Saturday, February 4, 2017

Thumping bibles and waving flags: The Christian Crusade against America

I was going to blog about Steve Bannon’s world view in which he sees a building war between the “Judeo-Christian West” and Islam. The Washington Post reports that in a speech at the Vatican, Bannon made the point.. AZBlueMeanie at Blog For Arizona has much more about Bannon in Get to know the ‘de facto president’ Stephen K. Bannon so you can read there about Bannon channeling Oliver Cromwell to Trump’s King Henry.

But today I want to focus on another angle on Bannon’s conception of the Judeo-Christian West - the Trump’s administration’s leniency toward the politicization of religion. It comes in two forms: a more permissive attitude toward and even promotion of legalized discrimination based on religious beliefs, and a push for the elimination of limits on political activity of churches.

Religious hard-liners are dangerous regardless of religion

Catherine Rampell (Washington Post) warns that Religious law may be coming to America. But it’s not sharia; it’s Christian. Let me condense it and then I’ll quote from Rampell’s piece.

Here are some things at stake. Who you sleep with - or whether you sleep with anyone at all. What you pray to - or whether you pray at all. What religion is taught to your child and where - or whether any religion is taught at all. Which religion is engaged in politics - or whether any religion should be political at all. And which religion is sponsored by the state - or whether any religion should be foisted on the public at all.

Religious hard-liners - the religious right - have positions on all those things, positions that are antithetical to American liberty and our constitution. And it does not matter whether the religious right is Islamic or Christian.

Here are snippets from Rampell’s column.

Much-dreaded “sharia law,” or something resembling it, may well be coming to the United States.

Just not in the form many Americans expected.

That is, the religiously motivated laws creeping into public policymaking aren’t based on the Koran, and they aren’t coming from mythical hard-line Islamists in, say, Dearborn, Mich. They’re coming from the White House, which wants to make it easier for hard-line Christians to impose their beliefs and practices on the rest of us.

A few days after declaring his intention to impose a religious test upon refugees so that Christians would be given priority, President Trump gave a bizarre speech at the National Prayer Breakfast. In between a plug for “The Apprentice” and boasts about his disastrous calls with heads of allied states, he made some less-noticed policy news.

He vowed to help blur the line between church and state by repealing the Johnson Amendment.

For those unfamiliar, this tax code provision bars tax-exempt entities such as churches and charitable organizations from participating in campaigns for or against political candidates. It dates to 1954, when it was signed by Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower. It was not terribly controversial at the time.

The provision basically says that if you want to be exempted from paying taxes — meaning you are effectively subsidized by other taxpayers, who pay for your access to emergency services, roads and other government functions — you can’t be involved in partisan politics. You can’t, among other things, take tax-deductible donations from your worshippers and turn around and spend them on political campaigns.

That’s just the trade-off you agree to make.

Certain religious organizations, in particular those from the evangelical Christian community, have opposed this law in recent years. And during the campaign, Trump indicated he’d do his darnedest to get them what they really want: not the ability to endorse candidates from the pulpit — a practice that the IRS has already been ignoring — but the ability to funnel taxpayer-subsidized funds into the political process.

The president can’t “totally destroy” the law unilaterally, despite Trump’s pledge to do so; he’ll need action from Congress, but that may not be hard to secure these days. Republicans control both houses of Congress, and the most recent Republican platform included a commitment to repeal the Johnson Amendment.

Also this week, the Nation’s Sarah Posner published a leaked draft of an executive order that would require federal agencies to look the other way when private organizations discriminate based on religious beliefs. Coincidentally, these seem to primarily be religious beliefs held by conservative Christians.

Rampell continues, questioning the constitutionality of the order.

The order, if signed, would seem to exceed the executive branch’s authority, Posner notes; moreover, given that the order’s language appears to privilege some religious beliefs over others, it may violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

And it gets worse. Here’s another reason to block the confirmation of at least one of Trump’s cabinet picks.

Trump has also chosen personnel who seem keen on muddying the distinction between church and state.

For example, his embattled education secretary nominee, Betsy DeVos, has advocated that government dollars be channeled to religious schools through relatively expansive voucher programs. (During the campaign, Trump also said that public funds should follow students to the private school of their choice, explicitly including religious schools.)

During her confirmation hearings, DeVos’s cryptic comments about supporting science education that encourages “critical thinking” have also been interpreted as well-established code for supporting the teaching of intelligent design, a sort of dressed-up creationism.

I wish I could say that only a tiny fringe believes Christian practices deserve pride of place in public life and policymaking. But that’s not the case.

In a poll released this week by the Pew Research Center, Americans were asked what made someone “truly American.” A third of respondents overall, and 43 percent of Republicans, said you need to be Christian. That would exclude me, as well as about 30 percent of the population.

Two acts of Christian Crusade headed our way

Rampell ID’d two goals of the Trump administration: legalizing discrimination on religious grounds, and removing the Johnson amendment that prohibits tax-exempt religious entities from spending on political campaigns.

