This Dec. 10 post has been updated to include information from a new poll.
Do you see religious liberty as under threat in the United States? The debate over Republican candidates’ comments about Islam reveal how bitterly divided Americans are over how to view a basic right.
For the past few years, several of the biggest and most influential religious groups have made the cause of religious freedom a top priority, saying a crisis is afoot. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Southern Baptist Convention, the Mormon Church and many prominent faith leaders have focused intensely on a campaign for religious liberty, saying that it is threatened by liberalizing changes like gay marriage and expanded access to reproductive services like contraception and abortion.
Massive fundraising and public awareness campaigns have gone on, with slogans coined like the bishops’ “Fortnight for Freedom.” Advocacy groups have been formed or reshaped to focus on education and litigation about the threat to religious liberty.
Yet in the fall, when Republican presidential candidates filled the airwaves with dramatic statements about the rights of Muslims, there has largely been silence. GOP candidate Ben Carson in September said a Muslim “absolutely” couldn’t be president. In early November, businessman Donald Trump said he would “absolutely” require a database to track Muslims. Last week former senator Rick Santorum (Pa.) said the constitution does not protect Islam, which “is different from Christianity.”
It was only when Trump on Monday proposed banning all Muslims from the country that a few religious liberty leaders spoke out. The comments ranged in their sense of urgency.
Within a few hours Russell Moore, leader of the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, slammed Trump’s proposal, saying that “anyone who cares an iota about religious liberty should denounce this reckless, demagogic rhetoric.”
On Tuesday, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints issued a brief press release simply citing two statements from the church’s founder, Joseph Smith, mandating Mormons to care for other faiths’ freedoms as their own. It didn’t mention any candidates by name. Other prominent religious liberty leaders said they couldn’t comment on political campaigns.
“I’d say religious freedom is in the eye of the beholder,” said Charles Haynes, director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum and a scholar on the First Amendment.
(A poll, published Wednesday, Dec. 30, speaks to this issue, showing Americans believe in religious freedom protections for Christians at a much higher percentage rate than they do in protections for Muslims. The poll by the Associated Press and the NORC Center For Public Affairs Research found 82 percent of people calling religious liberty protections for Christians important, compared with 61 percent who said the same of Muslims. About 7 in 10 said preserving Jews’ religious freedom was important, 67 percent said so of Mormons, and about 60 percent of people who identify with no religion.)
Part of this has to due with the sheer diversity of religious liberty issues and those who work on them.
While candidates’ comments — and responses, or lack of responses, to them — get the most attention, influential public interest law firms, such as the Becket Fund, and leading First Amendment scholars work to bring attention to a wide range of cases across the spectrum.
This group can one day defend an order of nuns who refuse to include birth control in their employee health-care package, in defiance of 2010 Affordable Care Act, and the next day defend a Muslim Abercrombie & Fitch employee who wants to wear a hijab to work. These lawyers and academics have their own standard for when they think it’s time to speak up.
“In my world, what gets attention isn’t political rhetoric but actual legal efforts,” said John Inazu, a scholar on religious liberty at the Washington University in St. Louis. “Candidates are saying so many stupid things.”
However, Inazu said, this could be a moment for the religious freedom movement.
“For people who care about religious freedom, ignoring the real challenge of U.S. Muslims is making a huge tactical blunder. And not to mention on the merits. You have to stand up for others, or everything you say is going to look like special pleading,” he said.
Perhaps a bigger part, however, is tribal. Religious conservatives who have been complaining for years about the imposition they feel by, in particular, the advance of gay marriage have felt angry that their argument of religious oppression was rejected by many.
Many see a culture, in particular on the liberal side, refusing to take their concerns seriously. Call it the Kim Davis test. Either you think — as many religious liberty advocates do — that Davis, the county clerk in Kentucky, had a legitimate concern about being connected to gay marriage licenses, or you think her cause was a joke. They see this also in Americans who don’t prioritize Middle Eastern Christians being persecuted and killed in conflicts in Syria and Iraq that are terrorizing many religious minorities.
And all that may be coming home to roost during this Muslim-slamming fall.
“In one sense, until these latest incidents, it seemed religious freedom was on the run,” said Archbishop Thomas Wenski, who works on religious liberty issues for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. “Now we’re seeing from the left, in their reaction to Trump, people on the left raising religious liberty.”
The Catholic Church has pushed back hard against candidates’ efforts to restrict refugees — particularly Muslim ones; the church is the largest settler of refugees in the United States. In Indiana this week the archbishop welcomed a Syrian family of four over the wishes of Gov. Mike Pence (R).
And yet the bishops’ extensive website on religious liberty, with news and articles, mentions nothing of the season’s anti-Muslim comments and focuses instead on marriage and fighting the president’s health-care mandate.
Asked why not, Wenski said he felt the topic was addressed in the bishops’ political guide they approved last month, called “Faithful Citizenship.” The document called for “civil and respectful dialogue.”
“We addressed the need for greater civility in our discourse. And this is a lack of civility,” he said. “It’s not that bishops haven’t been talking about religious liberty, but perhaps until people like Trump have been taking shots, hey, has anyone else said anything?”
The chairman of the bishops’ committee on religious liberty, William Lori, did not return messages for this story.
Moore, who has been a prominent conservative voice on religious freedom for years, said his fast reaction to the Trump ban was because it “was a moment of clarity.”
“When one takes into account the context of a candidate who has at least raised the possibility of shutting down mosques and issuing ID badges based on what people believe to now openly say he would ban people based on religious beliefs — that’s not a difficult question. One need not to parse the statement to understand what he’s trying to say,” he said.
Haynes noted that for more liberal Americans, concern for Muslims is “high on the list of religious freedom challenges, maybe the highest.” He noted their campaigns in recent years to defend mosque-building projects that neighbors had opposed, and to fight “anti-Sharia” state laws, which purport to ban Islamic laws from being enacted in the United States, but which critics say are redundant and meant to stir anti-Muslim feeling.
However, Haynes said, the religious left is far smaller than its conservative counterpart and therefore liberals defending Muslims from a religious freedom perspective aren’t heard as nearly as well.
“The pushback from religious people on the left has been pretty strong. On the other hand, from the right this either looks like small potatoes or it’s not a religious freedom issue; they think it’s a terrorism issue, or a political issue,” he said.
He noted the anti-Muslim activists who have raised and spent millions in recent years to link Islam to terrorism and said he believes that effort has played a major role in how Muslims are viewed.
Haynes is also part of a diverse coalition of leaders who for years have bemoaned the lack of education about religion in public schools, saying Americans are growing up ignorant of one another. The lack of education, he said, makes them more susceptible to the anti-Muslim propaganda.
“In a strange way Donald Trump has succeeded in uniting left and right on this issue,” he said. “But it may not be deep.”