Religious Freedom in the Age of Trump

November 10, 2016

By Charles C. Haynes
Inside the First Amendment

     In the end, this election wasn't decided by Russian hacking, sexual assault charges, "blood coming out of her whatever," the FBI or any of the other extraordinary moments that defied the norms of political behavior and discourse. "We the People" decided it.

      Enough of us were so angry, alienated and frustrated that we were willing to roll the dice on a presidential candidate whom, if the exit polls are correct, a vast majority of voters consider unqualified to lead the most powerful nation in the world. Day-after message? Blow up the country and see what happens.

     The overriding issue wasn't health care, taxes, jobs, climate change (barely mentioned) or even the ridiculous "wall." The issue was - and is - what kind of country are we, do we want to be?

     At the heart of this nation-defining moment is the question of religious freedom, the core arrangement in liberty that sustains us as one country of many faiths and beliefs. It is no exaggeration to say that the very survival of our religiously diverse Republic depends on our commitment to the principles of "no establishment" and "free exercise," guaranteed by the First Amendment.

     How a Trump administration will define and protect religious freedom is, at best, uncertain, and, at worst, a cause for deep concern.

     Candidate Donald Trump said very little about religious freedom during the campaign beyond a vague promise to restore religious liberty for Christians, which he apparently believes is under siege. One of the few specifics he offered was a promise to ensure (how, we are not sure) that we will all be able to say "Merry Christmas" again without fear.

     But religious freedom was clearly implicated by Trump's rhetoric about Muslims — from the promise to ban Muslims to warnings about the dangers he sees lurking in the American Muslim community. The dramatic spike in attacks on American Muslims and Muslim institutions can be directly correlated to anti-Muslim rhetoric over the course of this campaign.

     The votes were no sooner tallied than I began hearing from friends about hateful backlash against their children, people who are not Muslims but appear to be to the xenophobes in our midst.

     On election night, a young woman I have known for many years was walking home after watching the returns with friends. She happens to be a native of India, adopted as an infant to live and thrive as an American citizen.

     Suddenly, a carload of young men screaming Trump slogans pulled up beside her and shouted, "Get deported bitch." She rushed home feeling hurt, afraid and shattered.

     On the day after the election, another friend, the mother of a beautiful young woman, posted this on Facebook: "My daughter was threatened today when she was walking our dog... told they would get rid of her and called her a Muslim c... She can't even leave the house."

     Our challenge going forward will be to push back against this rising tide of Islamophobia through a counter-narrative about the true nature of Islam and a re-affirmation of our commitment to guard the rights of all, including those with whom we disagree. People of faith, especially people of the majority faith, have a special obligation to stand up for Muslims and other religious minorities. An attack on the religious freedom of others today is an attack on our religious freedom tomorrow.

     For my faithful friends who held their noses and voted for Trump on a single issue — or a cluster of social issues — I urge you to be first in line to guard and help the vulnerable in the era of Trump: Religious and other minorities under attack, people losing health care, dreamers facing deportation, refugees turned away, LGBT people seeking protection from discrimination and women fearing for their safety.

     If you have money and privilege, you may survive — even thrive — over the next four years. But many Americans do not have the resources or power to shield themselves against hostile government policies and social discrimination. These people are our collective responsibility.

     Faith in the American ideal of liberty and equality for all — a faith widely shared by Americans across faiths and ideologies — is the firewall that will ultimately protect our experiment in religious diversity and democratic freedom.

     But keep in mind during the difficult days ahead: There is no point in having faith unless you use it.

Charles C. Haynes is vice president of the Newseum Institute and founding director of the Religious Freedom Center. Contact him via email at chaynes@newseum.org. Follow him on Twitter at @hayneschaynes.

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