The first few months of the Trump Administration have kept everyone on their toes; Executive Orders, “bombshell reports,” and the TV show script that is the President’s Twitter feed have placed all eyes on the United States, watching our every move and decision. I have begun to wonder if the next season of House of Card finds this presidency absurd enough to inspire their script writers or scare their producers with competitive audiences. But, in all honesty, the 24-hour news channel we call American politics is filled to its sensational brink thanks to miscommunication, disagreements, and inconsistencies that have disrupted our political process.
From a bicameral Congress that isn’t shy about demonstrating party or special interest loyalties, to an executive body that does not seem to understand how government works, the citizens of this nation have to take a step back and wonder what priorities and values motivate our representatives. One value that always seems to grind my gears is the motive of politicians to enact legislation and dictate actions that call for religious liberty, a nostalgic term that brings us back to the first years of the experiment called America.
In recent years, religious liberty or freedom have been recurring themes in headlines across the board as several local, state, and federal representatives have promoted laws that allow claims for religious objections in providing goods and services to other members of the community. President Trump did so on May 4th through the Executive Order named “Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty“ aimed at easing regulations on tax-exempt religious institutions claiming political support along with Affordable Care Act mandates on contraception. As expected, the order is receiving mutual praise and criticism on both sides of the aisle in the continuing debate between freedom of religion and equal access, opportunity, and protection under the law. Without question, these propositions have been purposeful in targeting or discriminating against minority communities of religious and secular identity, sexual orientation, and women’s rights.
Much of the controversy of such bills stems from the original language of the First Amendment, over which people claim their own interpretations for partisan means. The First Amendment highlights a citizen’s protection under federal law to profess and exercise their worldview—as a religious, secular, philosophical, or spiritual understanding—and that the federal government cannot infringe on those practices, or show preferential treatment towards any specific community. This freedom also prohibits any law that abridges “the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
If someone was to simplify the meaning of the First Amendment, the language can be translated in a variety of ways. One person can argue that this language is inclusive enough to encompass all people, while someone else can understand this as a guarantee for their practice of faith in any place at any time. The amendment can then be construed to justify thoughts and actions that promote exclusivist or pluralistic narratives, depending on who is in power. To understand the language of the Constitution in depth, it is vital to understand the context of the time period and how those principles can apply to the diverse demographics of the United States.
Two examples make these points profoundly clear and historically resolute. The first example comes from President George Washington who wrote a letter of thanks to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island for their hospitality during his trip exploring the terrain of a newly freed land:
“It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”
Read through that quote a few times. The first president of a new, sovereign nation in the 18th century guaranteed support to a minority religious community at a time when religious diversity went no further than several denominations of the Christian tradition. This certainly says a lot about a time period that interpreted the hypocrisy of the Declaration of Independence and the claim that “all men are created equal” to only mean a White property owner.
Centuries later, the same nation that purports to have welcomed the entire world within “sea to shining sea” sees itself in peril as movements of anti-Semitic, Islamophobic, anti-LGBTQ, and xenophobic rhetoric have been reported at record highs this year. The current President’s own plans and course of action since January 20th have made him complicit in the tragedies that have affected minorities communities across the U.S.
Another example that reflects the extent of religious freedom comes from the legislative prose of President Thomas Jefferson, who authored a document of lesser prominence known as the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom. The statute predated and set a standard for what became the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights and was purposeful in securing individuals’ privileges as a free human being. What is important to note about this document, though, is the objectivity and word choice that helped the bill pass the Virginia House in 1789.
“Be it enacted by the General Assembly, that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.”
President Jefferson reflected in his own autobiography that the Preamble of his Statute was a source of contention before it was approved by the Virginia House. He stated that the majority of the House’s demand of a “universal protection of opinion” after an explicit mention of Jesus Christ as "the holy author of our religion." and noted the following:
”The insertion was rejected by a great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and Infidel of every denomination.”
The writing and intention of the Founding Fathers was clear and now speaks volumes about the mutual responsibility of all Americans to uphold the freedoms of those who hold different beliefs, opinions, and positions different from our own. More importantly, the American people must address their representatives in government to act in the compassion necessary to help those who under-served and marginalized within our society. When you enact legislation that is steadfast in risking the health and well-being of so many people, it becomes clear that “religious liberty” is being used as a facade for a selfish agenda.
This brings us back to President Trump’s executive order and its ability to make change. The executive order can create a dangerous precedence in the already complicated relationship between church and state in the United States, all in the name of religious freedom. One’s opinion or decision from the “pulpit” of faith or occupation can only go so far to dictate the way a person lives before it infringes on their identity and livelihood. Ultimately, though, the signed order does not hold the same weight as the Johnson Amendment, the same provision in the U.S. Tax Code that Trump promised to get rid of in February for its restriction on 501(c)(3) groups to display support for a political candidate. Removing that amendment requires approval from Congress, which is why advocacy groups like the ACLU, even conservative news sources like the National Review, don’t buy the order’s empty words: “Freedom must be written into law, not wish-cast through commands that a later president can reverse.”
The “crocodile tears” of Congress and the President, especially those who have pushed religious liberty as an opportunity to hurt others for their own benefit, are from a place of personal victory and not the progress of the American people. This push for liberty and freedom would have been more significant if the same politicians were the familiar faces of the interfaith movement in the United States. Their words would ring more true than ever before if these words were made to include Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Sikhs, atheists, secular humanists, and the diverse diaspora of Americans who claim validity in some worldview. The same people in power would also come to realize that the First Amendment enshrined in the Constitution applies to every citizen and entity in this country; if the government cannot infringe on your conscience and free exercise, then no person or group can impose their views and motivated views on each other.
If the federal administration and Congress wish to fight for their own intentions and their own communities, they should be honest about it. Do not use a term like religious liberty if you cannot honor its meaning to protect all people under the law. Do not mislead the people of the United States into a charade that speaks of freedom when it takes away their ability to live stable lives. And do not ever speak of the diversity and pluralism that has made this land so great when it is the intention of a president and his supporters to ban, remove, and dehumanize some of the greatest contributors to our society today. If you cannot be honest about your plans and your perspectives to only help specific people, then terms like “liberty” and “freedom” should not be in your dictionary.
Do not attack the seams of the American fabric, it will rip the country and the world apart.
"There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured with what is right in America." -Bill Clinton