There is a difference between exercising religious beliefs and imposing them on others. Our Constitution fiercely protects the former and expressly prohibits the latter.
-- Rep. Joseph Kennedy III
It’s easy for significant stories to get lost in the sound and fury of Donald Trump’s frontal assault on American democracy, epitomized by his militarized co-opting of Washington’s Fourth of July celebration. As my interview with Angie Maxwell, co-author of “The Long Southern Strategy,” shows, Trump’s presidency was decades in the making, with racism, sexism. and fundamentalism all playing crucial roles. The forces that brought him to power are ultimately far more consequential than he is.
This article first appeared in Salon.
That's why a cluster of recent developments involving questions of religious privilege deserve far more attention from the public and the media than they have received. These events reflect both the advancement of a theocratic, "dominionist" worldview that elevates the state-sanctified religious liberty of some at the obvious expense of others — and a rising tide of liberal, secular resistance.
On July 2, federal prosecutors announced they would retry humanitarian aid volunteer Scott Warren on two charges related to aiding migrants along the U.S.-Mexico border. Warren, whom Amnesty International has previously said “would be a prisoner of conscience” if convicted, was “detained for his volunteer activities motivated by humanitarian principles and his religious beliefs.”
Warren regards himself as a devout Christian, driven to follow the words of Jesus in the gospel of Matthew: “For I was hungry and you fed me, thirsty and you gave me to drink, an alien and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, sick and you ministered to me.” Warren’s religious freedom clearly plays no role in the Trump administration’s thinking. It’s the negative space that throws everything else into sharp relief.
The very next day, religious freedom was suddenly center stage again, as the VA announced new policies "to protect religious liberty" by trampling on the rights of religious minorities, in particular allowing religious displays in public lobbies, an issue I’ve written about before which is the subject of a recently-filed lawsuit by the Military Religious Freedom Foundation. MRFF president Mikey Weinstein denounced the policy move as “both tragic and predictable in this hyper-dangerous era.”
To add another layer of confusion, the VA justified itself, in part, by referencing a recent Supreme Court decision on the Bladensburg Peace Cross, a century-old monument whose destruction would be "quite different from erecting or adopting new ones,” according to Justice Samuel Alito’s decision. New displays, of course, are precisely what the VA is addressing. Details, details.
Throughout such disputes, there's a profound asymmetry: conservatives retell a few simple mythic just-so stories about an ideal cherished past moment, and how we've lost our way. America’s purported founding as a “Christian nation” is the most striking example of this, but far from the only one. Progressives counter with a bewildering multitude of contradictory facts, ultimately amounting to a complex story of protracted struggles stretching far beyond the limits of the simplistic narratives conservatives tell.
This happened again at the June 25 congressional hearing on the "Do No Harm" Act to remedy abuses of the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, abuses that have ramped up significantly under the Trump administration. It happened earlier this year in Minnesota, with threatened drastic cuts to the State Historical Society budget, as reported by Frederick Clarkson at Religion Dispatches the same day as the "Do No Harm" hearing. And it’s happening again with the VA’s decision.
Clarkson’s reporting was his latest on Project Blitz — a Christian right stealth state legislative campaign first exposed by him early last year, and reported here at Salon. As I wrote then, its guiding vision is heavily influenced by pseudo-historian David Barton, who “has been discredited by every American historian I know,” according to evangelical historian John Fea. (See Fea’s latest on Barton here.) The myth of America’s founding as a Christian nation, and our supposed need to restore what’s been lost, are its guiding lights, with three proposed tiers of legislation.
First comes “Legislation Regarding Our Country's Religious Heritage.” Second come “Resolutions and Proclamations Recognizing the Importance of Religious History and Freedom.” And the third and final chapter is, "Religious Liberty Protection Legislation." That last has “two main underlying intentions," according to Clarkson. "First to denigrate the LGBTQ community, and second to defend and advance the right to discriminate…. As the late theocratic theologian R.J. Rushdoony said, 'Only the right have rights.'"
The “Do No Harm Act” hearing focused directly on the underlying intentions of the third tier, although at the federal level. (A recent USA Today joint investigation highlighted the state-level side.) We focus on it first because it reveals early signs of the bitter fruit Project Blitz holds in store for America. But Clarkson’s latest reporting shines a sharp light on how vigorously and deceptively — and even unconstitutionally — the first two tiers are being advanced at state level, in pursuit of the long campaign to remake American culture in a theocratic mold.
