Behind Trump’s moves: A Christian resurgence

February 15, 2017
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As many American Jews and Jewish organizations join in combatting the recent executive order on immigration and refugees, it is important to realize that the anti-Muslim sentiments of the new administration are one head of a two-headed beast. 

The other head is a political agenda forged by a coalition of conservative Christians that is closer than ever to achieving its vision of a “Christian nation.” This linkage between anti-Muslim and “pro-Christian” policies is revealed in the executive order, which couples a thinly veiled ban on Muslims with a thinly veiled preference for Christians from predominantly Muslim countries seeking refuge in the United States.

President Donald J. Trump justified the priority given to Christians over Muslims by stating, “If you were a Muslim, you could come in, but if you were a Christian, it was almost impossible.”

That line is lifted directly from the Christian right, which has long promoted the idea that Christians are a — indeed, the most — persecuted minority. The belief that Christians are being subjected to religious persecution in America by intolerant secularists has joined the claim that liberals turn a blind eye to the persecution of Christians by Muslims. Both are staples of the worldview that drives Stephen Bannon, the president’s chief strategist and architect of his immigration policies. Bannon’s unorthodox brand of Christian conservatism is reflected in his admiration for traditionalist Catholics who oppose the current pope, as well as for the newly resurgent Russian Orthodox Church, whose combination of Islamophobia and homophobia has proven to be intoxicating to legions of “civilizational conservatives” who view the West as locked in a theological battle to the death with Islam. Bannon’s alliance with conservatives inside the Vatican is likewise based on their shared belief that Western civilization is being besieged from the outside by Muslims and from the inside by the forces of “secularism,” more particularly, by liberals who support an array of decadent values and refuse to recognize a civilizational war between Christianity and Islam.

Bannon’s characterization of the West in his 2014 speech to the Vatican as the “Judeo-Christian” West might lead some to believe his Christian worldview will protect Jews even as it constitutes a clear and present danger to Muslims. This belief is wrong on two counts. First, it reflects an unjustifiable disregard for the rights of the Other. Second, being folded into a homogenized “Judeo-Christianity” now is no guarantee that Jews will not be stigmatized or marginalized later, or that the distinctive harms of anti-Semitism (including Christian anti-Semitism) will not be rendered invisible, as already occurred in Trump’s botched Holocaust statement that omitted any reference to Jews.

The same concerns hold for the rest of the conservative Christian agenda, which aims to expand protections for “religious liberty” and to weaken the wall of separation between church and state. Both of these goals have attracted right-wing Jewish support. Given the Christian right’s newfound influence, it behooves us to ask which parts of this agenda Trump is likely to adopt and to address the time-honored question: “Is it good for the Jews?”

Under Bannon’s guidance, Trump has promised to appoint Supreme Court justices who will satisfy the religious right, a pledge generally understood to mean that his appointees will be anti-abortion. But overturning Roe v. Wade is just the tip of the iceberg. The larger agenda is to return the state to its role as the upholder of traditional Christian standards of morality.

The larger agenda is to return the state to its role as the upholder of traditional Christian standards of morality.

This agenda can be divided into two general planks. First and foremost, the Christian right is motivated by the desire to stop the erosion of the government’s traditional role as enforcer of Christian standards of morality — especially, sexual morality. The ideal “Christian nation” envisaged by its proponents would enforce prohibitions not only on abortion, but also on contraception, same-sex marriage and homosexual activity, and any sexual activity outside of heterosexual marriage.

In the face of political defeats on many of these fronts, conservative Christians have retreated to a “Plan B,” which is to use “religious liberty” claims to carve out exemptions from laws that dismantle traditional gender and sexual norms. What was originally a shield to protect non-Protestant minorities from laws that inadvertently interfered with their religious practices has been converted into a sword used by conservative Christians to continue their battle against laws enforcing principles of gender and sexual equality. Laws permitting adoption and family service organizations to discriminate against same-sex couples, exempting government contractors from prohibitions on discrimination, and allowing bakers and photographers to refuse to serve participants in same-sex weddings are just a few examples of this weaponized version of religious liberty.

Some suggest this commitment to religious liberty will be “good for the Jews” and for other religious minorities. This “me, too” version of religious equality, according to which government-led prayers and displays of Christian symbols are fine so long as we can erect a menorah on the town square and have a rabbi take a turn at the podium, is seriously misguided. It mistakes a willingness to accord protections to Christians when they find themselves in the position of a minority with a willingness to protect other minority religious groups when their religious practices conflict with Christian values (as conservatives construe them). There is precious little evidence to support such a prediction and ample reason for concern that Christian conservatives who now occupy positions of power are ready to sacrifice the principle of religious liberty when they view another group’s religious values as antithetical to their own, as the willingness to override all Muslims’ rights for the sake of “national security” makes clear.

The readiness to deny non-Christians rights accorded to Christians should not be surprising. The Christian right has made its view that the government can promote Christianity — not just some blanched version of American religion, but Christianity — perfectly plain. So long as non-Christian religions are perceived to be compatible with the nation’s Christianity, they may receive protection, but when there is a conflict between Christian and non-Christian values, the conservative vision of a Christian nation dictates sacrificing the latter for the former.

To what extent Trump will implement this vision under the guidance of Steve Bannon, Vice President Mike Pence and other proponents of a resurgent Christian nation remains to be seen. But Jews and other religious minorities support this movement at their peril. We are better off joining forces with Muslims, the many liberal Christians and Americans of other persuasions who see clearly what the peril of a Christian nation is.

Nomi Stolzenberg is the Nathan and Lilly Shapell Chair in Law at the USC Gould School of Law, where she founded the Program on Religious Accommodation and is a co-director of USC’s Center for Law, History and Culture. 

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