This week, the Trump administration's Department of Labor released a new proposed rule allowing corporations and groups that do business with the government wide latitude to discriminate on the basis of "sincere religious belief." Earlier this summer, the Trump Department of Health and Human Services finalized a rule allowing employees of health care organizations to refuse to treat people based on their beliefs and "moral conscience."
Central in the public arguments for these and other similar policy rulings have been people who are trans, nonbinary and/or queer (with the usual transmisogynistic focus on transfeminine people). The specter is raised of businesses being forced to employ "men in dresses" who violate religious sensibilities and scare off clients. Clinic staff will be forced to respect and use patients' pronouns even if they believe their religion demands patients be mispronouned!
Administration spokespeople claim that the Trump administration rejects discrimination--yet it opposes passage of the Equality Act which would make discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity illegal. Why? Because the Equality Act "is filled with poison pills that threaten to undermine parental and conscience rights." In other words, the Equality Act is "poison" because it would prevent evangelical Christian parents from sending their queer and trans children to conversion therapy, and prevent white evangelical bakers from refusing to sell cakes to same-gender couples. Preventing discrimination would harm a "conscience right" to discriminate! Ah, the logic of these times.
But the phenomenon of justifying bigotry with religion was hardly invented in the Trump era, and has a long history, stretching back even before the Revolutionary War. Racial slavery was justified on religious grounds. There was the paternalistic lie that Africans torn from their homes and pressed into forced labor learned to embrace their enslavement because it replaced "heathen superstitions" with Christian salvation. There was the claim that dark skin was the "curse of Ham" or "mark of Cain," and that God intended the descendants of Ham or Cain to experience eternal suffering. And there were claims that various mentions of servants, bondservants and slaves in the Bible meant that God approved of slavery. (This ignored the facts that racial slavery in the Americas was very different from the typically temporary enslavement in ancient times, and that the Biblical story that does discuss an equivalent is that of Moses leading the Jewish people in a slave revolt, in which God punished the Egyptians with plagues for not giving the enslaved Jews their freedom).
Racial segregation was also justified on religious grounds. White evangelicals based this claim that the Bible required racial segregation on Acts 17:26, which reads in its entirety "And hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation. . ." White evangelical racists claimed that these words meant that God created all humanity, but separated them by race, placing "bounds" around them, and that anyone arguing for desegregation was an agent of Satan opposing God's plan. Consider this photo of a pro-segregation rally from 1959:
In the middle, you will see a sign reading "Stop the Race Mixing March of the Anti-Christ." That marching "Anti-Christ," supposed enemy of all Christians, would be the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
The fact that King was a Christian pastor brings up an important point. It is true that racial slavery and segregation were both justified by Christian arguments from the Bible. But the groups that fought for the abolition of slavery and for the civil rights movement that brought down segregation were both full of Christians (African American, white, and of many races) who based their positions on scripture as well. And today, the vast majority of white evangelical churches have abandoned former claims that the Bible justifies slavery or racial segregation. (The standard approach is to say that the former racist religious claims were never really made by many evangelicals, that most white evangelical churches and organizations were just going along with the common behavior of the time, and that the sin that they own as white evangelicals was going along with what everyone else was doing, instead of critiquing an un-Godly society.)
These histories show us a couple of things. One is that great evil has been justified in the name of Christianity throughout American history. (And we could list many more examples. Colonialism. The separation of indigenous children from their families and communities to "assimilate" them in mission schools. Framing Hitler as an agent of God sent to cause the nation of Israel to be refounded so that the End Times can come as predicted and the born again raptured into heaven while the Jews burn in hell.)
The other thing we can see is that each of these movements for evil have been opposed by Christians who base their opposition in scripture. Christian scholars today say, "[T]here’s a gaping chasm between saying that “Christianity provided the moral justification for slavery” and saying that slavery “was justified in the name of Christ.” It’s the difference between saying that a religion itself provides the justification for an action and saying that people claim the religion justifies the action. Just because people attribute their actions to Christianity or Islam doesn’t mean that the religious justification that they provide is actually authentic Christian (or Muslim) theology." In other words, Christian bigots get the Bible wrong.
