A stunning statement was made at the Values Voter Summit over the weekend. Well, a lot of stunning statements were made, but unlike 95 percent of the remarks over the course of the two-day conference that caters to Christians nationalists, this comment actually supported our country’s fundamental principle of religious freedom as the right to believe, or not, as you choose.
“Separation of church and state is sacred,” said Eric Metaxas, a conservative radio show host and author. He went on to say that “government-sponsored faith dies.”
It was an unexpected shout-out to the true meaning of religious freedom during a gathering of conservative Christians who devoted most of the event to talking about strategies for inserting their extremist religious beliefs into government policy, the courts, public schools and communities – often at the expense of women, LGBTQ people, religious minorities and others.
Not that Metaxas’ grasp of religious freedom was perfect – he also said God is at the heart of our freedoms and that people can’t be virtuous without faith. It was a common refrain – Gary Bauer, formerly of the Religious Right groups Family Research Council and Focus on the Family, attributed our rights to “God, not government.” Retired Lt. Col. Oliver North, a perennial VVS speaker fresh from parting ways with the NRA, made the erroneous claim that our Constitution identifies God as the “grantor of the blessings of liberty.”
And of course President Donald Trump himself pushed a Christian nationalist message during his lengthy remarks: “Now, powered by those same historic values that have always defined our nation, we will reach new heights, make new breakthroughs and we will strengthen the bonds of love and loyalty that unite us all as citizens, as neighbors, as patriots, as Christians, as people of faith.
“As one people, one nation and one United States of America, we will stand as a light of liberty, a land of courage and a home for proud people of faith,” he continued. “Forever and always, Americans will believe in the cause of freedom, the power of prayer and the eternal glory of God. Thank you. God bless you. And God bless America.”
No mention of uniting citizens who aren’t Christians or people of faith – about a third of the U.S. population. And it’s certainly not true that all Americans believe in prayer or “the eternal glory of God.” But that’s not a winning talking point for the Values Voter crowd.
Instead, the crowd cheered efforts to misuse religious freedom to undermine the rights of others and cause them harm. They celebrated efforts to restrict abortion access – and several elected officials made clear that abortion is a church-state separation issue by framing their policy agenda around their religious beliefs.
The VVS audience also applauded the recent Arizona Supreme Court decision that a wedding invitation business can claim a religious-freedom right to ignore antidiscrimination laws and turn away same-sex couples. One of the business’ owners was at VVS along with other clients and an attorney from Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a conservative Christian legal group that represents a slew of businesses seeking a similar right to discriminate.
Another ADF client – Harris Funeral Homes in Michigan – was a frequent topic of discussion at VVS. Just days before the summit started, the business and ADF went before the Supreme Court seeking the right to fire LGBTQ employees like Aimee Stephens, who was fired by Harris Funeral Homes because she came out as a transgender woman, which apparently conflicted with her boss’s religious beliefs.
Fear-mongering about transgender people was a common refrain at VVS. For instance – this ridiculous claim by Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas): “If the plaintiffs win this case before the Supreme Court, that first part of the First Amendment will be gone. You will not have the freedom to believe what Moses and Jesus said about sexuality.”
Regardless of whether the Supreme Court affirms that LGBTQ people have federal protection from workplace discrimination, Gohmert and his ilk will have the right to believe whatever they want about sexual orientation, gender identity and their faith. Then as now, they just won’t have the right to weaponize their faith in ways that harm others or force others to live by their beliefs.
That’s why Metaxas’ ode to church-state separation was a short-lived breath of fresh air at VVS. The event drives home that attacks on religious freedom aren’t going away – so it’s a great time to join AU and help us defend the separation of religion and government.
PHOTO: Eric Metaxas, a conservative radio show host and author, at the Values Voter Summit.