The Justice Department plans to launch a “religious-liberty task force” that Attorney General Jeff Sessions says will help ensure that the rights of people of faith are protected in a country he says has become “less hospitable” to them.
Sessions on Monday said the new task force will help the Justice Department “fully implement our religious-liberty guidance,” including making sure all of the department's components across the country “accommodate people of faith.” The mission Sessions described in the announcement and a memo to Justice Department leadership is broad — and has left some fearful it's mainly aimed at protecting those who share Sessions's religious convictions.
In October, Sessions issued 20 fundamental principles for executive agencies on how to apply “religious liberty” protections. Among them is the principle that free exercise of religion provides the freedom to act or to abstain from an action. Another principle states that the government should not impugn a person’s motives or beliefs.
But given Sessions's politics and his previous characterizations of those who think and believe differently from him, some have wondered how interested the former senator is in protecting the religious liberty of all people of faith. Critics shared their concerns on Twitter.
Although Sessions claims that the United States is “less hospitable” to religious people, the fact is that most Americans are religious. According to the Pew Research Center, more than 76 percent of Americans are associated with a religion. In fact, the vast majority — more than 7 in 10 — are Christians.
It is true that most Americans — and most Christians — aren't conservative Christians like the white evangelicals who largely supported Donald Trump. And that may be Sessions's greatest concern. In his announcement of the task force at a Justice Department summit on religious tolerance, he said:
Let’s be frank: A dangerous movement, undetected by many but real, is now challenging and eroding our great tradition of religious freedom. There can be no doubt. It’s no little matter. It must be confronted intellectually and politically and defeated. This election, this past election, and much that has flowed from it, gives us a rare opportunity to arrest these trends and to confront them.
Such a reversal will not just be done with electoral victories, however, but by intellectual victories.
Sessions is not alone in his fears about the persecution of religious Americans. Trump supporters helped send the political novice to the White House in part because of cultural anxiety, which includes the belief that changes in society are making conservative Christianity less prevalent and therefore less dominant in social impact.
Results from a 2017 survey from the Public Religion Research Institute revealed that white evangelicals think Christians face more discrimination than Muslims. And they were the only major Christian denomination to believe that.
This fear of persecution among the Americans most likely to support President Trump probably influenced Sessions's desire to set up an initiative to “protect” them. But that decision has left some of those outside of his political and religious tribes to wonder whether he can protect them.