The United Nations sponsored a summit on climate change yesterday. President Donald Trump skipped most of it but, for some reason, decided to drop by and give a speech on a completely unrelated topic: religious freedom.
Well, at least that’s what Trump’s handlers said the talk was about. One thing we know about this administration is that its definition of “religious freedom” usually means the right of one person to use his or her faith to discriminate against others, deny them services and generally treat them poorly.
Trump’s mercifully brief speech was mostly a pastiche of talks he has offered previously when addressing U.S. Christian nationalist groups or events like the National Prayer Breakfast. He began by spreading the lie that his administration had “obliterated the Johnson Amendment within our own country.”
Why Trump thought this would be of interest to the UN is unclear, but in any case, it’s not true. The Johnson Amendment, which protects the integrity of tax-exempt, nonprofit organizations by ensuring they don’t endorse or oppose candidates for public office, is a federal law passed in 1954. It would take an act of Congress to repeal it, and that hasn’t happened.
From there Trump stated that the U.S. “is founded on the principle that our rights do not come from government, they come from God.” It’s a favorite line of one of his speechwriters, but it’s detached from reality. No statement like this appears anywhere in our secular Constitution.
Trump concluded his speech by announcing that he is forming “a coalition of U.S. businesses for the protection of religious freedom.” He said the initiative will “encourage the private sector to protect people of all faiths in the workplace.”
It’s unclear if this will be a domestic or international program, but in either case, it makes no sense because the businesses Trump recruits are likely to be pro-discrimination. We can’t look to them to protect core civil liberties.
Remember, this administration’s track record on religious freedom in the workplace is horrendous. Trump’s Department of Labor has issued a proposed rule that would allow many government-funded contractors to take tax money and fire or refuse to hire people based on their religious beliefs or lack thereof. The administration has backed businesses that are seeking the right to deny services to LGBTQ people, Muslims, atheists, single parents and others under the guise of religious freedom, and it has also told the Supreme Court in a trio of pending cases that a federal law that bans employment discrimination doesn’t apply to LGBTQ Americans.
There’s no doubt that religious persecution is an ongoing problem worldwide. But Trump, whose closest allies are in repressive nations such as Russia and Saudi Arabia and who has an embarrassing crush on North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un and his murderous regime, has no moral authority to lead the fight against it.
The real shame here is that the United States, as the country that pioneered authentic religious freedom (as opposed to the fake version peddled by Trump and his Christian nationalist allies), genuinely has much to offer the rest of the world. We could begin with a lesson on the crucial role separation of religion and state plays in safeguarding that right.
That won’t happen under Trump, who remains a creature of the most reactionary forces of far-right Christian extremism. Trump’s Christian nationalist allies are determined to close the gap between church and state; he long ago squandered any claim to leadership in the battle against religious persecution when he aligned with homegrown theocrats in championing a false, dangerous and harmful version of religious freedom.
The good news is that many people in our own country aren’t buying this administration’s crabbed interpretation of religious freedom. The rest of the world should reject it as well.
(Photo: Screenshot from C-SPAN)