This "slippery slope of religious exemptions has gotten us into explicit religious discrimination in adoption and foster care,” Clarkson told me, pointing to two key areas highlighted in the congressional hearing. “Part of this is Project Blitz, part of it is Trump administration policy.”
But the idea that these "religious freedom" exemptions are "being used to justify discrimination" is, Clarkson says, far too limited. “This is about profound religious supremacism and religious bigotry that undergirds long-term theocratic political agendas.” The discrimination is vitally important, of course. But unless we respond much more vigorously, far worse could lie ahead.
The “Do No Harm” hearing took place before the House Committee on Education and Labor, whose Chair, Rep. Robert Scott, D-Va., is the bill’s coauthor, along with Rep. Joseph Kennedy III, D-Mass. (quoted above). Republicans began their issue-clouding efforts by questioning why the hearing was before them, a point that Scott made perfectly clear from the outset, noting that it was 78 years to the day since Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 8802, banning employment discrimination by private defense-related contractors. Religiously-justified discrimination by government contractors was the overwhelming focus of the testimony and questioning that followed — at least on the Democratic side. Scott then turned to religion.
“Religion has played a vital role in our nation’s history. It has furthered social justice causes, such as the abolitionist movement, civil rights movement and movement to end child labor,” Scott said, “However, some have used religion as a pawn to justify slavery, Jim Crow, the slaughter of our native populations, and other horrific acts.” In fact, he noted that the landmark case striking down bans on interracial marriage, Loving v. Virginia, had reversed a lower court that had upheld the ban, explicitly relying on the circuit court judge’s religious views.
The Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 "was meant to be a shield to protect,” Kennedy said in his statement. “However, over the years, RFRA has morphed from a shield of protection to a sword of infringement, allowing employers to undermine basic workplace protections, organizations to stonewall child labor investigations, and health providers to deny needed care for victims of sexual abuse.”
Rachel Laser, president of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, made a similar point in her testimony. “The Trump administration is ignoring the intent and constitutional limitations on RFRA," she said. Rather, it is weaponizing the law "to undermine civil rights protections, deny people access to health care and government services, and even deny children loving homes.”
Later, during questioning, Laser went further. There was a broad bipartisan coalition to pass RFRA, she said, but soon afterward there were "indications that it was going to be misused in the ways that we’re seeing so much of today. For example, commercial landlords right away argued that RFRA gave them the right to impose their religious beliefs that people shouldn't be cohabiting before marriage, and to ignore housing discrimination laws and refuse housing to unmarried couples.”
She went on to say that RFRA would never have been passed as a consensus bipartisan bill if it had been widely assumed to cover such cases. As Laser told me later, after a Supreme Court ruling in 1997 that RFRA could not apply to the states, Congress specifically refused to pass a new bill that would have applied the RFRA standard to the states, "because of concerns that it would be used to justify discrimination.”
Laser also cited specific cases, such that of Aimee Maddonna, a woman who was rejected as a foster mother by Miracle Hill Ministries — the largest taxpayer-funded foster care agency in South Carolina — because she was Catholic. Then there was Samantha Coyle in Alaska, “a transgender woman who showed up at a government-funded homeless shelter and was turned away and had to sleep in the woods.”
“Those who want to misuse RFRA in ways that would harm others are trying to explain away the discrimination faced by people like Aimee Maddonna and Samantha Coyle, but they can’t,” Laser told me. “They even resort to the dangerous idea that if there’s another option, it can’t be discrimination. But ‘You can just go somewhere else’ has never been an acceptable response when it comes to discrimination — not when African Americans were told to go to another restaurant or when Jews were told to go to another hotel. And it’s not an acceptable response now.”
Yet that was precisely the response that was offered by the committee's Republicans, though rarely with the clarity expressed by Rep. William Timmons, R-S.C., whose district includes Miracle Hill. “Miracle Hill has never prevented ... any individual from becoming a foster parent,” Timmons said, “That is because there are other private providers less than two miles away.”
At the same time, went out of his way to cite all the ways Miracle Hill didn’t discriminate, saying that the organization will “serve any child no matter the child's race, faith, sexual orientation, gender identity, nationality, or any other differentiating factor,” he claimed.
