The new year could be turbulent for religion in America.
Several hot-button issues — including immigration, abortion, poverty, health care, gay rights and education — will put religion near the center of public life and debate.
But the issue that could especially flare up? In a Trump administration, “religious freedom” is expected to either flourish — or come under attack — depending on who defines religious freedom.
In a divided, angry America, religious freedom is frequently seen through the lens of the “culture wars,” says Charles Haynes, director of the Religious Freedom Center at the Newseum. Once Donald Trump is inaugurated, many religious conservatives will seek to rollback culture war advances made by President Obama, including on abortion rights and LGBT rights.
“For some, religious claims for exemptions and accommodations are a form of bigotry,” Haynes said. “For others, minority religious groups — especially Muslims — are an existential threat to American traditions and values.”
Many observers are especially watching how Trump’s relationship with Muslims in the United States and abroad will unfold after he campaigned on a pledge to ban Muslim immigrants. In the weeks ahead of his inauguration, Trump’s advisers have issued conflicting statements about the status of his plan. Trump’s own statements have been a mix of repeating, softening and vaguely re-endorsing a ban, so it’s unclear what might take place.
Trump’s policy on Muslims is likely the most anticipated religion story because Americans could see it as a referendum on anyone’s right to free belief, said Rashid Dar, a research assistant at the Brookings Institution.
“If the floodgates are opened to discrimination based on ideology or belief, then it threatens all Americans, who will have to ensure that they are not the next victims of policies aimed at rooting out ‘un-American’ beliefs,” Dar said.
Another major story expected early in Trump’s administration includes any changes to the Supreme Court. (in an appeal to religious conservatives, Trump promised to appoint justices who oppose abortion.)
Many of the current religious freedom battles could quickly disappear during Trump’s presidency, especially if the Affordable Care Act — the target of many religious freedom lawsuits and conflicts — is repealed, Haynes said.
Other battles may worsen, he predicts. Many Native Americans, for example, fear that their religious freedom will suffer a significant blow if the Trump administration reverses the Obama administration and allows the Dakota Pipeline project to go forward near the Standing Rock Reservation.
Many religious conservatives think the Obama administration had overstepped on issues of religious freedom in areas such as contraceptive access under the Affordable Care Act and gay rights, especially the Supreme Court’s decision that was seen as providing sweeping protections to same-sex couples and potentially threatening the tax-exempt status of religious organizations. Will the Trump administration now work to address these concerns?
Many states will be emboldened by the election to pursue laws that provide broad religious exemptions to same-sex marriage, and the ACLU expects more religious freedom bills than ever this year. These cases will possibly resurrecting debates over what the government can — or can’t — compel faith organizations to do. For instance, will business owners be required to follow anti-discrimination laws and bake a cake for a gay wedding if it violates their religious beliefs?
Other scenarios observers are considering include:
Will legislators renew efforts to pass “anti-Sharia” laws and seek to limit what they see as the growing influence of Islam in America?
Will Trump fulfill his promise to end the Johnson Amendment, which prevents certain tax-exempt organizations such as churches from endorsing or opposing political candidates?
Will he quell concerns from some that academic institutions could lose federal funding over issues such as gay rights?
Will he reverse Obama’s declaration that transgender students must be allowed to use bathrooms consistent with their gender identity, a question the Supreme Court is considering?
The concept of religious freedom as protected under the First Amendment has become polarizing, but Haynes said it has one definition: Liberty of conscience for people of all faiths or of no faith. “This should mean taking claims of conscience seriously and providing accommodations whenever possible,” Haynes said. “And it should also mean standing up for the rights of others, including those with whom we deeply disagree.”
Other religion-related stories are expected to surface under a changing administration. With reports of rising incidents of Islamophobia and anti-Semitism during the 2016 campaign, activists will look for ways to counter bigotry. Will Trump’s presidency create unlikely bedfellows and spur interfaith efforts or racial reconciliation efforts? Some are less hopeful.
“Cynical me says the racial reconciliation efforts won’t happen,” says Anthea Butler, a religious studies professor at the University of Pennsylvania, who believes churches are drawing a line for or against Trump. “I think that ship sailed a long time ago in the 1990s and things are too polarized right now.”
A conservative shift could also spur a rise of the “religious left.” For instance, some religious institutions are planning to offer sanctuary to undocumented immigrants. Other organizations may undertake their own acts of resistance — and dozens of religious leaders, for instance, have already signed an open letter vowing to organize against bigotry.
Immigration is changing the face of religion in America. Hispanics are the fastest growing segment of the evangelical church. They also make up a considerable portion of the Catholic Church in the United States.
“Pastors across the country view immigration not just as a political issue but as a church issue because many members of their churches are immigrants who will be significantly impacted by any changes in immigration law or policy,” said Jenny Yang, vice president of advocacy and policy at World Relief.
Policy changes in other major areas, such as health care and education, will be watched closely by religious advocates. Education activists are eyeing issues related to public education and federal funding because Trump picked Betsy DeVos as his secretary of education. DeVos, who has deep ties to Reformed Christian circles in Michigan, favors school vouchers, a position that appears to be motivated by her Christian faith.
Christianity has been on the decline in the U.S., but religious voters such as evangelicals (26 percent) and Catholics (23 percent) made up a significant chunk of the electorate in 2016, especially compared to voters who do not affiliate with religion (15 percent). Will Trump deliver on his promises to religiously conservative voters? Will they play a large role in his administration?
Many other religion stories this year will unfold apart from Trump’s presidency, which we will cover in news, analysis and commentary here at Acts of Faith. Globally, Protestant Christians are expected to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s “95 Theses,” the theological propositions and questions for the Catholic Church considered the spark for the Protestant Reformation. And Pope Francis is expected to continue to shape a Catholic Church that emphasizes the marginalized. But the presidency of Trump — and how religion does or doesn’t play a role — is expected to captivate the country in 2017.
(A version of this was first published in the Outlook section of The Washington Post.)