But at the times of slavery and of Jim Crow segregation, racist Christians heard this argument from Christian abolitionists and civil rights supporters--and were supremely unpersuaded. The counterresponse of major 20th century white evangelical leader Bob Jones to Christian supporters of the civil rights movement? "These religious liberals are the worst infidels." Christians working towards racial justice and integration weren't just ignorantly misinterpreting the Bible, they were willful agents of evil rejecting religious truth, the sorts of sinners that churches used to burn at the stake. Christians who married outside their own race were like Judas, betraying Jesus.
|The Bob Jones University policy against interracial dating and marriage, repealed in 2000|
Disagreements about how religious doctrine should be applied to social life on earth are nothing new.
This is, after all, why the Constitution requires the separation of Church and State. The founders who drafted it had just fought a war of independence against Britain, in which the British saw the Americans as heretics. Americans lived in British colonies; the official religion of Britain was the Church of England; the head of the Church of England was King George. By rebelling against the King, Americans were told, they were traitors not just to Britain, but to God. It is due to this experience that the American Constitution was drafted to contain provisions for freedom of religion--and also against the establishment of religion as law.
This is why the longstanding religious exemption to the nondiscrimination policy for businesses working with the federal government has always been framed very narrowly. Ordinarily, companies doing business with the government are not allowed to discriminate on the basis of religion. But under the traditional federal religious exemption, a Jewish charity working with a federal agency that has a kosher kitchen in their facility is allowed, as required by Jewish religious rules, to hire a rabbi to come inspect it to certify it is kosher, and not open the hire to people who are not rabbis. On the other hand, policy language and court decisions have stayed out of the business of trying to decide which religious belief is theologically correct. If there is substantial disagreement about what the religion requires, then the nondiscrimination exemption is not granted. Only widely recognized, codified tenets of a religion can be the basis of a request for an exemption.
The new rules written by Trump administration members are tossing that understanding out the window. The new federal contractor exemption policy allows for a vastly expanded right to discriminate. There are a bunch of ways in which it does this, but I will focus on two. Instead of just allowing businesses to restrict a job opening to a co-religionist, businesses are now allowed to require their employees to follow the claimed religious beliefs of the employer. In other words, they are allowed to fire you for being in a same-gender relationship, or embracing and supporting your trans child, or anything else they claim is counter to "adherence to religious tenets as understood by the employing contractor." That's true even if you share the same religion with the employer, but believe that you are acting in accordance with religious precepts, and your employer's interpretation of religious doctrine is wrong.
And that leads us to the most shocking element of the new policy. Instead of only allowing exemptions for officially recognized, little-disputed, codified religious practices, now contractors are allowed to discriminate based on any belief they personally sincerely hold. The old policy kept government out of battles over religious belief by refusing any claim based on a belief that is contentious. They new one keeps government out by accepting any and all beliefs, so long as they are "sincere."
And that is scary, because a lot of people sincerely believe all kinds of repellent and bigoted things.
Consider a 2014 (pre-Trump) survey by PPRI regarding Americans' opinions about whether businesses should have a right to refuse services to various sorts of people, based on the business owners' religious beliefs. While a large majority opposed the idea that businesses should have a right to discriminate against patrons, a disturbingly substantial minority spoke up for such a right. For example
- 21% of white evangelicals stated businesses should be able to deny service to atheists
- 16% of Midwesterners believed businesses should be allowed to discriminate against Jews
- 13% of Gen X respondents said businesses should be able to refuse to serve African Americans
- 26% of white evangelicals supported businesses being able to discriminate against "gays and lesbians"
Another troubling fact: in the 2018 survey, both Republicans and white evangelicals counterfactually asserted that Christians face substantially more discrimination in society that LGBT Americans. Over a few years that have felt very, very long, this pattern has gotten ever stronger. Victim and victimizer are reversed. Are white evangelicals being targeted by domestic terrorists, banned from the military, subjected to conversion therapies by their parents, beaten in the streets for being white evangelicals? It's the same DARVO tactic under which white supremacists frame families seeking asylum from violence as dangerous invaders, and "redpilled" men frame themselves as the pitiful victims of systemic oppression by women.