The same perspective informed the GOP’s main witness, Matt Sharp, the senior counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, though he was reluctant to say so explicitly. Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., spent the better part of his five minutes trying to get a straight answer from Sharp about whether contracting agencies should be allowed to discriminate, against LGBTQ people, for example.
“One of the beauties of RFRA is that it does not pick winners and losers, it's that ... that balancing process,” Sharp babbled, “And so when we talk about the specific context of adoption providers there are a lot of interests involved.” He said that birth mothers , “may have a conviction about having their child raised consistent with a particular religious faith or particular type of family,” and then discussed “the interest of the provider,” but never quite got around to the interests of Aimee Maddonna and other would-be adoptive parents turned away for whatever reason. Nor did he ever answer Takano's repeated questions, so the congressman had to turn to Laser for an answer. Hers was crisp and straightforward.
“You can't have it both ways,” Laser said. “If faith-based groups want to be eligible to receive government funding to perform government services, then they have to play by the same rules as everyone else.”
Sharp’s harping on the supposed importance of "balance" was a classic example of how conservatives can use simplistic narratives — often appropriating liberal or progressive concepts (like "religious freedom" itself) for purposes fundamentally at odds with their original meaning and purpose.
Both sides acknowledge the historical record: RFRA was enacted by a broad bipartisan coalition. But conservatives ignore both why that was necessary and how much they have eroded its foundations since then. As Laser noted, “RFRA was enacted in 1993 in response to the Supreme Court’s Employment Division v. Smith opinion.” That opinion by the late Justice Antonin Scalia substantially weakened religious protection in the existing balancing framework, known as the Sherbert Test, based on the 1963 decision, Sherbert v. Verner.
The story of the Smith case was exquisitely told by Garrett Epps in “To an Unknown God." It began with Al Smith and Galen Black, two Native American men who were fired from their jobs over the ritual use of peyote and filed unemployment claims. But just as Scott Warren’s religious freedom gets overlooked, the same happened when RFRA was passed, and Native American use of peyote was actually not protected. It took separate legislation to accomplish that via the 1994 Amendments to the American Indian Religious Freedom Act. Throughout this whole story, disfavored religious views have been marginalized, as others have benefited by claiming special-snowflake victim status for themselves.
Then came the fateful Hobby Lobby Supreme Court decision of 2014. “The majority opinion in Hobby Lobby explicitly changes the meaning of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act," Epps told me. “The court in Hobby Lobby said, ‘We think Congress intended to go much, much further than the Sherbert Test, and to entrust the court to develop a much broader law of religious freedom,” he said. “This is just made up out of whole cloth. It's a classic Alito move.”
Epps sees a sort of runaway train in motion, noting “the increasing radicalism of certain Christian claims of so-called religious liberty,” which he wrote about in 2016 article for the Atlantic, “The Strange Career of Free Exercise.” At the time RFRA passed, “free exercise was about the objector, the individual who is being oppressed by a majoritarian structure. And it has now been turned around to be the rights of a majority to insist on its religious values in their interactions with minorities,” Epps said. “The shift from the term ‘free exercise’ to ‘religious liberty’ is real, it's not accidental. The idea is that you want no government regulation of religious bodies. And that's a real change in the free exercise.”
This dovetails with what Clarkson said about Project Blitz’s "religious liberty" project. “The agenda of theocratic dominionism," he said, has been "reframed as protecting the right of theocrats to discriminate against those deemed second-class, at best,” Once again, he reminded me that this movement is guided by the theology of R.J. Rushdoony: "Only the right have rights."
There are different schools of dominionism, and as Julie Ingersoll explained in "Building God's Kingdom: Inside the World of Christian Reconstruction" (Salon interview here), their ideas have had enormous influence on the religious right, even among many Christians who overtly disavow them. Barton and many others involved with Project Blitz subscribe to what is called “Seven Mountains” dominionism, devoted to infiltrating and taking over the “seven mountains of culture”: government, education, media, arts and entertainment, religion, family and business. Coming out of the "New Apostolic Reformation," styling themselves as “apostles” and “prophets,” those folks have an exalted opinion of themselves. Secretive, extremist means to a “holy” end often find favor with them.
