There is no war on Christians.
Still, this nonexistent battle is garnering a lot of recent attention. On ABC’s “The View,” co-host Meghan McCain got an early start on her holiday carping about the phony War on Christmas™. As usual, this perennial nonsense, so popular with conservative fear merchants, remains laughable.
Meanwhile, what’s not at all funny is Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ notion that Christianity now needs extra federal protection. During his recent speech at a Justice Department Religious Liberty Summit (yes, that’s now a thing), Sessions announced the formation of an ominous-sounding “Religious Liberty Task Force.”
“We’ve seen nuns ordered to buy contraceptives. We’ve seen US senators ask judicial and executive branch nominees about dogma — even though the Constitution explicitly forbids a religious test for public office. We’ve all seen the ordeal faced so bravely by Jack Phillips.”
A Colorado baker, Phillips “bravely” refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple. In June, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Phillips’s religious beliefs, though the court punted on larger constitutional questions about religious liberty.
Enter the Trump administration.
“A dangerous movement, undetected by many, is now challenging and eroding our great tradition of religious freedom,” Sessions said. “There can be no doubt. This is no little matter. It must be confronted and defeated.”
Unless something has drastically changed in the last few centuries of American history, Christians — and, of course, Sessions is referring to Christians — continue exercising their faith just fine. What Trump and Sessions want is to give people who cloak their prejudice in religious belief a license to discriminate.
It’s already clear where this is heading. Jesse Panuccio, acting associate attorney general and Beth Williams, assistant attorney general for the Office of Legal Policy, will co-chair the task force. Panuccio is primed for the job. In 2010, he defended supporters of Proposition 8, the 2008 ballot measure that led to a five-year ban on same-sex marriage in California.
You can bet that the LGBTQ community, along with women’s reproductive rights, will be among this task force’s primary targets.
None of this is unexpected. Months after Trump issued a May 2017 executive order to enforce “robust protections for religious freedom,” Sessions released a religious liberty memo with 20 guidelines. One of them states, employers are “entitled” to hire only those whose “religious beliefs and conduct are consistent with their employers.” Another erodes the Johnson Amendment, a long-standing tax code provision that prohibits 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations — like churches — from intervening in political campaigns on behalf of a candidate.
You don’t need to look hard to find evidence of Vice President Mike Pence’s fingerprints here. As Indiana’s governor, Pence signed that state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 2015, which allowed individuals and companies to claim religious belief as a legal defense against charges of discrimination. Backlash to the law was so swift that Pence later signed a revised law, which stated that it could not be used to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation.
Even without this new task force, there have already been instances of pharmacists refusing to fill prescriptions for abortion medications or birth control; a pediatrician who declined to treat a lesbian couple’s baby; and other bakers who won’t make wedding cakes for same-sex couples.
Hate gussied up as faith is still hate.
Stoking cultural wars has been a successful strategy. Never mind that it’s a battlefield in a phony war.
With less than 100 shopping days left before November’s midterm elections, this task force is another Trump effort to satiate his base. He’s content to keep dancing with the ones who waltzed him into the White House, and stoking cultural wars has been a successful strategy. Never mind that it’s a battlefield in a phony war.
Sessions recently went biblical in defending the Trump administration’s odious policy of separating children from their migrant parents. “I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained the government for his purposes.”
Make no mistake, that “clear and wise command” is also a foundation for this discriminatory task force. Given this administration’s woeful track record on human rights, it’s also telling that Sessions would favor the same New Testament passage once preferred by proponents of slavery, apartheid, and the Third Reich.
Among those who hide behind God, the devil always finds work.Renée Graham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham