The battle over religious liberty — fought, in recent years, over issues like contraception mandates and gay wedding cakes — is about to reach a fever pitch.
Too bad it's based on such a big con job.
Let's start with the flashpoint: President Trump's nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. While the tug-and-pull between secularism and religiosity in American society is an ever-present theme in the Court's jurisprudence — and, indeed, the culture wars could barely exist without it — the topic seems likely to be particularly salient during the confirmation debate.
Already, conservatives and liberals are laying down their markers. National Review called Kavanaugh a "warrior" for religious liberty — although some conservatives worry he's not committed enough — while Vox warned that on religious liberty, like other topics, he will "will move the Court sharply to the right."
What does that mean?
The term "religious liberties" sounds anodyne enough: The First Amendment guarantees that Congress shall not prohibit the free exercise of faith. And conservatives frame the recent debates with a libertarian gloss: Government shouldn't make religious folks violate their faith-informed consciences to provide contraception to employees or make wedding cakes for gay couples. On the surface the message is: "Leave us alone and we'll leave you alone." What could be more American?
But that message isn't honest.
Unless you're a Christian — and let's be honest, unless you're a conservative Christian — conservative advocacy of religious liberties is a big con, a consolidation of rights and privileges not meant to be shared with Muslims, atheists, or other religious minorities.
You don't have to reach far for examples.
Just last week, the House Appropriations Committee passed an amendment that would let faith-based adoption agencies — such as Catholic Charities — refuse to serve gay couples, based on the religious beliefs of those agencies. That follows the passage of similar laws in states like Kansas and Oklahoma earlier this year. And yes: Those laws were characterized as "religious liberty" bills.
Understand: Those agencies aren't just doing charitable work — they're providing state services, paid for by state and federal dollars. Which means that religious liberty isn't just a right to be left alone: Republicans also view it as a right to receive tax-subsidized government contracts, and to discriminate against a portion of the public. That's an unusual interpretation, to say the least.
Can you imagine Republicans voting to let Muslims use tax dollars to discriminate against would-be Christian adoptive parents? It would never happen.
Around the same time the House committee voted, news emerged that Sam Brownback — the former Kansas governor serving as President Trump's "ambassador for international religious freedom" — had pressed the U.K. government to release Tommy Robinson from imprisonment. It's not immediately clear what religious freedom has to do with the case of Robinson, who was jailed for disrupting a trial, unless you consider this: Robinson was a founder of the English Defense League — an anti-Islam group — and has won American fans in recent years for his campaigns against Islamic extremism.
In this case, it sure looks like Brownback was advocating for the right to discriminate against Islam. Which is arguably part of religious freedom, except for this: Can you imagine him — or any Trumpist representative — being similarly protective of a Muslim's right to discriminate against Christians? (Before you answer, remember that as governor, Brownback led the campaign for a law banning Kansas courts from using Islamic law in their jurisprudence — saving the state from a problem that never existed.)
Again: It would never happen.
These are just examples from the last week, but the double-standard has been around forever. Many of the same people who want to defend Christian bakers from serving gay couples with wedding cakes were outraged, a decade ago, when Minnesota cab drivers, citing their own religious requirements, asked to refuse service to customers traveling with alcohol.
Conservatives were unimpressed with that argument then, labeling it a sign of the "Islamist threat" to American liberties. Some commentators even expressed concern that cab drivers might refuse service to … gay couples.
Times change, huh?
It's with Muslims, particularly after 9/11, that GOP hypocrisy on religious liberties becomes most manifest. For nearly two decades, it's been Republicans who have proposed burqa bans, fought the construction of mosques, and passed the aforementioned bans on Islamic law. The intended effect, clearly, is to limit the ability of Muslims — both individually and collectively — from expressing and developing their faith. Some conservatives are open about their discrimination: Islam, they say, isn't a religion but a political movement acting under the guise of faith. That's both tremendously lacking in self-awareness and astonishingly bigoted.
Meanwhile, American Christians can barely abide the Constitution's restrictions on their ability to impose their faith on the community at large. It's been more than 50 years since the Supreme Court struck down compulsory school prayer, yet efforts to reimpose it pop up in legislatures all the time — almost always using the language of oppression and liberty. "I believe there's discrimination involved, yes I do, against individuals who would like to express some value to their faith," one Florida state senator said in 2014.
Unfortunately, the debates over religious liberties will probably be with us awhile yet. Evangelical support for Trump can be largely traced back to this issue, along with abortion: The president is not personally pious, but he knows his authority depends in part on reassuring conservative Christian groups they still have influence over the direction of American life.
The Trumpist attitude, then, appears to be: “Religious liberties for us, not for them.” That means their argument isn't really about freedom. Like so much else in this presidency, it's a con designed to return power to the people who have always held it — and still think they are entitled to it.