Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced on Monday that the Department of Justice will create a new religious liberty task force, "to help the department fully implement our religious guidance." The goal of the task force will be protecting religious groups from persecution.
This is in addition to the Faith and Opportunity Initiative liaison office announced in May for the Department of Justice, designed to inform the administration of "any failures of the executive branch to comply with religious liberty protections under law." An office less concerned with "where the church-state barriers are," allowing government-religious partnerships to function "without all these arbitrary concerns as to what is appropriate."
This should be terrifying to anyone who is paying attention. And yet, far too many are celebrating.
It should be pointed out, other administrations have created and implemented faith based initiatives, notably President Bush and President Obama. However, those initiatives primarily existed to enable faith based organizations to have greater access to federal funding and support. A reasonable goal and one that could be implemented in a way that would not favor any one religion or necessarily favor religion at all, rather something that would allow faith based initiatives that are doing work along side federal agencies to receive funding for sharing the load. Government assisting Faith in assisting Society.
These new developments are approaching a very dangerous reversal. Faith instructing Government on how to govern Society. There are reasons why critics are comparing this to theocracies or The Handmaid's Tale.
And we should be completely transparent as to why this is so concerning. It should be clear these should be more appropriately labeled a Christian Liberty Task Force and Christian Faith and Opportunity Initiative. Or even more appropriately, an Evangelical Liberty Task Force and Evangelical Faith and Opportunity Initiative.
Sessions makes this clear in his descriptions of the particular religious freedom he is seeking to defend and the particular evil he sees as requiring such a task force. He describes "a dangerous movement, undetected by many, but real, is now challenging and eroding our great tradition of religious freedom," which "must be confronted and defeated." And by "great tradition of religious freedom," he expounds and describes American Christianity for several minutes and its fear of a "changing cultural climate." Nearly every example he discusses centers on some form of American Christian belief, apart from two minor references to prosecuting arson of two mosques, and land disputes involving a Jewish temple and Hindi temple. He makes several references to the bakery case.
By way of support, Sessions points to the fact that the free exercise of religion is the first right provided in the Bill of Rights. He again demonstrates his selective reading, as he has done before, by ignoring the actual first words of the First Amendment. "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion." The Establishment Clause. This has long been interpreted to prevent all government from showing favoritism to any one form of religion or to religion in general. The Free Exercise Clause is necessarily limited by this Establishment Clause. In balance, the government can and should make accommodations for religious observances and practices to further Free Exercise, but it cannot prefer any one religion over another.
How would this look if the Religious Task Force was announced by a proponent of Sharia Law? Would it matter if the Initiative Liaison officers in the DoJ designed to inform on religious liberty failures were Hindu or Buddhist? Does that mean this office will necessarily require a religious test? If so, what religion must the person be? If Christian, what particular variant?
It does not matter that Christianity is nominally the largest religious majority in America. Pew Research puts America at 70.6% Christian. That number, though, includes Catholics, Mormons, and Jehova's Witnesses. There are large pockets of (largely Southern) American Christians that would say one or all of those should not be included. If removed, "Christianity" is at 47.5%, the largest minority group. With Unaffiliated/Nones on the rise at 22.8%. Regardless of the numbers, any religious actions by the federal government must protect them all.
Because the danger of a theocracy, of even favoring Christianity generally since it is the majority and a part of our history (despite us not being a "Christian nation" in the sense everyone wants to believe), lies in one simple question. What version? If the government favors Christianity, does it favor Catholicism or Protestantism when it comes to contraception and its availability? How about on the sale of alcohol? Does it favor Seventh-Day Adventists on when Blue Laws should be applied?
No one truly wants a theocracy, for no one wants government instructing religion on which version is right and potentially punishing those that do not agree.
These initiatives all come in response to perceived persecution of the American Christian. Again, Sessions outlines this in his speech. "Challenging and eroding our great tradition of religious freedom." This is the strain of Christianity that believes there is a War on Christmas or that there is a Culture War that demands to be fought. It is persecution of speech or persecution of ideas. Persecution that affects status or authority in certain fields (generally academic and scientific). Wrapped up, part and parcel, with the War against Conservative Values.
Nevermind the fact that there are countries where actual persecution against Christians take place. Places like the portions of the Middle East, where Christians are being beheaded for their faith. Places like China, where Christians are closely scrutinized. Places like other Asia countries, where Christians are drug away from their homes and executed for their faith. This should put anything we face in America into perspective.
Persecution, in many ways, is a self-fulfilling prophecy for the American Christian (or confirmation bias). It's a validation of belief. The rest of the world is seen as the godless enemy that will always oppose the believer in everything. The rest of the world is something to be fought. There are then verses like 2 Timothy 3:12, which state that all Christians will suffer persecution and are used to justify this viewpoint. "Yes, and all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution." With this verse and other similar passages, certain groups of Christians then see any obstacles or opposition they encounter as proof that they are living godly and that those obstacles are just expected persecution. Persecution for something about their faith proves they are Christian which proves they will suffer, and so on.
So, if people stop saying Merry Christmas for whatever reason, it's persecution. If a creche cannot be put on government land, it's persecution. If a school cannot have a mandatory forced prayer over the loudspeaker anymore, it's persecution. Anything that shows the world not giving Christianity preferential treatment is persecution. Because that is what the "world" is designed to do, to oppose Christianity.
It should be plain, but let's state it anyways. Just because you encounter an obstacle or opposition, does not mean you are persecuted or are suffering for your belief. Sometimes it might just mean you are in the wrong.
Much of the pains that we are feeling as a society in many different areas come from a recognition that there are other people at the table beyond white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant men. And concessions that we as the majority may have to make in order to ensure that everyone at the table is getting their fair share, that's not necessarily persecution. It could just be liberty and justice for all. In particular here, it's the kind of religious liberty this country was founded upon and the kind we should be exhorting.
If the religious task force and the religious liaison officer in the justice department can ensure that every religion, every different segment of the Pew Research findings are well represented and protected; that there is religious liberty and justice for all, then I am all for these agencies.
But if this is what we expect it to be, another way for us to reset the clock back to some bygone time when things were supposedly "better" and Christianity had more social prominence in this nation, then shame on us.