Clarkson points to the case of state legislation in Minnesota, which he sees as “a harbinger of a more profoundly theocratic politics on the horizon.” Project Blitz works through a network of state-level legislative prayer caucuses, and in Minnesota, the state director, Rev. Dale Witherington, also runs an explicit Seven Mountains organization, RestoreMN, devoted to the “restoration of Biblical values in our nation” and “Biblical citizenship.”
This year provided a taste of what he has in mind. The story begins with an attempt to slash the budget of the Minnesota Historical Society by $4 million (possibly resulting in a 25% staff cuts) for failing to conform to Christian nationalist ideology.
When the cuts were first proposed by State Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, a Republican, she refused to explain why, beyond saying it was because of an unspecified “controversy.” State Sen. John Marty, a Twin Cities Democrat, eventually got the scoop from another Republican member, who explained that it had to do with “what he called ‘revisionist history’ at the 200-year-old Historic Fort Snelling.”
This "revisionist history" involved the fort expanding its educational mission to include the Dakota name for the area, Bdote, and a 10,000-year history that included “Native peoples, trade, soldiers and veterans, enslaved people, immigrants, and the changing landscape.” That history happens to be true. But as Marty told me, religious conservatives “wanted the history that they were taught 4th grade, and think that that's all there is to it. Anything else is ‘revisionist history.’”
Those proposed cuts restored by Democrats, who control the state House and the governor’s office. But the story doesn't end there. In the May issue of Americans United's Church and State magazine, historian Steven Greene blew the whistle on what’s probably the real story — a behind-the-scenes threat from the Minnesota Prayer Caucus, to slash the Historical Society funding in retaliation for scheduling two lectures based on his 2015 book, “Inventing a Christian America: The Myth of the Religious Founding.”
Greene's book was published by Oxford University Press, arguably the world’s leading academic publisher, and was praised by evangelical historian John Fea, himself the author of “Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction.” Fea called it “the most thorough critique of Christian nationalism available today,” and said, “Anyone interested in this subject must read this book.” (Fea and Greene both took part in a 2015 CNN forum on the subject here.)
But the Minnesota Prayer Caucus was not impressed, and accused the Historical Society of “promoting a narrative about our nation's history and founding that is patently false.” (Mind you, its members had not seen the book, let alone read it. After an exchange of letters, the caucus eventually made a veiled threat, requesting “that our side of the story be presented with your support and promotion through the Minnesota Historical Society,” and saying that it should be scheduled and promoted by May 1 of this year, "when committees begin to meet to review appropriations to various organizations and groups.”
Three things need to be noted here. First, Greene’s lectures were privately funded. No state funding was involved. Second, Witherington, the driving force behind the defunding threat, was also a private citizen. “He is not a state employee, not a legislative employee,” Marty said. Third, as Greene explained, the threat to deny funds is what’s called an “unconstitutional condition”:
The unconstitutional-conditions doctrine is a cornerstone of First Amendment jurisprudence. It states that a governmental entity cannot condition the receipt of a benefit — usually a financial benefit — on a requirement that the beneficiary surrender a constitutionally protected right.
The First Amendment covers much more than religious freedom, to be sure. And dominionists are instinctively hostile to all of it.
Greene’s book is utterly devastating to Christian nationalism, which heavily relies on mountains of religiously-themed quotes, a practice known as “proof-texting.” In other words, “We let the text prove our proposition by virtue of our selection of what we want to prove,” as Greene told me.
But amassing quotes doesn’t prove anything. “What they want to do is this kind of missing the forest for the trees,” Greene said, “They’re still stuck at ‘Look at this tree!’ ‘Look at this tree!’ ‘Look at this tree!’ — without stepping back and looking at the larger context.”
Marty characterized his state's prayer caucus more sarcastically, saying, "They’d quote 'All men are created equal' from the Declaration of Independence" to argue that Thomas Jefferson was clearly opposed to slavery. If one responded, “Well, he had slaves," he said, they might answer, "Oh, well! Don't confuse us with facts.”
Greene spoke to me about the larger context for the notion that America was a "Christian nation" from the beginning. “I came to the firm conclusion that this was a consciously constructed myth," he said, largely created "with the second generation [after the founding] as a way of sanctifying the founding." All nations have founding myths, most take shape over centuries. Ours was done much faster — but after the fact, and responding to a variety of forces, stimuli and needs.
