WASHINGTON DC — President Donald Trump addressed attendees of the Values Voter Summit Friday, saying: “In America, we don’t worship government — we worship God.”Since he began his run for the presidency and after the election, Trump has repeatedly pushed religious-freedom rhetoric, promising that the government would not discriminate against “people of faith.” As we reported last week, the Justice Department released a new set of guidelines to assist federal departments in wading through such issues.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions said, “Every American has a right to believe, worship, and exercise their faith. The protections for this right, enshrined in our Constitution and laws, serve to declare and protect this important part of our heritage.”
However, as shown by Sessions’ comments, the administration is using the term “religious freedom” as a marker for something more specific than simply upholding a constitutional amendment. The new guidelines appear to be less concerned with creating space for diverse religious belief or no belief, and more concerned with opening doors for increased religious influence in the public sphere, in private business, and in politics.
While each of those sectors of society come with their own legalities and issues, Sessions marked the administration’s motives by saying, “[We] will not allow people of faith to be targeted, bullied or silenced anymore.” That statement clearly defines the objective.
As is often pointed out by Pagan groups and individuals, such religious freedom regulations and guidelines can potentially benefit Pagans and other religious minorities, because of the open-ended term “religion,” or in this case, “people of faith.”
The First Amendment guarantees that point.
In 2015, when Georgia was voting on a state RFRA act, Aquarian Tabernacle Church priest Dusty Dionne wrote to the governor, saying:
We thank the state of Georgia for its forward thinking and dedication to religious freedom. It has been a reality long-held by Wiccans that the laws did not extend far enough toward our own exercise of religion [50-15A-2. line 71] to be truly encompassing of our freedom to worship.
The original Religious Freedom Restoration Act, as passed by our illustrious president Bill Clinton, was a landmark move that opened the door for minority religions, and small local churches to have more safety to worship within their communities than ever before. This new bill will create sweeping changes that will open the doors for the Wiccans within Georgian communities to worship, work, and live their religion to its fullest.
The language within such legislation is open ended due to constitutional constraints. The government cannot make laws respecting any one religion.
Trump’s speech to the Values Voters, while not legislation, made the administration’s objective with regard to religious freedom even more clear than the Sessions statement. It explicitly narrowed the definition of “people of faith” from a broad understanding of belief to something very specific.
He leads into his talk on religion with the predictable feel-good rhetoric:
We love our families. We love our neighbors. We love our country. Everyone here today is brought together by the same shared and timeless values. We cherish the sacred dignity of every human life. We believe in strong families and safe communities. We honor the dignity of work. We defend our Constitution. We protect religious liberty. We treasure our freedom.
As he goes on, his words with regard to religion focus on what he terms ‘Judeo-Christian values.” He says, “And we all pledge allegiance to — very, very beautifully — ‘one nation under God.’ This is America’s heritage, a country that never forgets that we are all — all, every one of us — made by the same God in heaven.”
While he expressly mentions Judaism and even the freedom of rabbis to speak out on political matters, Trump eventually turns to the alleged “war on Christmas,” which uses language that further constricts his definition “people of faith.”
Just after mentioning America’s Judeo-Christian values, Trump says:
And something I’ve said so much during the last two years, but I’ll say it again as we approach the end of the year. You know, we’re getting near that beautiful Christmas season that people don’t talk about anymore. They don’t use the word “Christmas” because it’s not politically correct.
You go to department stores, and they’ll say, “Happy New Year” and they’ll say other things. And it will be red, they’ll have it painted, but they don’t say it. Well, guess what? We’re saying “Merry Christmas” again.
He then speaks of giving the American people a Christmas gift of tax cuts.
The speech’s wording was molded to appeal to the Values Voters Summit audience, which was made up predominantly of conservative Christians. The event’s primary sponsor is FRC Action, the legislative affiliate of the Family Research Council, the mission of which is to “advance faith, family, and freedom in public policy and the culture from a Christian worldview.”
Not surprisingly, Trump was applauded for his statements.It is important to recognize that the front lines on this alleged war over religious freedom is not specifically being waged between two religious sectors, at least at this point. It is between a conservative portion of a particular faith practice and the concept of secularism or the operation of a neutral government.
The U.S. is in fact one of many countries that still remains neutral with regard to religion. In a recent study by Pew Forum, secular governments do marginally dominate global politics. The U.S. government is not an anomaly; at least 106 national governments are secular.
Although the U.S. has always been secular, Christianity in one form or another is the religion of the majority of the American population. As a result, many areas of the country, even to this day, have seen religion and politics existing as happy bedfellows, even where not constitutionally permissible.
However, in a growing society with expanding religious diversity, that unofficial partnership no longer works comfortably. That is where the issues begin and still rest.
None of this even takes into account the atheist, humanist, and secularist sectors of American society, which include members of the Pagan community.
Americans don’t worship government, that is correct. But not all Americans worship “God,” as defined in Trump’s speech, or worship any god or gods.
As Pew Forum reported in 2016, the number of unaffiliated is slowly growing. An extensive survey of “35,000 adults finds that the percentages who say they believe in god, pray daily and regularly go to church or other religious services all have declined modestly in recent years.”
At the same time, the report shows that the declining population of people who are religiously affiliate have in fact shown an increase in prayer and other worship activities. In other words, according to Pew Forum, the population of religious people is smaller but their conviction or faith-based activity is expanding.
That may explain, in part, some of the fervor behind the alleged “war.”
As an aside, it is important to note that Pew Forum does not specifically study Pagan or Heathen populations. These religious sectors are typically in an “other” category.
As the holiday season arrives, the annual “war on Christmas” will undoubtedly continue to heat up as it always does. How that modern seasonal “tradition” is handled by the Trump administration will be seen.
Will he continue to fuel it? Will private corporations be shamed over Twitter for expressions of seasonal diversity? Will Trump take Starbucks to task for its use of a red cup? Will people be ridiculed for happily chirping “seasons’ greetings” in Macy’s?
“We’re saying Merry Christmas again,” Trump said to the Values Voters Summit audience.
As is always the case, Trump fell back on his “Make American Great Again” marketing plan, using a sense of nostalgic Americana to rally support. He told the values voters Friday: “Inspired by that conviction [Americans’ belief in the Abrahamic god], we are returning moral clarity to our view of the world and the many grave challenges we face.”