This essay first appeared in the Irish Rover at the University of Notre Dame, December 1, 2016.
Donald Trump’s victory on November 8th has elicited deeper divisions than perhaps any U.S. election result since 1860, when the Civil War loomed. Furious demonstrations, calls for violence from both sides, and a surge of assaults on minorities ignited by Trump’s campaign rhetoric make clear that if the Republic is going to function civilly as a democracy for the next four years, Americans who are bitterly divided must find a basis on which to live and deliberate together. No mere truce will do. We are divided by principles, so only a principle that we can all endorse can help us contest our positions peacefully.
One principle, kneaded into the American founding, long regarded as part of our collective heritage, yet called into question as of late, can help us a great deal: religious freedom. Religion is far from the only source of our divisions. Class, race, and the status of immigrants obviously featured prominently in the election. Religion, however, persisted as a fault line, much to the surprise of analysts who thought its relevance had faded. At stake in the election were not only religious concerns but the very freedom of Americans to express and practice their religion.
Both left and right rued compromises of this freedom. Among the minority groups against whom Trump stoked resentment through his skillful demagoguery, Muslims stood out. Shunning the United States’ heritage, exemplary among Western countries, of integrating Muslims into our common life as citizens and economic actors, an achievement enabled in no small part by our tradition of religious freedom, Trump promised to bar Muslims from entry into the United States and thus expanded Americans’ legitimate worries about terrorism into a fear of all Muslims. His proposal was a form of discrimination that violated the spirit, if not the strict letter, of religious freedom and instigated acts that violated religious freedom directly. An FBI report of mid-November showed that hate crimes in the U.S. have surged as of late and most acutely against Muslims. Among people who did not vote for Trump – like myself – his incitement of such animus was chief among our objections.
Religion and religious freedom, though, were also on the minds of those – like myself – who did not pull the lever for Clinton. Trump received a record 81% of white evangelical votes and won 56% – 40% among weekly churchgoers. In Clinton, these voters perceived a commitment to continue the Obama administration’s aggressive secularism. This perception offers an explanation for why Clinton lost the commanding lead that she enjoyed among Catholics in summer 2016, only to lose to Trump among Catholics, 52-45%, on Election Day. In the interim, e-mails hacked from the Democratic campaign revealed cynical and condescending plans to divide and conquer Catholics voters, while Trump wrote a letter to Catholics speaking to their concerns about life and freedom that played well in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and the other Rust Belt states critical to his victory.
At the core of the Obama Administration’s aggressive secularism have been its sharp curtailments of the religious liberty of Americans in the realms of life, marriage, and sexuality. Through administrative decrees, judicial appointments, and the pedagogical power of the presidential podium, the administration imposed and inculcated restrictions of the sort that Pope Francis has termed “polite persecution,” implying that they are similar in kind, if not in degree, to far more serious persecution. Motivated by a secular ideology, they involve the imposition of serious material costs on Christian believers on account of their commitment to traditional Christian teachings. The costs have been borne by merchants, universities, schools, hospitals, charities, campus fellowships, students, public officials, employees, and citizens, who have been variously fired, fined, denied accreditation, evicted from campuses, seen their businesses ruined, and otherwise barred from living out their convictions.
While the mandate of the Health and Human Services Department, challenged by the Little Sisters of the Poor in the U.S. Supreme Court, stands as the most famous of these impositions, many others have been applied at other levels of government and by a wide range of institutions. Combined, the restrictions amount to the largest curtailment of religious freedom in the history of the Republic, a judgment derived from factoring together the number of these restrictions, their frequency, the number of people to whom they apply, and the scope of affairs that they restrict, including norms of marriage and sexuality held by every society, every religion, until 11:59 pm on the clock of history.
Americans who disregard the religious freedom of other Americans, or of citizens of other countries, are afflicted with amnesia. They have forgotten that religious freedom is in the First Amendment to our Constitution, and in our heritage. Religious freedom has enabled religious people who were persecuted elsewhere to find not only refuge but also equality of citizenship in the United States: Mennonites, Amish, Mormons, Muslims, Methodists, Catholics, Seventh Day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses. In other times and places, too, the principle of religious freedom has been instrumental in ending strife and establishing peace among people divided by religious convictions. The Emperor Constantine, influenced by the great Christian philosopher, Lactantius, declared religious freedom in the Roman Empire just following the colossal Diocletian Persecution. Theologians and philosophers in Europe and colonial America in the 17th and 18th centuries articulated religious freedom as a principle by which Catholics and various and fractious Protestants could live together in peace.
A principle that establishes peace among people who differ over what they believe to be most important is one that Americans would do well not to forget at this moment. Citizens wanting to make America great again should remember that welcoming religious (and other) minorities is what made America great in the first place. Citizens wanting to advance new norms of marriage and sexuality should affirm that those who believe traditional norms to be the contours of God’s love must not be fired or fined for conducting their lives accordingly. If religious freedom is for anyone, it must be for everyone.