Katherine Stewart, an author and researcher whose work focuses on the Religious Right, has a new warning for all of us: The government is increasingly granting Christian nationalists groups the right to discriminate in social service programs with taxpayer dollars – and in the process undermining church-state separation.
Stewart, author of the new book The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism, asserted in a March 8 New York Times column that politically conservative Christian groups are eager to tap public funding under the federal faith-based initiative to provide services to people in need – but they want to exclude certain Americans.
Now, we know that federal faith-based initiatives aren’t new. In 2002, President George W. Bush, Stewart wrote, “increased the flow of federal money to faith-based organizations providing services on behalf of the government.” Bush, she said, “insisted that these organizations would not be permitted to discriminate. But in fact the new method of faith-based funding invited the risk of discrimination and the erosion of church-state separation.”
President Barack Obama, Stewart noted, put provisions in place “to ensure that members of the public were not subject to discrimination on the basis of religious belief or unwanted proselytization. The provisions also required that users of church-sponsored social programs be made aware of nonsectarian options.”
Under President Donald Trump, these protections are being eliminated. Trump’s administration has proposed a series of rules governing faith-based programs in several federal agencies, and protections for those who need the services are stripped away, as we noted in this month’s issue of Church & State.
“Under the proposed regulations, faith-based aid organizations that receive public money are free to hire and fire their workers and subcontractors on account of their religion, sexual orientation, or any other behavior or characteristic that the organization finds religiously appealing or objectionable,” Stewart wrote.
“Aid-providing organizations will no longer have any obligation to let members of the public receiving their services know if there are available nonsectarian options,” Stewart continued. “Organizations that receive their money through vouchers and other forms of indirect aid can now proselytize, require that recipients participate in religious activities or ask that they pledge their loyalty to Jesus. And the government itself is no longer required to offer a nonsectarian option for those whose beliefs or conscience make it impossible for them to accept aid on these terms.”
Stewart quoted Americans United President and CEO Rachel Laser, who said, “The proposed rules would strip away religious freedom protections from people, often the most vulnerable and marginalized, and even allow faith-based organizations to discriminate in government-funded programs.” Laser added that these proposed policies would put the interests of these faith-based organizations “ahead of the needs of the people seeking critical services.”
Near the end of her column, Stewart expertly lays out what’s going on.
“Why is the Trump administration so determined to tear down the wall of separation between church and state?” she asks. “The long game is clear: Because that’s the way you ‘take back America’ and make it a Christian nation.”
The signs are clear. You can’t say you haven’t been warned. Now is the time to fight back to protect our core freedoms and rights.