|Christian women praying that a generic Houston antidiscrimination law will not pass, wearing transmisogynistic t-shirts reading "No Men in Women's Bathrooms"|
White evangelical leaders are in fact well aware that while they speak to the media and their flocks as representing all of Judeo-Christian belief in opposing LGBTQ+ rights, this is really not the case at all. A 2019 Pew study shows that same-gender marriage is supported today by 61% of Catholics, 66% of white mainline Protestants, and, in fact, 29% of white evangelicals. Another 2019 survey asked people their opinion on the position--supported by evangelical leaders and adopted by the Trump administration--that the law should not protect LGBTQ+ people from discrimination. A large majority of Americans of all religious groups disagree. According to the 2019 PRRI survey, "Among major religious groups, the strongest supporters of LGBT nondiscrimination protections are Unitarian Universalists (90 percent), Jews (80 percent), Hindus (79 percent), Buddhists (75 percent), and religiously unaffiliated Americans (78 percent). Even majorities of faith traditions that have been historically more opposed to LGBT rights support these protections. Fully seven in 10 Mormons (70 percent), along with 65 percent of black Protestants, 60 percent of Muslims, 54 percent of white evangelical Protestants, and 53 percent of Jehovah’s Witnesses favor LGBT nondiscrimination laws." (The same study found that 55% of white evangelicals and 54% of Mormons favored allowing small business to deny services to LGBT people, showing inconsistency in some people's responses. But in any case, white evangelicals and Mormons were the only two out of all American religious groups in which a majority voiced support for a religious exemption to nondiscrimination laws for businessowners, and those majorities were not large ones.)
The beliefs of white evangelical Christians set them apart from the American religious norm.
In particular, many people have noted that American white evangelicals have become strangely obsessed with sex, gender and sexuality. Their political activism centers rejecting gender egalitarianism, premarital sexuality, contraception, abortion, same-gender relationships, nonbinary gender identities, and gender transition (except in the case of children born intersex, in which case seeking sex change surgery is made mandatory). This is formally codified in the Nashville Statement. Putting it less formally was the Modesto, CA "straight pride parade" organizer Don Grundmann, who said, there are "two religious views of the world. One is Christianity, which is represented by heterosexuality, a culture of life, and its opponent is the LGBT movement, which is represented by an opposing religion and an opposing view of life.” Having a egalitarian stance toward sex, gender and sexuality is a "religion," and evangelical Christianity is its inverse. A popular white evangelical approach to this today is to frame a demand for heterosexuality, cisgender identity, limiting sex to the marital and procreative, and requiring wifely submission to a husband as a sort of zero-th commandment: implicit, but the foundation of all Christianity.
A friend of mine who is an Anglican priest said bluntly that this should be understood as anti-Christian. Jesus says nothing in the New Testament about contraception, abortion, same-gender relationships, nonbinary gender identities, or gender transition. But he has a great deal to say about duties to feed the poor, visit the sick and imprisoned, care for migrant people, and love all of humanity. That's why my priest friend devotes herself to serving, without judgment, people who are suffering at society's margins--homeless, trans, addicted, undocumented, dying in hospice, survivors of sexual abuse. To spend one's energies judging, vilifying and seeking to exclude people is the exact opposite of what she reads Jesus telling people to do throughout the New Testament.
Also, she says making up a fundamental commandment that is nowhere in the Bible and calling it Biblical is heresy.
|Christians at a Pride parade|
So, is opposition to queer, trans, nonbinary and intersex people the "religious position" in the U.S.? Clearly not. Is it the Christian position? Not according to a majority of Christians. But under the new Trump administration rules, medical practitioners and clinic staff can turn us away, and businesses fire us or refuse us service, so long as they claim being LGBTQIA+ is against their religious beliefs. And of course, they can do the same to any other marginalized group.
Consider, for example, these two other examples just this week:
In North Carolina, a sheriff's deputy was assigned to train a new co-worker. He refused to work with the new deputy because she was a woman. His supervisor told him training the new deputy was a job requirement, and he had to do it or he would be fired. He still refused, and he was fired, and now he is suing for religious discrimination. He claims to be following the "Billy Graham Rule"--that a man and woman who are not married must not be alone together. His lawsuit states that he “has a sincerely held religious belief against working alone in his patrol car in isolated areas with a female who is not his wife.”
