrated by the breach, but has served to conceal a theocratic political movement within a cloak of faux piety.

Liberty Counsel’s virulently anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric and efforts to legalize discrimination in the name of religious freedom led the Southern Poverty Law Center to designate it as a hate group. “The organizations on our hate group list vilify others because of their race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or gender identity — this includes Liberty Counsel and their vilification of LGBTQ+ people,” said Rachel Carroll Rivas, interim deputy director of research for the SPLC’s Intelligence Project.

Some examples: Liberty Counsel represented Kim Davis, the county clerk in Kentucky who refused to issue a marriage license to a gay couple. The day after the January 6th insurrection, its president sent an email to supporters stating that “our research and legal staff have been deeply engaged in stopping the steal of our 2020 elections.” (The email and a later blog post insisted that Trump could remain in power if God intervened: “We know God can intervene and turn what looks like a hopeless cause into a miraculous victory!” (Evidently, God was uninterested…)

During the pandemic, Liberty Counsel successfully sued  LSU’s School of Dentistry and Loyola University, requiring them to abandon their vaccine mandates on religious freedom grounds. The organization is currently suing the U.S. government over the military’s vaccine mandate. (God evidently wants people infected..)

If these activities were limited to a single organization, it would be troubling enough, but the breach disclosed a network of similarly fanatic entities, and campaigns that stretched the definition of “religion” to the breaking point.

While Liberty Counsel is best known for legal battles over abortion and LGBTQ+ rights, the hacked data shows more than $1.6 million in donations resulting from petition and fax campaigns built around dubious claims about the pandemic and election integrity…

The largest petition included in the data set, launched on the eve of Biden’s inauguration, makes no mention of religion: It warns of “giant pharmaceutical companies in partnership with government officials sweeping harmful and even deadly COVID-19 vaccine reactions under the rug” and demands that politicians oppose unspecified efforts “to make COVID shots mandatory, to require a Vaccine Passport or to electronically track and trace my movements.”

I don’t know how “vast” Liberty Council’s conspiratorial network is, but I do know the  Religion Clauses of the First Amendment weren’t intended to shield partisan political activity from legal scrutiny.

We can protect genuine religious liberty without enabling political fundraising  by hate groups.

 

Christian Nationalism

I frequently inveigh against Christian Nationalism without explaining exactly what it is. In the wake of Marjorie Taylor Green’s recent declaration identifying herself as a Christian Nationalist, I decided I should be more explicit about what that label means–because it doesn’t simply indicate a religious identity.

As the Executive Director of the Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty recently wrote,

Christian nationalism is a political ideology and cultural framework that merges Christian and American identities, distorting both the Christian faith and America’s promise of religious freedom. It relies heavily on a false narrative of America as a “Christian nation,” founded by Christians in order to privilege Christianity. This mythical history betrays the work of the framers to create a federal government that would remain neutral when it comes to religion, neither promoting nor denigrating it — a deliberate break with the state-established religions of the colonies.

Though not new, Christian nationalism has been exploited in recent years by politicians like former President Donald Trump to further an “us vs. them” mentality and send a message that only Christians can be “real” Americans.

An article in The Week pointed to the substantial role played by Christian Nationalists in the insurrection on January 6th. As one observer reported  “Crosses were everywhere that day in D.C., on flags and flagpoles, on signs and clothes, around necks, and erected above the crowd,”  Bible verses were plentiful in the crowd, and a number of rioters actually paused for prayer during the attack. One rioter recorded herself justifying her participation by saying  “We are a godly country, and we are founded on godly principles. And if we do not have our country, nothing else matters.”

A 2021 survey by the Pew Research Center identified 77 percent of Republican respondents as “church-state integrationists” who hold a variety of views “consistent” with Christian nationalism. That might be overstating things somewhat. A 2017 survey found that one-in-five Americans hold such views. The scholars at Political Behavior found that “support for the Capitol attacks is a minority position among any slice of the American religious landscape.” But they also noted that 17.7 percent “of white weekly churchgoers fall into the joint top quartile of justification of violence, Christian nationalist beliefs, perceived victimhood, white identity, and support for QAnon.” That percentage — while relatively small — “would represent millions of individuals.”

The article noted that Christian Nationalism is gaining an “increasing foothold ” in Republican politics. Greene and  Boebert are two of the more explicit proponents of Christian nationalism, but less well known members of the party are also adherents. “Doug Mastriano — a former Army officer who chartered buses to ferry protesters to Washington D.C. on Jan. 6, and who has declared the separation of church and state a “myth” —  is the GOP nominee for governor in Pennsylvania, and is now running a close race with his Democratic opponent.”

What is truly terrifying is that Christian Nationalism is being normalized. Republicans who shared the ideology  but previously denied the label are increasingly willing to admit to it: as the linked article notes, ” Marjorie Taylor Greene might have made news by openly embracing the term, but she might not be that unusual.”

As the Executive Director of the Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty wrote,

I care about dismantling Christian nationalism both because I’m a practicing Christian and because I’m a patriotic American — and no, those identities are not the same. As Christians, we can’t allow Greene, Boebert or Trump to distort our faith without a fight.

We must speak loudly when our faith is used as a political tool, we must uproot it from our own churches and communities and we must form alliances with religious minorities and the nonreligious — who suffer the impact of Christian nationalism the most.

Religion, and Christianity in particular, has flourished in America not because of government aid or favoritism, but for the opposite reason: religion’s freedom from government control. Government involvement in religious affairs doesn’t aid the free exercise of religion. And as Christians, we are called to love our neighbors rather than make them feel unwelcome in their own country…

Christian lawmakers don’t need to erase their faith from politics. My fellow Baptist, Georgia Democrat Sen. Rev. Raphael Warnock, has modeled what it looks like for a pastor to serve in Congress without insisting on a privileged place for Christianity in law and society….

It’s not just Christian political leaders that need to do better, it’s all of us. Earlier this summer, I joined a group of prominent Christian leaders in launching the Christians Against Christian Nationalism campaign. More than 25,000 Christians have joined the campaign as we seek to elevate an alternative Christian public witness.

The Christian Nationalist takeover of one of America’s major political parties poses an enormous threat to us all.