March 2021 Church & State Magazine | Featured

Advocates of religious freedom hoped that President Joe Biden would waste no time overturning policies from the era of President Donald Trump that eroded church-state separation – and Biden didn’t disappoint.

Just hours after his Jan. 20 swearing-in, Biden started signing a series of executive orders. Among them was one that overturned Trump’s Muslim ban. With a pen stroke, Biden made good on a promise he had made during the campaign and after his election.

The order noted that “the previous administration enacted a number of Executive Orders and Presidential Proclamations that prevented certain individuals from entering the United States – first from primarily Muslim countries, and later, from largely African countries. Those actions are a stain on our national conscience and are inconsistent with our long history of welcoming people of all faiths and no faith at all.”

Members of the NO BAN Act Coa­lition, 81 national organizations (including Americans United) that opposed the ban, issued a statement reading, “This is a momentous occasion for the millions of Americans who were separated by the ban and those who stood up against this injustice at airports nationwide. Thank you, President Biden, for staying true to your promise to repeal this bigoted policy immediately. The Muslim and African Ban was never about national security, it was always rooted in bigotry and called into question what values America stands for.” 

Americans United also issued its own statement welcoming the ban’s repeal.

“President Biden’s swift action to end the Muslim and African Ban, which was driven by clear hostility toward Muslims and their faith, rights a terrible wrong,” said Rachel Laser, AU president and CEO. “It is a crucial first step toward reuniting families and demonstrating President Biden’s commitment to protecting the rights of religious minorities.”

Concluded Laser, “We look forward to a government that will protect everyone’s religious freedom and our nation’s unfulfilled vision of equality and inclusion for all.” 

That same day, Biden also signed two orders that rolled back a series of Trump orders that had stripped LGBTQ Americans of certain rights and blocked efforts to address systemic racism and privilege. One order reverses a Trump administration policy and ensures that the federal government does not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Another nullifies a Trump policy that was designed to prevent federal agencies from sponsoring diversity and inclusion training.

Mark Joseph Stern, a reporter for Slate, asserted that Biden “commenced the most sweeping expansion of LGBTQ rights in American history.”

Biden’s orders, Stern observed “will extend nondiscrimination protections to millions of LGBTQ people with regard to housing, education, immigration, credit, health care, military service, Peace Corps service, family and medical leave, welfare, criminal justice, law enforcement, transportation, federal grants, and so much more.” 

A few days later, on Jan. 25, Biden signed an order reversing Trump’s ban on transgender troops in the military. The ban, which was put in place in 2017, reportedly after lobbying from members of Trump’s Evangelical Advisory Council, was never supported by top military officials.

Laser hailed the end of the discriminatory policy.

“Layer by layer, the Biden-Harris administration is taking steps to remove the stain of hatred, division and discrimination left by the previous administration,” she said. “This is yet another move by Biden to reject the religious extremism that influenced so many of the policies enacted during the last four years.”

Aaron Belkin, director of the Palm Center, a group that was highly critical of Trump’s anti-trans policy, also welcomed Biden’s move.

“Today, those who believe in fact-based public policy and a strong, smart national defense have reason to be proud,” Belkin said in a media statement. “The Biden administration has made good on its pledge to put military readiness above political expediency by restoring inclusive policy for transgender troops.”

Biden also announced that Dr. Rachel Levine will serve as assistant secretary for health. If confirmed by the Senate, Levine, who is currently Pennsylvania’s secretary of health, will the highest-ranking transgender person to hold federal office. Biden also appointed, and the Senate has confirmed, former Democratic presidential candidate and South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg as Secretary of Transportation – the first openly gay man to run a Cabinet department.

Americans United was also pleased by a Biden order shutting down the 1776 Commission, an attempt by Trump and his allies to rewrite American history with a Christian nationalist slant – that America was formed as an officially Christian nation and should continue to infuse public policy with Christian tenets. 

Trump announced formation of the commission in the fall, appointed members a week before Christmas, and just days before Trump’s term ended, it released a 41-page “report.” The so-called report, which contained no footnotes and cited no references, was widely panned by mainstream historians, chiefly for the way it papered over the role of slavery in U.S. history.

James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association, told The New York Times that the commission’s report is a work of “cynical politics.”

“This report skillfully weaves together myths, distortions, deliberate silences, and both blatant and subtle misreading of evidence to create a narrative and an argument that few respectable professional historians, even across a wide interpretive spectrum, would consider plausible, never mind convincing,” Grossman said. “They’re using something they call history to stoke culture wars.”

Americans United criticized the document for downplaying the importance of church-state separation.

The report asserted that the American founders sought “neither to weaken the importance of faith nor to set up a secular state, but to open up the public space of society to a common American morality.”

Observed AU on its “Wall of Separation” blog, “This attack on secular government is deliberate; it is a calculated move designed to undermine a key feature of our Constitution.

“What’s so cynical about this strategy,” AU continued, “is that it takes the story of the development of religious freedom in America – which is powerful and inspiring – and replaces it with pious platitudes about ‘one nation under God’ that derive not from the founding period but from the anti-communist hysteria of the 1950s.”

Biden kept up the drumbeat. On Jan. 28, he issued an order repealing the global gag rule. Also known as the Mexico City policy, the rule prevents foreign organizations that accept U.S. funds to pay for health programs from providing information, referrals or services for legal abortion or advocating for access to abortion services in other countries. The rule is so strict that these organizations can’t even use their own money to do these things if they accept any U.S. support.

AU’s Laser hailed Biden’s action.

“When former President Trump had reinstated the global gag rule, he was imposing the viewpoint of his religious extremist base onto U.S. foreign policy and undermining our foundational American value of religious freedom,” she said. “True religious freedom protects everyone’s right to make their own deeply personal decisions about both religion and reproductive health care; it is a shield that protects us, and not a sword to cause harm to others.”

Christian nationalist organizations were predictably upset by Biden’s whirlwind of activity. Biden had barely settled in at the White House before the American Family Association (AFA), a Religious Right outfit based in Tupelo, Miss., began issuing a series of emails attacking him. One blasted the new president for his trans-friendly policies and accused him of erasing women from American law. Another asserted that the country was growing “increasingly pagan.”

“In past generations, practitioners of witchcraft, satanism, and black magic were seen as shadowy figures ensconced in disreputable cults,” wrote columnist Frank Wright, president and CEO of D. James Kennedy Ministries, on AFA’s website. “Today they have websites and marketing strategies.”

The Family Research Council (FRC) and other Christian nationalist organizations joined the attack on the new administration. FRC President Tony Perkins has suggested “election reform,” a euphemism for voter suppression laws that are under consideration in several states, as a way to put the GOP back in power.

Lining up beside them were individual far-right evangelical pastors, who have assailed the new president and vice president.

In one of the crudest attacks, Pastor Steve Swofford of Rockwall First Baptist Church in Rockwall, Texas, preached a sermon Jan. 28 during which he called Biden “cognitively dysfunctional” and added, “What if something happens to him? Jezebel has to take over – Jezebel Harris, isn’t that her name?”

Swofford is a member of the Southern Baptist Convention’s executive committee.

But for Americans United, Biden’s approach is a refreshing change. Shortly after the election, AU issued a 10-point “Agenda to Restore & Protect Religious Freedom.” Repealing the Muslim ban is on the list, and AU is hopeful that other items on its agenda will be enacted. (To read the agenda, visit www.au.org/BidenAgenda.)

AU hopes the tide of change will continue.                                         ­

 

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