During the Revolutionary War, the founders “wanted to show that God was on their side in this fantastic war that we were very unlikely to win," Greene said. "They actually stole from the Brits the practice of identifying Britain as God's new Israel,” repackaging it to say “No, Great Britain and the king, that's Egypt and the pharaoh. We are the children of Israel crossing the Red Sea.”
Then, in the second generation, people “wanted to sanctify the United States, wanted to show why it was special,” Greene said. Specifically, “They wanted to show why the American form of republicanism was different from that really bad French form of republicanism, where it was killing people left and right.”
After George Washington's death, Greene said, he became the focal point. “He was the American Moses, and anything that George Washington touched, since he was ordained by God, also had to be perfect and sanctified.”
That brings us to the last of our recent developments, the VA’s announcement of new policies "to protect religious liberty," particularly allowing religious displays. A particular focus of concern has been the repeated inclusion of Bibles in POW/MIA "missing man" displays, a practice that the Military Religious Freedom Foundation has challenged repeatedly over the years with multiple successes.
The situation in Sioux Falls, North Dakota, I reported on in March was typical. MRFF was representing 21 clients, 14 of them Christians. None was willing to come forward publicly, whether for fear of retribution, social shunning or causing pain to loved ones. One decorated Vietnam veteran with two Purple Hearts, a Buddhist, spoke to me on condition of anonymity"
"When I went in I saw the missing man table which I thought was great, and I saw there that they have a Bible, which thought was disrespectful of all of us who weren't Christians," he told me. "I personally know a couple [of soldiers] who are listed as MIA, who were not Christian."
Trying to get this changed is difficult, especially in a place like Sioux Falls. "It's a beautiful place, but also very insular and very Christian," he explained. "I'm fairly active in the veterans’ community here, and if it came out that I was doing this, my kids would be in trouble, I would be in trouble, probably drummed off of the veterans' things that I do…. There would definitely be some retribution."
In early May, MRFF filed suit against the Veterans Department over a medical display in Manchester, New Hampshire. There, too, most of the group's 14 clients remained anonymous. But one, a former Air Force pilot and a devout Christian, agreed to be named in the suit.
Now the VA feels it has a new weapon to fight back with: the June 20 Supreme Court decision allowing the century-old Bladensburg peace cross to remain. At the time, MRFF denounced the decision, quoting from Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's dissent. “Just as a Star of David is not suitable to honor Christians who died serving their country, so a cross is not suitable to honor those of other faiths who died defending their nation.”
When the new policies were announced, MRFF head Mikey Weinstein spoke out. "These brand-new VA policies — clearly based on the U.S. Supreme Court's recent idiotic decision in the Bladensburg Cross case," he said, "are nothing more than a transparent and repugnant attempt to further buttress and solidify fundamentalist Christianity as the insuperable official religion of choice for the VA, our Armed Forces and this country."
There's also a more nuanced view from MRFF senior researcher Chris Rodda (also a leading debunker of David Barton and religious right pseudo-history), who dissected the Court's new standard as yet another example of conservative judicial activism:
Under the Lemon test from the 1971 case Lemon v Kurtzman, a religious display, to be constitutional, 1) had to have a secular purpose; 2) its primary effect could not either advance or inhibit religion; 3) it couldn't result in an excessive government entanglement with religion. Under the new "history tests" it just has to be old.
Slavery was around for far longer than the Bladensburg Cross; women couldn't vote for a very long time. Therefore, if this "history test" were applied to those things they would be perfectly constitutional, right?
A Bible was not part of the original POW/MIA table tradition, started in 1967 by a group of Vietnam combat pilots known as the "River Rats." The untraditional practice of adding a Bible, and turning what was started as a tradition to honor all POWs and MIAs into a display honoring only Christians, didn't emerge until over 30 years later, when the VFW Ladies Auxiliary published a script for the setting of the table and included the Bible among the items in the 1999 issue of their magazine.
So if history's the guide, that's just one more reason to reject the Bible in these displays. But of course that's not really the issue. On every front, religious conservatives are always changing the rules midstream — always in the name of eternal principles, and always to evade all factual, legal or historical evidence that gets in the way.