February 2019 Church & State Magazine | Viewpoint

The Rev. Ebony Grisom is director of the Ecumenical Poverty Initiative in Washington, D.C. 

I participated in a conversation about Project Blitz and religious liberty with colleagues from across Christendom and Judaism last fall and have been thinking about it ever since.

Participants introduced themselves, including our names, the ministries for which we worked (if applicable), our denominational affiliation and why we decided to attend the conversation.

I am ordained American Baptist; religious liberty is at the core of my Baptist-ness (I have Jesus, too!). Sometimes Baptists (especially those who were ordained in the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations) think that we invented religious liberty, thanks to Roger Wil­liams. I realized that I omitted a central component of my answer after the introductions ended. It is so central that it reflects the core of my identity, hence, my attendance at the conversation: As a black American woman, a conversation about my religious life in this country is a conversation about my personhood.

I wonder if this sentiment rings true for other religious black Americans. The Pew Research Center’s 2014 Religious Landscape Study found that eight in ten black Americans identify as Christian, and seven in ten are Protestant. Black Americans represent various Christian expressions in this study. Of course, many black Americans practice other faiths, including Islam, Judaism and non-monotheistic faiths.

Until recently, my religious liberty felt relatively secure. I am a racial minority, which means that I live in a state of relative insecurity in this country. Yet, belonging to the religious majority can offer some insulation from ecclesial and societal bigotry. However, religious liberty, more accurately its distortion and current weaponization as implemented in Project Blitz, is yet another element that threatens my life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.

Until recently, my religious liberty felt relatively secure. ... However, religious liberty, more accurately its distortion and current weaponization as implemented in Project Blitz, is yet another element that threatens my life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.

The purpose of Project Blitz, according to its founders, is, “to protect the free exercise of traditional Judeo-Christian religious values and beliefs in the public square, and to reclaim and properly define the narrative which supports such beliefs.”

I believe this does not reflect religious liberty. First, it privileges “Judeo-Christian religious values and beliefs” over all other religions. “Ju­deo­-Christian” acknowledges Judaism in so far as Christianity finds its roots therein. In reality, it espouses only Christian “values and beliefs.” Highlighting one religion’s value and belief system excludes many others as well as those who do not practice a religion. As the aforementioned Landscape Study indicates, we are a pluralistic society.  Millions of Americans who are people of faith and people of good conscience who have no religion stand “… in the public square” alongside Christians. We Christians are not the only ones who are invested in this democracy, or even who share “our” values and beliefs: Let’s share the square.

The phrase “to reclaim and properly define the narrative which supports such beliefs …” suggests that Project Blitz dominates the conversation. What is a proper definition for the narrative? On whose authority can the narrative be framed properly? What are “traditional Judeo-Christian religious values”? Above all, do those values supersede the Constitution?

It seems that Project Blitz would rather have some parts of the Bible guide our values rather than all parts of the Constitution. Careful consideration of their purpose suggests that it is detrimental to the common good. Project Blitz defines “religious values” narrowly. They seem to be more focused on who and how people love, controlling women’s bodies and where citizens’ patriotic allegiances lie than shared religious values such as feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, protecting women and orphans and setting captives free.

Project Blitz’s purpose statement would be less troubling if its leaders concentrated on their particular worship communities rather than on the public square, or even creating a religious sect. Instead, they shroud an existing religion (which is not mandated) with a narrow definition and seek to pass legislation (which would be universal) to achieve their purposes.

Further, Project Blitz seeks to claim a moral high ground without acknowledging that Christianity has a mixed reputation in the national and global public square. Christians have committed heinous atrocities against humanity, and fellow Christians were complicit in their silence. Some apologies and acts of repentance are still forthcoming. The Crusades, colonization, the transatlantic slave trade and slavery in the Americas, indigenous people’s removal, the Holocaust, Japanese-American internment, lynching, segregation and denial of basic civil rights come to mind immediately, but other examples remain.

Decrees, edicts, laws and/or executive orders sanctioned many of these and precipitating events. Therefore, it is easy to see how the codified laws that Project Blitz’s agenda seeks pose serious threats to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, particularly for communities who already live on society’s margins. 

U.S. history has taught me to be vigilant when patriotism and religion mix. In the name of God and country, this nation took its litigation of African-American’s personhood from the floors of the U.S. Supreme Court to the battlefields of the Civil War. More recently, the nation turned toward bigotry in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. As the ruins smoldered, anti-Muslim bigotry soared from sea to shining sea. Discrimination and hate crimes threatened Muslim-Americans’ lives and livelihoods as we sang “God Bless America” at ballparks and churches. Some 17 years later, anti-Muslim sentiment is ensconced in public policy.

Currently, racist rhetoric guides immigration policy and actually led President Donald Trump to shut down the government because Congress would not fund an expensive, xenophobic wall along the Mexican border.

People protest on social media and politicians posture on legislative floors, while Project Blitz grows in stature and statutes. History continues to repeat itself. When will we learn?