The first of these, legalized discrimination, is now known to be on the agenda of the Trump White House. Leaked Draft of Trump’s Religious Freedom Order Reveals Sweeping Plans to Legalize Discrimination. If signed, the order would create wholesale exemptions for people and organizations who claim religious objections to same-sex marriage, premarital sex, abortion, and trans identity.. We’ve traveled that road in Arizona just in the last few years and now Trump and Bannon want to reinforce Hobby Lobby thinking and to take legalized discrimination national in a bigger way. As Rampell notes: “The effect of the order might be to create wholesale exemptions to anti-discrimination law for people, nonprofits and closely held for-profit corporations that claim religious objections to same-sex marriage, premarital sex, abortion and transgender identity. It would also curb women’s access to contraception through the Affordable Care Act. (A White House official did not dispute the draft’s authenticity.)”

NBC News reports on legislation designed to dictate bedroom behavior under the guise of promoting religious liberty: First Amendment Defense Act Looms Over Sessions’ Confirmation Vote. (h/t Rebecca McElfresh)

President Trump vowed to pass the First Amendment Defense Act, or FADA, if it is reintroduced this congressional term. Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, and Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, have both publicly stated they plan to reintroduce the bill this year. Originally introduced in 2015, the bill failed after critics pointed out its potential to codify discrimination against LGBTQ people, unmarried heterosexual couples and unwed mothers.

FADA would prevent the federal government from taking any punitive action against people, businesses or institutions that believe “marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman, or that sexual relations are properly reserved to such a marriage.” Specifically, it bans the government from revoking tax-exempt status, issuing fines or penalties, canceling contracts or grants or “otherwise discriminat[ing] against such a person.”

Basically, the act paves the way for colleges, private businesses and government offices to turn away LGBTQ people and anyone else not reserving their sexual relations to a “marriage … of one man and one woman.” And it would leave the government with no recourse to punish such discrimination through financial penalties. For example, a college that issues a new policy stating that only students in heterosexual marriages may attend would not lose any portion of the approximately $76 billion the federal government spends on higher education each year, according to a Pew Charitable Trusts study.

But not all church leaders are happy with FADA.

The legal scope of FADA isn’t the only criticism it has faced. Clergy of all stripes, including Baptists, have spoken out against the law. In 2016, a group of clergy in Georgia held a press conference where they said FADA would allow adoption agencies to put bias ahead of children’s best interests.

“I find it unacceptable at every level — as a pastor, as a citizen, as a Baptist and as a father,” said Trey Lyon, a pastor at Atlanta’s Park Avenue Baptist Church, according to Baptist News Global.

Progressive Christians have been fighting similar laws, with one 2014 North Carolina lawsuit suing for the right to conduct same-sex marriages when that state still had a ban in place. In both cases, clergy pointed out that religious freedom laws like FADA could be considered unconstitutional because they privilege one set of Christian beliefs over another — not to mention violating the Establishment Clause that states “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,” which, ironically, is part of the First Amendment.

The second religious goal of the Trump administration is to totally eliminate any limitations on the entrance of tax-exempt churches into partisan politics. The Johnson amendment blocks churches from spending tax-payer monies on political campaigns. Now we learn from reporting by the NY Times that Trump Vows to ‘Destroy’ Law Banning Political Endorsements by Churches.

President Trump vowed on Thursday to overturn a law restricting political speech by tax-exempt churches, a potentially huge victory for the religious right and a gesture to evangelicals, a voting bloc he attracted to his campaign by promising to free up their pulpits.

Mr. Trump said his administration would “totally destroy” the Johnson Amendment, a 1954 law that prohibits churches from endorsing or opposing political candidates at the risk of losing their tax-exempt status.

“Freedom of religion is a sacred right, but it is also a right under threat all around us,” Mr. Trump told religious leaders at the National Prayer Breakfast. “That is why I will get rid of and totally destroy the Johnson Amendment and allow our representatives of faith to speak freely and without fear of retribution.”

But entering the political circus is not high on the list of most church leaders.

Churches and clergy members are free to speak out on political and social issues — and many do — but the Johnson Amendment was intended to inhibit them from endorsing or opposing political candidates.

… most Americans, and even most clergy members, say they do not want churches and houses of worship to engage in partisan politics. Nearly 80 percent of Americans said it was inappropriate for pastors to endorse a candidate in church, and 75 percent said churches should not make endorsements, according to a survey released in September by LifeWay Research, an evangelical polling group based in Nashville.

Moreover, 87 percent of pastors said they should not make political endorsements from the pulpit, according to a LifeWay survey conducted in 2012 of pastors in evangelical and mainline Protestant churches. (Clergy members who were Republicans were slightly more in favor of endorsements than those who were Democrats or independents.)

But now with Republicans in control of the executive and legislative branches, something akin to a repeal of the Johnson amendment seems to be a very real possibility.

the Free Speech Fairness Act was introduced in the House and the Senate on Wednesday. The bill would modify the Johnson Amendment by allowing churches and other charities to engage in political expression.

So coming soon to your neighborhood we have two acts of a modern Christian Crusade - but this time directed against constitutional America.

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