What the Religious Right Gets Right: They Have Legitimate Concerns, Even If Claims of Persecution Are Exaggerated | Opinion

In Sacred Liberty, I offer loads of examples for how the modern claims of persecution by religious conservatives are exaggerated—and how Donald Trump has weaponized religious freedom concerns to sow division and beat up opponents.

But it's important to understand that traditional American Christians are not hallucinating when they express concerns about their own religious status and rights.

Look at it through their eyes.

Religious motivations are denigrated. After the passage of Alabama's anti-abortion law, some progressives claimed that it was a violation of the separation of church and state because the sponsors had religious motivations. "One of the tenets of our democracy is that we have a separation of church and state, and under no circumstances are we supposed to be imposing our faith on other people," said Kirsten Gillibrand. "And I think this is an example of that effort."

Think about the logic. It means that public policy positions that are driven by religion are off the table while stances driven by secular reasons are legitimate. It would be like saying that Democrats could oppose the Iraq war for practical reasons but not for moral/religious reasons. That subordinates and minimizes religious teaching and motivation.

Religious institutions get second class status. Again, religion is mostly quite privileged in America. But not always. Sometimes, an overly rigid application of separation of church and state can lead to disadvantaging religion. For instance, a federal law allowed for financial aid loan forgiveness for people who go in to "public service" professions. But the Department of Education ruled that joining the ministry didn't count. I can understand their impulse: they no doubt bristled at the idea of government funds going to help make people ministers. But the result was not equality but inferiority. You got loan forgiveness if you became a social worker but not minister.

Similarly, the Federal Emergency Management Agency at one point refused to provide financial support to assist churches after devastating hurricanes in Texas. And group of residents in Acton, Massachusetts, sued to block the state from using historic preservation funds to preserve old churches along with secular buildings. Religious institutions shouldn't get preference but they also shouldn't be subordinated.

Trump supporters pray at El Paso, Texas, rally
People bow their heads in prayer before the arrival of President Donald Trump at his rally in the El Paso County Coliseum on February 11, 2019 in El Paso, Texas. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Religious sensibilities are ignored or disparaged. Here's a personal story. My wife and I were sitting in the audience at my son's elementary school concert in Brooklyn, New York, beaming at the sight of him up there in his white button-down shirt and khaki pants amid a lineup of singing cutie-pies. The class was belting out Don McLean's "American Pie."

Did you write the book of love

And do you have faith in God above

Everybody tells you so. . . .

Wait. "Everybody tells you so"? I could have sworn the lyrics were "if the Bible tells you so." Did they really just cut a reference to the Bible out of "American Pie"? Yes, they did.

The incident, which somehow never made it to FOX News, nicely captures a genuine shift in the place of religion in American culture. No, this was not a case of separation of church and state run amok. It's a private school; they can do whatever they want. Nor was it a case of non-Christian animus against Christians. The school leaders were mostly Christian. They just figured it would be safer to gently excise a phrase that might offend. But it didn't occur to them that deleting the "the Bible" might bother those who take scripture seriously. They assumed that the sensitivities needing protection belonged to secular people or religious minorities, not devout Christians.

Another example of an insensitivity. A group of atheist sued, unsuccessfully, to get the National September 11 Memorial & Museum to pull down a seventeen-foot cross that had been formed by steel beams left from the World Trade Center. They no doubt thought the cross offended the sensitivities of atheists — without caring about the feelings of those who found comfort or inspiration from it.

Same sex marriage rainbow wedding cake
Does this impinge on religious freedom? A rainbow cake celebrates a same-sex marriage Don Arnold/WireImage

Same-sex marriage leads to restraints on Christian organizations and expression. This is the hardest one to explain. When the U.S. Supreme Court declared, in Obergefell v. Hodges, a constitutional right to same-sex marriage, conservative Christians faced a genuine dilemma. Before, they could oppose the practice and their opinions were as legitimate as anyone elses; a matter of conflicting views or laws. After, they were opposing a Constitutional right. That has real implications. For instance, the federal government at one point in the 1980s tried to withdraw financial benefits from Christian colleges that banned inter-racial dating. Isn't the logical extension of Obergefell that the government would eventually deny benefits to all schools that pushed against same-sex marriage, i.e. many conservative Christian colleges?

When Justice Samuel Alito asked that question of the solicitor general of the United States, Donald Verrilli, his answer did not exactly reassure religious conservatives.

Justice Samuel Alito: Well, in the Bob Jones case, the Court held that a college was not entitled to tax-exempt status if it opposed interracial marriage or interracial dating. So would the same apply to a university or a college if it opposed same-sex marriage?

