Among the more querulous complaints of modern Christians is that their freedom to practice religion is somehow under attack. Indeed, their insistence has only increased during the pandemic, though the only limitation on religious worship is the inability to gather a congregation indoors.
This line of reasoning strikes our family as false, if only because it does not accord with either our practice, or what any reasonable believer could expect to do in the course of a pandemic. We can discern no meaningful imposition on our freedom to practice religion at all. We pray regularly. We hold our personal weekly worship service at home. We read the scriptures, and we have the same spiritual experiences in our lives today as before the pandemic, if not more so.
And so, though we are interested in religious freedom in the abstract, it has seemed to us that recent demands for “religious freedom” have been devoid of substance, or a stalking horse for something else entirely. Indeed, it would be fair to say that the words “religious freedom,” lately, have been far more likely to inspire dread than inspiration, though it has been difficult to pinpoint exactly the reason why.
Only tonight did I run across this December 2019 piece in Rolling Stone magazine, which reports and analyzes the bizarre and cultish relationship of Christian churches with Donald Trump. And finally, there is something of an answer. In the piece, a dissenting Christian theologian explains:
The white nationalism of fundamentalism was sleeping there like a latent gene, and it just came roaring back with a vengeance . . . In Trump’s America, ‘religious liberty’ is code for protection of white, Western cultural heritage.
Well, of course it is. Per the usual methods of Trumpism, an indisputably valuable right has been corrupted beyond recognition. Christians have religious liberty. They believe any number of vile and bigoted things in the name of their religion. Just ask them—they’ll explain them between the death threats.
But Christians are now recognizing that their beliefs are no longer ascendant. They no longer have the numbers, much less the moral authority, to impose compliance through social means. They must live in a non-Christian world. What is more, Christians are themselves responsible for their fall. One can hardly survive a massive child pedophilia scandal, or the series of ongoing scandals besetting televangelical Christianity, without suffering a lapse of societal standing.
And so, the term “religious liberty” may now mean two different things. In the historical sense, religious liberty means what the Founders understood it to mean—literally, the right to canonize and adopt certain supernatural beliefs about a Supreme Being. Certainly, the lines are difficult to draw, but the exercise at least has the purpose of ensuring that one’s personal interactions with God are not infringed.
But religious liberty in “Trump’s America” appears to mean establishing Christian dominance, and this by re-marginalizing non-Christian influence and culture in society. In practice, this means purportedly restoring in full what Christians have ineptly lost by incompetence, mismanagement, and duplicity. White Christians are among the most likely to demand that America function as a meritocracy, but nonetheless demand that America place its thumbs permanently on the scale for their allegedly dying creed. In doing so, they elect Trump to restore their neglected culture, prop up their bastardized doctrine, and restore their reputation for humility and charity.
All of this, and Trump’s proudest religious moment in 74 years has been tear gassing a church. No wonder Christians have joined the rest of the hogs at the trough, enlisting Trump to subsidize their faith at everyone else’s expense. Who’s conservative now?