Religious Freedom’s Racial Reckoning

By: Corey D. B. Walker

December 7, 2020

Rethinking U.S. Domestic Religious Freedom

Oh my name it ain’t nothin’
My age it means less
The country I come from
Is called the Midwest
I was taught and brought up there
The laws to abide
And that land that I live in
Has God on its side

— Bob Dylan

When President Donald Trump stated, “The United States is founded on the principle that our rights do not come from the government; they come from God” at the United Nations in 2019, he dramatically extended a new narrative of our nation’s origins that began in earnest close to a century ago. In this new narrative, God replaces “We the People,” and religion, more specifically Christianity, authorizes and guarantees our politics. 

When Trump ascended to the presidency in 2016, he entered a stage set by decades of political organizing, legal strategy, institutional transformation, and passionate rhetorical politics. Sara Diamond, Robert Jones, and Kevin Kruse have written about this contested history and its contentious religious politics. Trump would made explicit what had been whispered about and discussed in hushed tones—religion, or rather, Christianity was now a (if not the) dominant political dynamic in American politics. Trump and his populist authoritarian politics would bring to a boil what had long been simmering in the American body politic. 

Trump and his populist authoritarian politics would bring to a boil what had long been simmering in the American body politic.

To be sure, the conclusion of the Trump presidency will not end the religious politics of Trumpism. Nor will it mark the end of the contentious politics and weaponization of religious freedom. The recent 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court decision on religious gatherings ensures that. But this is only half the story. 

Donald Trump rode a wave of evangelical religious revival and white racial resentment that has long animated domestic politics in America since the modern Black freedom movement. The “white backlash” that Martin Luther King, Jr. warned about has morphed into a bold Trumpism in our current moment. 

Unfortunately, political commentary and analysis on religious freedom have failed to grasp the white racial politics of religious freedom in America. To be sure, we do have serious conversations on the racial politics of American evangelicalism and Trump’s strong appeal to white evangelicals. Yet, our public discourse on religious freedom rarely broaches how nostalgic appeals to an ideal of religious freedom are constructed on a white nationalist imaginary. Indeed, it seems that religious freedom is immune to the racial taboos that animate politics in America.

What the Trump presidency did was remove the shiny patina from religious freedom and reveal its racial and racist undertones.

What the Trump presidency did was remove the shiny patina from religious freedom and reveal its racial and racist undertones.

Race constitutes America, and America is constituted by race. This statement is neither particularly revealing nor revolutionary. Yet, we remain challenged, if you will, by the racial roots of religious freedom. The racial roots of religious freedom continue to give life to new expressions of religious freedom that deter us from achieving our hopes and aspirations. And to be inattentive, at best, and ignore, at worst, the deep racial roots of America’s ideal of religious freedom is to place it on the proverbial horizon that we will never reach.

While the recent scholarship by Jolyon Thomas and Tisa Wenger is very much needed and welcomed, we still lack a substantial body of writing that offers critical analyses of religious freedom for a nation born of race. Indeed, as my former Harvard professor Cornel West declared in the early 1990s, race matters. And race matters to religious freedom.

Recently, I taught a class at the Jepson School of Leadership at the University of Richmond examining the contentious politics of religion in American public life. My undergraduate students, many of whom were committed to pursuing careers in public service, were amazed at how our present public conversation on religion rivaled discourses in the American past. They did not hesitate to call out the problem of America’s less than democratic past in maintaining the hygienic boundaries around the cherished ideal of religious freedom. Nor were they afraid to call out the racist dimensions of American religious freedom.

In our conversations on such cases as Walker v. City of Birmingham and Bob Jones University v. United States, my students we keen to underscore the religious and racial issues that substantively inform the complex legal issues involved in these cases. While each involved First Amendment issues, they were implicated in the racial politics that defines America. In other words, these cases cannot be critically understood outside of the religious and racial realities that define and continue to define the United States. The irony of the matter is that the legal architecture of recent cases involving religious freedom issues and LGBTQ rights are, as my Wake Forest colleague Shannon Gilreath and others have written, framed on a racial and religious logic that supported slavery and justified racial discrimination. 

These cases cannot be critically understood outside of the religious and racial realities that define and continue to define the United States.

In their recent Brookings Institution report, A Time to Heal, A Time to Build, Melissa Rogers and E. J. Dionne highlight the fact that we can no longer segregate religious freedom from America’s long racial nightmare. Indeed, among their astute recommendations for the incoming Biden administration is one we discussed. The call to “end #religiousfreedomsowhite” recognizes the deep imbrications religious freedom and white nationalism that reached its apex under Trump. This situation has given rise and support to not merely Christian nationalism, but a distinctive and peculiarly American white Christian nationalism. 

In a post-Trump era, we may choose to resume thinking religious freedom absent its racial (and racist) dimensions to our detriment. The political and legal field have been profoundly shaped by the new politics of religion and race that became more pronounced with the election of Trump. The genie is out of the bottle, and with Trump’s record number of appointees to the U.S. Supreme Court and the federal judiciary, we must confront this new terrain where we cannot segregate religion from race. They are mutually constitutive, and the fraught legal politics of religious freedom are bound up with the corrosive politics of race. 

If anything, the Trump presidency should have removed the blinders from our eyes and forced us to confront more clearly the racial politics of religious freedom. It just might be that with the end of the Trump presidency, we can take on the challenge of the racial reckoning for religious freedom. No longer can scholars, advocates, elected representatives, and public officials ignore the obvious. 

If we fully confront religious freedom’s racial reckoning, perhaps we may avoid James Baldwin’s prophecy and promise, “God gave Noah the rainbow sign. No more water, the fire next time.”

comments powered by Disqus