A reminder to President Donald Trump, Kellyanne Conway and other presidential advisers attempting to distance Trump’s ongoing inflammatory rhetoric from Saturday’s mass shooting in a Pittsburgh synagogue: Words matter.
Trump has built his political career by fueling the flames of anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and xenophobia, by bolstering the legitimacy of white Christian nationalists, and by courting the influence of a narrow set of fundamentalist Christians who shun church-state separation. Days before a virulent anti-Semite, spurred by rage at immigrants, gunned down 11 Jews in their house of worship, Trump used the loaded word of “nationalist” to describe himself and criticized the “globalist” label – a word commonly used as a dog whistle to reference the conspiracy theory that Jews are trying to rule the world.
It was just the latest in Trump’s myriad of slights to the Jewish community, which include sharing social media posts from notorious anti-Semitic figures and groups (including a retweet the night of the Pittsburgh shooting), infamously blaming “both sides” in the violent clash between white supremacists and protestors last year in Charlottesville, Va., and being slow to condemn violence and hate speech against the Jewish community that has spiked since he took office.
But Trump and his representatives are brushing aside the criticism and instead attacking everyone from the media to late-night television hosts.
Conway, appearing on “Fox & Friends,” made the particularly repugnant and incomprehensible comparison between the Pittsburgh anti-Semite who wanted to “kill all the Jews” to comedians who make jokes about religion. To compare light-hearted commentary on religion generally to hate speech and acts of violence targeted against a single, long-persecuted faith massively diminishes a horrific attack on a religious minority.
Conway also blamed society’s ills on “anti-religiosity” in America and proclaimed, “This is no time to be driving God out of the public square.”
Blaming disasters and tragedies on a lack of religion is a common refrain among the Religious Right. In response to a school shooting in Texas earlier this year, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) blamed “removing God from the public square” and U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) said, “Maybe we need to put more faith in religion and God back in the schools to teach the kind of values so where you won't want to just go and kill your own classmates.”
In the wake of the Parkland, Fla., school shooting in February, Florida representatives pushed a bill to display “In God We Trust” in public schools; the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Kim Daniels (D-Jacksonville), referenced the shooting that killed 17 people and said, “[God] is the light, and our schools need light in them like never before.” Following a school shooting in Kentucky, Republican Gov. Matt Bevin called for a day of prayer.
Not only does pointing the finger at a supposed lack of faith allow politicians to dodge calls for more tangible action, but it also allows them to push for government-endorsed religion. And not just any religion, but usually a narrow, fundamentalist view of Christianity.
This call for a return of religion “in the public square” ignores the reality that people of faith, including children in public schools, already have wide-ranging rights to practice and talk about their beliefs – in the public square, in private and everywhere in between. But of course, individuals worshiping and discussing their beliefs isn’t what Conway and the like mean when they advocate for more religion “in the public square.” What they really want is the government to endorse, favor and lift up particular religious beliefs and practices – at the expense of religious minorities, nonbelievers and even people of the same faith who don’t share the same beliefs, all of whom would therefore be excluded from that same public square.
Government endorsing religion isn’t the answer to combatting religious discrimination and violent extremism. Respecting everyone’s right to believe, or not, as they see fit without fear of harm or discrimination is what government should be endorsing. Our Constitution promises separation of church and state – which protects religious freedom for everyone, not just a select few.
(Photo: Presidential adviser Kellyanne Conway appears on the television show "Fox & Friends" to defend President Donald Trump's inflammatory rhetoric. Credit: Screenshot from "Fox & Friends.")