Solicitor General Verrilli: You know, I—I don't think I can answer that question without knowing more specifics, but it's certainly going to be an issue. I—I don't deny that. I don't deny that, Justice Alito. It is—it is going to be an issue.

Many American Christians watched with alarm as the professional societies for lawyers in Canada ruled that they would no longer license graduates of Trinity Western University's law school, which required students to avoid sex outside of heterosexual marriage. Some conservative organizations have been labeled "hate groups" because of their anti-LGBT position. Merits aside, doesn't that mean that efforts to curtail "hate speech" could, by that logic, target conservative churches that believe the same things?

Even when they're not in legal jeopardy, conservative Christians have felt increasingly culturally ostracized. The owners of Memories Pizza in Walkerton, Indiana, told a local television station that on the off chance that someone asked them to cater a wedding, they would not provide a pizza for a same-sex celebration because it violated their religious beliefs. They were deluged with attacks, made easier by social media. The restaurant's Yelp ratings increased from 2 to 1,200, and it had to close down temporarily because the staff could not tell which phone orders were pranks. (On the other hand, a GoFundMe campaign netted the restaurant more than $846,000.)

Part of the difficulty with the issue of same-sex marriage is the speed with which public opinion shifted. Same-sex marriage was considered a fringe idea even in the LGBT communities up through the 1990s. Barack Obama publicly opposed it until 2012. Religious beliefs usually take centuries to evolve. With Obergefell, same-sex marriage passed from marginal to acceptable to required within two decades. For conservative Christians, the ground fell out underneath them. Ideas that had been taught to them their whole lives—and to their ancestors before them—suddenly became proof not of piety but of bigotry.

The LGBT attacks on those Christians who oppose same-sex marriage ceremonies are both entirely understandable and potentially counterproductive. It's understandable because for two millennia organized religion has been the leading force in marginalizing, criminalizing, and destroying the lives of LGBT people. It would require an extraordinary sense of graciousness (and realpolitik) to now afford those conservative believers much leeway. Yet that's the approach advocated by Andrew Sullivan, one of the intellectual forefathers of the same-sex marriage movement.

I would never want to coerce any fundamentalist to provide services for my wedding—or anything else for that matter—if it made them in any way uncomfortable. The idea of suing these businesses to force them to provide services they are clearly uncomfortable providing is anathema to me. I think it should be repellent to the gay rights movement as well.

The truth is: we're winning this argument. We've made the compelling moral case that gay citizens should be treated no differently by their government than straight citizens. And the world has shifted dramatically in our direction. Inevitably, many fundamentalist Christians and Orthodox Jews and many Muslims feel threatened and bewildered by such change and feel that it inchoately affects their religious convictions. I think they're mistaken—but we're not talking logic here. We're talking religious conviction. My view is that in a free and live-and-let-live society, we should give them space.

Note that Sullivan's argument is not about the Constitution; it's about tactics and the big picture. LGBT advocates in Utah recently took a similar approach, joining together with leaders of the Mormon Church to forge the "Utah Compromise." In exchange for rules to protect gays in the workplace, LGBT leaders agreed that employees could not be fired for expressing their religious views, even if they were anti-gay.

Professor Chai Feldblum, formerly an Obama-appointed member of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, brought a unique perspective to the issue. She's a prominent LGBT activist who was raised as an Orthodox Jew. She wants all same-sex couples to be treated respectfully, but, she says, "Perhaps because of my upbringing as an Orthodox Jew, I can well understand the feeling that if God decides your actions have made you complicit in sin, that is all that matters." She suggests that if we discard the winner-take-all mentality and embrace nuance, we can sensibly balance the rights of LGBT families and religious believers.

The key is really quite simple: make the effort. See if there is a way to accommodate believers. If there isn't, Feldblum says, by no means compromise on core principles—such as the right for LGBT people to marry. But don't start with the premise that any accommodation is a capitulation to bigotry. Instead, "acknowledge the full and complex reality of those who are different from us and then find the generosity of spirit to reach across divides."

The same can be said for the progressive approach to religious conservatives in general. If you attempt to see the new landscape through their eyes, you may still disagree but can at least understand their fears and actual motivations. That would be both shrewd—mutually beneficial outcomes like the Utah Compromise might result—and gracious. As Chai Feldblum noted, you should still keep fighting for what you believe. But if you want religious conservatives to stop caricaturing you, then you should return the favor.

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Steven Waldman is the author of "Sacred Liberty: America's ong, bloody, and ongoing struggle for religious freedom."

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​