Goodbyes are frequently difficult, but this one seems especially so. After half a decade at Americans United, I am leaving to become the media relations manager for Small Business Majority. I am very excited about my new position. But at the same time I am frightened for the future of the United States and sad that so much work will need to be done in the coming years to defend religious liberty from attacks by the far right.
When I joined Americans United, I didn’t know much about the Religious Right. I’d never heard of the Family Research Council. The name James Dobson wasn’t familiar to me. And I didn’t know that the term “religious freedom” means very different things to different people.
Since then, I’ve attended six Values Voter Summits and multiple hearings on Capitol Hill. I’ve tangled (in writing) with high-ranking Catholic bishops and a creationist who wanted taxpayers to fund a religious theme park on his behalf. And most recently, I explained the problems with some of the right-wing approved proposals made by President-Elect Donald J. Trump.
So what did I learn? Despite years of talk by pundits that the Religious Right is dying, the truth is that movement isn’t in decline – at least as a political entity. It’s just evolving. There’s no denying that the term of President Barack Obama was a trying time for fundamentalist Christians who saw a Supreme Court ruling upholding marriage equality and increasing visibility by transgender rights activists, among other things they don’t like. But as was made very clear on Nov. 8 with Trump’s election, the far right is not dying. After all, legions of evangelical Christians voted for the real estate mogul in the hope that he will do their bidding and they’re going to find out if they bet on the right pony.
I'm really going to miss attending the Values Voter Summit -- well, maybe not.
But accepting Trump’s help comes at a cost – the moral high ground. The Religious Right has always argued that it should dictate the lives of all Americans because it operates according to “biblical principles” – never mind that those principles come from a narrow interpretation of the Bible not backed by all Christians. Trump, of course, seemingly does not share those principles. He is a thrice-married reality television star who bragged about sexually assaulting women and never claimed to be a man of deep faith until he ran for president. He has also vowed to oppress religious and ethnic minorities. If that is the sort of ally the far right wants, it cannot credibly claim that its movement is based on anything other than bigotry and a desire for control.
As I reflect on my time at Americans United and this unprecedented election season, I am especially saddened on a personal level by Trump’s repeated promise to repeal something called the “Johnson Amendment,” which was added to the federal tax code in 1954 thanks to the support of then-U.S. Sen. Lyndon Johnson (D-Texas). The amendment is intended to keep churches from endorsing or opposing candidates for office so that houses of worship do not turn into tiny political action committees that raise money for politicians.
The idea of doing away with that portion of the tax code really troubles me not only because it is a terrible idea, but also because that provision has a lot to do with why I was hired at Americans United. Before joining AU, I reported on tax issues for non-profits – including the Religious Right’s war on the Johnson Amendment. That is how I learned about Americans United and became invested in its mission. If Trump does as he said he would, I will feel a great sense of loss if something I fought for so long to maintain is killed with a pen stroke by someone who clearly does not understand why it existed in the first place.
Although I am leaving Americans United, the cause of church-state separation will remain deeply important to me and is something I will keep fighting for. The next four years could represent the most serious challenge to that constitutional principle perhaps in the history of the United States. I encourage everyone to stand up for the things that matter to you and to fight when you see bigotry and discrimination in the name of religion.