When We Should Work With The White House

Since news of Trump’s election, progressives have shifted gears to confront his regressive policies that threaten to drag our country backward. We’ve been organizing, rallying, resisting, and creatively opposing Trump’s agenda. From working to prevent the repeal of the Johnson Amendment to challenging the assault on transgender rights, the American Humanist Association and both its nontheistic and theistic allies are defending the First Amendment and protecting the rights of those being targeted for discrimination.

Now that we’re halfway through the first year of Trump’s presidency, the playing field has taken shape and it’s time to seek opportunities to advance our agenda in the hostile political climate in which we find ourselves. Of course it’s tempting to refuse to work with the Trump administration out of a desire not to legitimize someone who regularly displays his hateful, autocratic, self-aggrandizing modus operandi. However, in order to get things done and help those who can be helped, we should search for areas ripe for bipartisan consensus.

One such unifying issue is the struggle for international religious freedom. While Democrats and Republicans are often at odds when debating domestic religious liberty issues, like religious displays on government property and permitting religion to be an excuse for discrimination, religious freedom on the international scale often unites Americans.

For example, Matt Bulger, legislative director at the American Humanist Association, played a pivotal role in working with both Republicans and Democrats on drafting and passing the Frank Wolf International Religious Freedom Act, which was signed into law by President Obama late in 2016. This legislation supports freedom of thought and religion and protects both theistic and nontheistic beliefs “as well as the right not to profess or practice any religion.” The Act condemns “specific targeting of non-theists, humanists, and atheists because of their beliefs” and attempts to forcibly compel “non-believers or non-theists to recant their beliefs or to convert.”

The willingness of religious conservatives in Congress to work with progressive humanists on this bill (now law) shows the depth of agreement on this issue. So Trump’s recent nomination for Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, the religiously and politically conservative Gov. Sam Brownback, shouldn’t immediately be written off by liberals unless he actually acts to reject us. Promisingly, even before being confirmed, Brownback’s office has indicated a willingness to meet with humanist and religious progressives. Disagreements on many domestic issues don’t necessarily prohibit mutual participation on some international concerns.

Humanists and both progressive and conservative theists should work to build on past successes related to international religious freedom. We should work together to remove blasphemy laws in countries which maintain them, seek asylum for those who are threatened, and help change the conditions in countries that lead to the persecution of those of minority faiths and philosophies.

International religious freedom is not the only issue on which many Republicans and Democrats could work together. Take, for example, the recent criminal justice reform bill, the REDEEM Act, introduced by conservative Senator Rand Paul and progressive Senator Cory Booker. The REDEEM Act would help people convicted of nonviolent crimes to re-enter society, it would restrict solitary confinement of juveniles, and it would combat racial and gender disparities in the criminal justice system. Republicans and Democrats agree to some degree on fixing voting rights, which is why Republican Representative Jim Sensenbrenner and Democratic Representative John Conyers reintroduced the Voting Rights Amendment Act with a slew of bipartisan co-sponsors to help improve our often discriminatory voting system.

While Trump’s expressed views on religious freedom are more about promoting religiously based bigotry than true religious liberty, the fact that both congressional Republicans and Democrats want to work towards bipartisan solutions means that advocates have a real chance of convincing the Administration to take productive steps on some issues.

So we should not reject viable opportunities to work with the Trump Administration. By working with a coalition of progressives and conservatives on bipartisan issues, we can create worthwhile change where it’s needed. As advocates, we have a responsibility to oppose regressive policies, but we also have an equal obligation to put our differences aside and work together whenever possible.