The concept of religious liberty has always been a core American value, but the phrase has become a rallying cry for conservatives specifically in recent years. President Trump has even made religious liberty a top priority for his administration. In a blink, a historically uncontroversial concept became a point of contention.
Because in the hands of conservatives, the phrase has morphed in meaning. It’s time we’re honest about what this term once meant, what it now means and which policies it represents.
Religious liberty has long held a prominent place in American parlance. Our Founding Fathers hailed from various religious traditions, but they shared a vision for a nation where all citizens had the right to worship freely. They sought to prevent the creation of a state-sponsored church like the Church of England and, to that end, guaranteed in the First Amendment of the Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
George Marsden, a religious historian at the University of Notre Dame, describes our founders’ goal as “inclusive pluralism.” In the society they envisioned, no religion is preferred over another, and all believers can worship as they see fit.
The phrase “religious liberty,” as understood by its constitutional origin, attracts little controversy. One strains to recall any prominent Americans who have called for either the establishment of a national religion or the abolition of Americans’ right to worship the deity of their choosing (or none at all).
But the historical, constitutional definition and the modern, conservative definition of religious liberty are two separate things.
In the hands of the Trump administration, the phrase connotes freedoms and privileges granted mostly to Christians — specifically, the white conservative Christians who form a vital part of the Republican base. Instead of inclusive pluralism, it now stands for exclusive primacy of the Christian faith.
Trump never hid his revamped vision for religious liberty. During the 2016 campaign, he convened 1,000 evangelical leaders in New York City and proclaimed: “This is such an important election. And I say to you folks because you have such power, such influence. Unfortunately, the government has weeded it away from you pretty strongly. But you’re going to get it back.”
He even promised that, if he was elected, Americans would drop all the “Happy holidays” nonsense and start saying “Merry Christmas” again. (Last December, he claimed that he successfully revived the traditional Christian holiday greeting.)
To this end, Trump swore to destroy the Johnson Amendment, a 1950s law that prohibits churches from campaigning for a political candidate. In May, Trump signed a religious liberty executive order surrounded by more than a dozen Christian leaders that granted them broad exemptions for politicking.
At the signing, Trump declared, “We are giving our churches their voices back.”
Churches certainly need protecting, but what about mosques or other non-Christian houses of worship? Trump’s supporters would surely say that his religious liberty agenda protects them, too. But that’s not the way it plays out.
The Trump administration has attempted to block refugees from certain majority-Muslim countries from immigrating, but the president said he might prioritize the applications of Christians from those same regions.
And what about the treatment of religious minorities here at home? We hear almost nothing about their protection. And unlike the 70 percent of Americans who claim to be Christian, these minorities are actually at risk.
There have been several well-publicized stories in recent years about citizens in majority-Christian neighborhoods in this country attempting to block the construction of mosques. Nary a peep is heard from many conservative religious-liberty groups in these cases. Those that do speak up are chastised into silence.
Today, religious liberty is more than a core value. It’s also policy agenda. It describes the desire to dismantle Obamacare and, perhaps most important, to shield Christian business owners who refuse service to LGBT people.
Just as conservatives co-opted the seemingly harmless phrase “family values” in the 1980s and 1990s to provide cover for their crusade against same-sex marriage, so now they often use “religious liberty” as a dog whistle to signal the “right” to discriminate against same-sex couples.
Historically, Americans have believed that the ocean of religious liberty stops at the shore of the common good. One might recall Southern Christians’ efforts to use their religion as an excuse to deny service to black Americans at lunch counters during the civil rights movement. That effort failed then, but today a new generation of Christians is attempting to revive old arguments while hiding behind a revamped notion of “religious liberty.”
Sessions’s Justice Department task force is just one more effort to establish Trump’s vision of religious liberty. At the announcement ceremony, Sessions spoke of both the president’s promise to reinstate “Merry Christmas” and of “nuns ordered to buy contraception” as a result of Obamacare. (To be clear, Obamacare does not require anyone to purchase contraception but rather requires that most organizations provide health-care plans that cover it.)
Also speaking at the ceremony was Jack Phillips, the conservative Christian Colorado baker who gained fame for his refusal to make a cake for a gay couple’s wedding. Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, speaking at the event, offered a full-throated rationale for why Americans need such a task force: “When activists try to force Christian ministries into violating their consciences, they force Christians into a bind.”
It’s fair to say that our founders would hardly recognize what is now called religious liberty. As conservatives seek to remake this phrase, we the people must decide whether we will accept this redefinition.
Many Americans — including many Jesus-worshiping Christians like me — believe this linguistic shift is a bad turn that should be resisted. After all, religious liberty is for everyone, or it is for no one at all.
Jonathan Merritt is the author of “Learning to Speak God From Scratch: Why Sacred Words Are Vanishing — and How We Can Revive Them” and a contributor to the Atlantic.