Editor’s Note: Last month, Americans United Vice President of Strategic Communications Andrew L. Seidel published his new book, American Crusade: How the Supreme Court Is Weaponizing Religious Freedom (Union Square & Co.). Church & State is pleased to run this excerpt. American Crusade is available through online booksellers and wherever books are sold.
The Book of Isaiah tells of a time when people “shall beat their swords into plowshares.” Repurposing weapons of war into implements of production, security, and stability is a lovely sentiment, but American Christians are proving the prophecy false. They’re beating plowshares into swords. In particular, they’re beating religious freedom into a sword. Turning a hallowed tool that protected conscience from government overreach – more of a shield than a farm implement – into a weapon. A network of faithful and well-funded activist groups are attempting to redefine and weaponize religious liberty. I’ll call them “Crusaders” throughout this book. The Crusaders are perverting this constitutional protection to reshape it into a weapon to impose their religion on others.
The weapon is exclusive. You may wield it, if you’re of the “right” religion. If you’re a Christian, or really, if you’re the right kind of a conservative Christian. Successfully forging this weapon will codify the receding privilege of this dwindling minority in the face of equality and demographic change. They’ll become a special, favored class to which the laws do not apply.
But to do that, they have to redefine what religious freedom means for the average American and judges have to agree to redraft a longstanding constitutional right. Quite a few are ready to do so.
Our Supreme Court is on the verge of consummating this contradictory notion of religious liberty and grafting it onto our Constitution. Unless we stop it and undo the damage done, the First Amendment will mean supremacy for conservative Christians and sanction for bigotry in the name of Jesus. …
Can a business refuse to serve a gay couple in violation of civil rights laws because the owner is a conservative Christian? Can the government refuse to issue lawful licenses or documents to a gay couple because the issuing official is born-again? Can businesses and officials refuse to serve Black Americans because their personal god says so? Do Christian parents have a right to use the government’s taxing power to fund their children’s Christian schools? Can they do this even though our taxes already pay for an entire school system that’s open to all? Can a city council ban certain religious practices in an effort to drive a church out of town? Can business owners thwart laws that grant employees’ healthcare rights because of what the owners’ holy book supposedly dictates? Can government officials use state power and resources to spread Islam? What about Christianity? What about to erect and maintain a 40-foot-tall Christian cross on government property? Can believers ignore rules that protect public health?
The answer to each question, posed in real cases, should be “no.”
Legal questions of religious freedom are not always simple. They can be complicated and, more often, emotionally fraught. Especially when they involve children. But in their push to weaponize religious liberty, the Crusaders have misled and confounded many Americans about where we draw the legal lines for this founding American principle. While religious freedom cases may not raise simple questions, they’re not very hard either.
Who Are the Crusaders?
The people and groups fighting to weaponize religious freedom are not formally affiliated under a single name or banner (other than the Christian flag), but theirs is a holy war. A battle to privilege the few who believe in the correct version of the correct god, waged at the expense of those who do not. They’re not conquering land, but it is a war of conquest. At the most basic level, they’re seeking privilege. To codify supremacy.
The Crusaders’ legal challenges are superficially about Christian crosses and veterans, or playgrounds, or private school vouchers, or bakeries and gay weddings – but really, they’re about religious privilege. Often literally about privileging religion over nonreligion, Christianity over other religions, and the “right” kind of conservative Christian over other Christians. The Crusaders want to elevate Christian beliefs above the law. Exempt Christians from the law, while disfavoring nonreligious and non-Christian citizens who are required to follow the law. Privilege and supremacy. Religious freedom could be their weapon to reclaim and entrench their dominant caste status. They can undo equality in the name of religious freedom. …
The Weapon Is a Silver Bullet
There will never be enough privilege and power to satisfy the Crusaders. Even if the Crusaders successfully weaponize religious freedom, that’s only the beginning. The power of this particular weapon is that it is a silver bullet. It can trump any law or rule or norm. Religion is a permission structure that grants people the moral justification for any action, however harmful; a weaponized religious freedom is the legal justification for those harmful acts. Once weaponized, they’ll carry religious freedom into every other legal fight. Public health measures and civil rights laws are two areas where religious freedom trumping good citizenship was once unthinkable, but is quickly becoming the norm. And the license to harm others won’t end with discriminating against LGBTQ citizens. Crusaders will use it to reestablish white supremacy – something that was made hauntingly clear in oral arguments at the Supreme Court. They’ll also bring religious freedom into unexpected arenas, like the fight for voting rights.
Even the absurd idea that people have a religious freedom right to violate traffic laws is conceivable. The Mississippi House passed the “Jesus Take the Wheel” act in 2015, a law that would have allowed church-owned vehicles to transport busloads of people without the appropriate commercial license. Because why do you need a license to maneuver a 40- foot-long coach bus when Jesus is driving? The bill died, but the Crusade has gained ground.
The entire point of a weaponized religious freedom is that it is limitless. …
But Why the Crusade?
It’s largely a backlash against equality realized. Christianity was once able to discriminate on the basis of race; now that’s largely unthinkable. Christianity was once able to legally subjugate half the population. Christianity was once able to discriminate against LGBTQ people, but now isn’t. As more people realize rights due to them by virtue of being human, the sphere of religious imposition shrinks. The Crusade seeks to reclaim this lost ground.
Obamacare expanded equality by recognizing the reproductive rights of American women. Hobby Lobby’s conservative white Christian owners fought against that expansion of rights under the guise of religious freedom.
