Tisa Wenger is associate professor of American religious history at Yale Divinity School and author of Religious Freedom: The Contested History of an American Ideal (2017). Her research and teaching interests include religious encounters in the nineteenth- and twentieth-century United States, especially the U.S. West; the cultural politics of religious freedom; and the intersections of race, religion, and empire in American history
What kinds of religion and whose freedoms should the principle of religious freedom serve? Over the last four years, building on a long legacy of white Christian nationalism in the United States, the Trump administration has weaponized this freedom to advance a very specific conservative Christian agenda. Trump claimed to be the champion of religious liberty and, at least in part for this reason, won a large plurality of white Christian voters both in 2016 and in 2020. But his policies assumed a very particular view of what counts as religion and who deserves to be free.
Many critics have noted that religious freedom as defined by this administration consistently trumps other values of freedom, justice, and equity. This is especially true when it comes to sexual and reproductive justice and LGBTQ+ equality. But the problem is not just that one kind of freedom is privileged over and against another. It is also that the only thing that fits into the box marked “religion,” in Trump’s world, is a particular brand of Christianity that is politically conservative and overwhelmingly white. It is this kind of religion—the only kind that gets to count as such—whose freedoms and values have been prioritized and protected.
The only thing that fits into the box marked 'religion,' in Trump’s world, is a particular brand of Christianity that is politically conservative and overwhelmingly white.
When most Americans today hear the language of religious freedom, they are likely to think about high-profile disputes around same-sex marriage, contraception, and abortion, and of conservative Christian refusals to provide any services that might link them, however remotely, to people and practices that they consider sinful. (This is a far cry from Jesus’ example of sitting down with and welcoming tax collectors, courtesans, and others condemned as sinners in his day—but maybe that’s a different story?) In her book, Moral Combat: How Sex Divided American Christians and Fractured American Politics, R. Marie Griffith has shown how liberal and conservative Christians came to take radically different approaches to questions of gender and sexual morality. It is crucial to understand that people on both sides of the disputes she tracks are grounded in deep Christian commitments and that Muslims, Jews, and many other religious communities in America today are more or less divided along similar lines. Even around this limited set of issues, religious voices are diverse and hold very different views.
Readers may be surprised to learn that, until the 1980s, it was pro-choice rather than anti-abortion activists who most effectively mobilized the politics of religious freedom by arguing that each woman had the right to follow her own conscience and convictions. As late as 1993, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops hesitated to endorse the Religious Freedom Restoration Act because they feared that such legislation would benefit the pro-choice movement. But despite this history and a host of contemporary religious voices that insist otherwise, too many Americans now assume that the interests of religion and religious freedom are united on the conservative side of our longstanding culture wars.
Conservative white Christians are a significant portion of the U.S. population and have always held a great deal of political power. And yet, many of them are convinced that they and their religion are being threatened by a secular society hellbent on destroying Christianity. They draw on a deep well of historical narratives—of varying accuracy—about the persecution and martyrdom of Christians in the Roman Empire and, more recently, around the world. By locating themselves within this story of persecuted and martyred Christians, a large and powerful group of Americans have come to believe that they and their freedoms are imperiled in the contemporary United States.
A large and powerful group of Americans have come to believe that they and their freedoms are imperiled in the contemporary United States.
Consider for a moment how pervasive these narratives have become. Now that it is December, we can expect to hear the annual round of complaints that children can’t sing Christmas carols in the public schools and that Americans are not even free to say “Merry Christmas” in public anymore. And yet, Christmas remains as pervasive as it ever was. Just ask a non-Christian friend how it feels to have Christmas decorations and carols take over most public spaces for an entire month out of every year. When Christians are asked to show a modicum of respect and give some space for others, too many of them behave as if this request for equity were a form of persecution. Too often, they have weaponized religious freedom to protect their own longstanding privileges in American life.
Americans who don’t fit the profile or share the convictions of the president’s conservative and mostly white Christian supporters have been ignored if not assaulted by this narrow version of religious freedom. Muslims especially have been demonized and attacked by Trump and his surrogates. One of his first executive orders, often known as the “Muslim ban,” drastically limited the number of immigrant visas granted to people from five Muslim-majority countries. The administration has also seemed to delight in the destruction of Native American lands, waterways, and culturally significant places that have all too often been sacrificed for big oil and other corporate interests. The construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock and the evisceration of the Bears Ears National Monument are only the most prominent examples. Finally, African American Christians and many other people of faith have rallied this year in support of the Black Lives Matter movement to challenge the racial injustices of mass incarceration and police brutality. They have encountered only scorn, at best, from the president and his supporters. For many Americans, these too are deeply religious concerns. And yet, none of them fall within the domain of religious freedom as this administration defines it.
A diverse coalition of faith leaders have urged President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Harris to reframe religious freedom as an inclusive and equally applied ideal. To be sure, Americans will continue to struggle with contending values and competing freedoms. But with the lessons of history in mind, perhaps the new administration can stop allowing one set of privileged Americans to define the bounds of religion and religious freedom for us all. A more just vision for religious freedom will strive towards equal protection for all Americans, whatever their religious identities, affiliations, or commitments might be.