Under the white evangelical position that Trump is happily allowing Mike Pence to promulgate, not only is the man who was fired in the right, but entire businesses can choose to hire only men, lest a man and woman who are not married wind up in a room alone together.
And then there's this example: a candidate for a City Council position in Marysville, Michigan stated during a candidates' forum that her aim would be, to "[k]eep Marysville a white community as much as possible" and to keep out the "foreign-born." After the forum, when speaking to the local newspaper, she explained that her position was based on her being a Christian. “What is the issue is the biracial marriages, that’s the big problem. And there are a lot of people who don’t know it’s in the Bible and so they’re going outside of that.”
Interracial marriage has been legal since the Loving v. Virginia Supreme Court case in 1967. Mildred and Richard Loving had been arrested after traveling from Virginia, where interracial marriage was banned, to Washington DC, where it was legal, to get married. The judge in the Virginia county criminal court that found them guilty wrote, "Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix."
I'm sure the judge in the Loving case was sincere in his religious belief, and that the Marysville candidate is, too.
|Richard and Mildred Loving|
But while my religion is an important personal motivator for my secular actions, I completely oppose the idea that religious beliefs should determine what people are allowed to do in civic society. In a nation where people have very differing religious and ethical beliefs, this will render nondiscrimination laws useless. White supremacists' "conscience" tells them that racial discrimination is a great good. Eugenicists' "conscience" tells medical practitioners to withhold treatment from disabled people so that they will die rather than reproduce. Whatever form of evil and discrimination you can imagine, someone out there has a religious justification for it that makes sense in their mind and that they sincerely believe.
You would think white evangelical Christian leaders would see that the position they are pushing through dominionist activism can be used against them, just as it can against other groups. I am sure there are many people in the U.S. whose conscience tells them a business should to refuse to bake a cake for people who have refused to bake a cake for a same-gender couple.
Actually, however, I am sure white evangelical Christian leaders see this very clearly, and lust after it. Because in our weird historical moment, white evangelical Christians, other Trumpist Republicans, and the entire internet manosphere is in love with a victim narrative. Remember, that's where this post started: with piteous claims that antidiscrimination laws are persecuting Christians. We live in an era where a whole lot of white people see themselves as the "real victims" of racism, where "redpilled" men see themselves as victims of systemic oppression by women, etc. etc. etc. For white evangelical Christians, this takes the form of a faith-under-fire narrative, under which they can paint themselves as noble martyrs. The thing is, being a martyr in the "War on Christmas," where the wounds one suffers are receiving greeting cards that say "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas," lacks much gravitas and is kind of embarrassing. How much better it would be to face real discrimination, being denied service at a bakery and getting to have a sit-in!
The vision of opponents of social justice movements today is that being a member of an oppressed group is lucky and fun, something that will get you political power and social media fame and free government handouts. The privileged are oppressed because they lack this oppression!
As those of us who face actual marginalization know, the reality is vastly different. It looks like refugee children being ripped from their parents' arms and kept in cages. It looks like being bullied and beaten at school and rejected by parents, leading over 40% of all trans/nonbinary youth to attempt suicide. It looks like being stereotyped as dangerous, overpoliced, and treated unequally by courts so that one in three African American boys can expect to grow up to spend time in prison, as opposed to one in 17 white boys. Oppression isn't fun, it doesn't make you famous, and you don't get to laze around on mythic lakes of "free government handouts for minorities." If white evangelical Christians were to really experience systematic oppression in the U.S., they'd learn that.
But that lesson has not been learned, so here we are.
And that is why everyone who wants discrimination in the U.S. to be illegal must fight the "sincere religious belief" and "moral conscience" exception policies being enacted by the Trump administration tooth and nail. And while white evangelical Christian leaders aren't concerned, and are in fact psyched by the idea that these exemptions will mean people like them actually get discriminated against, too, I suggest we make it clear we are fighting on everyone's behalf, including that of their followers. Because while it might very well be satisfying to give people a taste of their own medicine, a nation where every person is free to spit on their neighbor is a dystopic nightmare.
It's also hardly what I believe the words "love your neighbor as yourself" mean. But since oppression and cruelty have a long history of being supported by religious justifications, we have to step outside of religion into the laws of civic society to end discrimination--and religious exemptions defeat that purpose.