The Obergefell decision expanded equality by recognizing the rights of LGBTQ citizens to equal marriage. Masterpiece Cakeshop’s conservative white Christian owner and a host of other businesses fought that expansion claiming religious freedom.
Brown v. Board of Education expanded equality by recognizing the rights of Black Americans to equal access to public education, and in the name of religious freedom, Christians pushed for school choice and vouchers and segregation academies.
White Christian Americans facing equality act like martyrs suffering for their faith; they feel that these expansions violate their rights. But parity is not oppression. Equality, even when it means the erosion of privilege, is not discrimination. If you’re given $100 that was stolen from someone else and the law demands that you give it back, you’re not being robbed. Rather, justice has been achieved. To you, it may feel unjust to be forced to give up the money, especially if the law has not cared about the victim in the past or worse, if the law had previously said that the victim wasn’t human. It may feel doubly unfair if the law had, until recently, agreed with your religion. Slavemongers stole slaves’ lives and complained about the unfairness of losing their property when the United States belatedly abolished slavery and recognized humans as humans. The only injustice would have been the continual refusal to do the latter. To fight against equality is to fight for supremacy.
Equality Is a Threat to Christianity as the Dominant Caste; Religious Freedom Is Their Answer
If we put all this together – the silver bullet, the hierarchy of rights, the fight against equality and for supremacy – the Crusade begins to look like a quest to find a holy grail that will reverse inexorable demographic trends. White Christian Americans’ status as the dominant group is threatened and when the dominant group or caste in society feels threatened or left behind by circumstances, it reacts or overreacts, by seeking a way to retain that status.
Some political scientists credit dominant group status threat for Trump’s 2016 electoral victory. Fearful White Christians aligned with the person claiming he’d bring back the America they knew, the America where they dominated all others. Diana Mutz, a leading proponent of this theory, argues that the 2016 election “was an effort by members of already dominant groups to assure their continued dominance and by those in an already powerful and wealthy country to assure its continued dominance.” In Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, Isabel Wilkerson posits that the source of their discontent is the “end of an illusion, an awakening to the holes in the article of faith that an inherited, unspoken superiority, a natural deservedness over subordinated castes, would assure their place in the hierarchy. They had relied on this illusion, perhaps beyond the realm of consciousness and perhaps needed it more than any other group in a forbiddingly competitive society.” The disillusion strikes at their identity and they choose to fight reality rather than diminish their self-image. Fox News’s success comes partly because the hosts tap into this fear, so that White Christians sitting comfortably on the couch safe at home feel threatened.
Other researchers are finding evidence for the preservation of dominance as well, and it ties closely to Christian Nationalism, the subject of my first book. A 2021 survey found that simply mentioning the fastchanging religious demographics in America elicited a threat response and triggered defensive political stances among Christians. Simply acknowledging shifting demographics created a feeling that their religious freedom was threatened and pushed them toward Christian Nationalism and Donald Trump. They conflate demographic loss with a threat to their freedom, which suggests that they fundamentally misunderstand religious liberty as privilege. That they believe freedom means enjoying the trappings of their dominant status.
Studies agree that “religious freedom” means something very different to White American Christians than it does to other Americans. One 2020 election study showed that voters who believed “religious freedom” was the most important issue and chose their 2020 presidential candidate accordingly, also thought that the federal government should declare America a Christian nation. These voters ranked religious freedom above the economy and abortion and they want a Christian nation. As Sam Perry, one of the researchers, explained, it’s “almost as if ‘religious freedom’ is code for ‘Christian freedom.’” The government aligning with one religion is the death of religious freedom; they see it as the definition of religious freedom. This is the essence of Christian Nationalism and the antithesis of true religious freedom.
The Crusade is a quest to remake a protection into a weapon for maintaining a dominant group’s status in the face of waning demographic power. This isn’t a novel observation. “This legal offensive to elevate ‘religious liberty’ over other civic goals is coming even as the share of Americans who ascribe to no religious faith is steadily rising, and as white Christians have fallen to a minority share of the population,” wrote Ronald Brownstein in The Atlantic.
Religious freedom is a weapon for White Christian Americans to plant their crosses on public land, declaring it theirs, not ours.
For White Christian Americans to discriminate against lesser groups, lesser castes.
For White Christian Americans to remove their children from the public school system – integrated and diverse – and put them in private religious schools at taxpayer expense, forcing taxpayers to maintain two educational systems, one for everyone, the other for the waning dominant caste.
For White Christian Americans to deny bodily autonomy to women, deemed subservient by their holy book.
For White Christian Americans to opt out of public health measures meant to protect everyone in a pandemic.
Most importantly, for this dominant caste to declare unconstitutional any failure to recognize any of these privileges. To declare that equality is hostility.
The expansion of equality and withering religious and racial hegemony is the contested territory in many religious freedom cases. This means that Christian privilege should be losing, not winning more often. In reality, we’re not expanding rights or giving new rights, we are recognizing rights that have always existed under the law but were never enforced. We are affirming the humanity of our brothers and sisters and admitting that we’ve been wrong. As we realize the aspirational values implicit in “We the People,” “equal justice under law,” “all … are created equal,” and other founding maxims – as we recognize that humans are human and worthy of rights – White Christian America is dying a slow demographic death and rebelling. They are raging against the dying of their privilege.
This book excerpt is reprinted with permission from American Crusade: How the Supreme Court Is Weaponizing Religious Freedom by Andrew L. Seidel (Union Square & Co., September 2022). Seidel is also the author of The Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism Is Un-American (Sterling Publishing, 2019)