Religious Liberty, Democracy, and the Battle against Flesh and Blood


Donald Trump spoke about specific policy change this week, if you can believe that. At the Values Voter Summit – an event held annually in Washington D.C. by the Family Research Council, whose mission is “to advance faith, family and freedom in public policy and the culture from a Christian worldview” – Trump attempted to bolster his support among evangelical Christians by promising to repeal the Johnson Amendment. His declaration panders to the often-cresting waves of vocalized energy emitting from a relatively small but loud constellation of factions within Christianity who see contemporary American political culture as insidiously opposed to them. The dynamics of factions in religion and, more broadly, in democracy is something I find constantly fascinating (and often infuriating), and controversies surrounding “religious liberty” or “religious freedom” have a knack for revealing some of the nuance of these dynamics as they play out in our cultural politics.

We’ll start with this talk of the Johnson Amendment. Why don’t we allow Mr. Trump to explain in his own words this bit of legislation and its history:

The Johnson amendment has blocked our pastors and ministers and others from speaking their minds from their own pulpits. If they want to talk about Christianity, if they want to preach, if they want to talk about politics, they’re unable to do so. If they want to do it, they take a tremendous risk that they lose their tax-exempt status. […] When did it happen? 1954 or so. Lyndon Johnson was having problems – powerful guy. I actually, as just own way [sic] – you have to gain respect for what he was able to do. Can you imagine that this man single-handedly – he was having problems with churches. And there was a church in Houston that was giving him a hard time, maybe for very good reason. And he put in an amendment that basically stopped our great pastors and ministers and others from talking, under the penalty of losing their tax-exempt status.[i]

As Trump suggests, the Johnson Amendment applies to tax-exempt charitable and religious non-profit organizations and prohibits those organizations from either supporting or opposing particular candidates for political office. However, as Emma Green argues in The Atlantic, the issue many religious groups (and Trump himself) have with the Amendment may have a lot more to do with money than free speech, the latter of which being the usual sticking point in conversations surrounding the law. A repeal of the Johnson Amendment (barring the difficulty for Trump of actually accomplishing it) would allow religious institutions to maintain tax exemption – that is, to continue being subsidized by the American public – while also channeling both their money and their influence from the pulpit into particular political election campaigns. Additionally, these donations by religious entities for political ends may remain tax-deductible, something which I’m sure would not hurt Trump’s own campaign. (However, I seriously doubt anyone actually believes that Trump’s religious gestures have been anything other than strategic, as tends to be the way with American electoral politics.)

Trump is a man fascinated by power. He seems to like power almost in the way some people like the look of Van Gogh prints or Scarface posters in their dorm rooms – not for its meaning or utility but simply because he thinks it’s cool. This aesthetic feeling he has for power then gets struck with a twinge of repulsion when he discovers that the ideological factions who support him feel disempowered by the American legal system. Trump tells of the moment when he first learned about the Johnson Amendment, meeting in a Manhattan high rise above Fifth Avenue with a group of clergy who explained that the law barred them from supporting him:

So we were looking down onto the sidewalk and there were people walking on the sidewalk. And I said, so, folks, what you’re telling me is those people walking way, way down there on the sidewalk have really more power than you do, because they’re allowed to express their feelings and thoughts openly and without penalty. And one of the pastors, who I knew very well – and these are powerful people; these are strong people with magnificent voices and just – and magnificent hearts, much more importantly – they looked at me and they said, that’s actually right. They have more power than we do. We’re not allowed to express.

What we need to remember here is that this disempowerment, this inability of religious-ideological leaders to speak out over the multitude about what should happen in elections, is all bound up in money. It’s not that they are forbade to speak at all. It only means that if they use the strength and finances of their institution as a whole (I think here of the political personhood of the corporation), then they will need to start paying the dues of citizenship that the rest of the American voting public is required to pay.

A couple of months ago George O. Wood, the general superintendent of the Assemblies of God – which is the evangelical Christian denomination I grew up within – wrote a pastoral letter included in the denomination’s periodical ministers letter entitled “The Battle for Religious Liberty.” His letter describes the perceived dangers he and other evangelical leaders saw in a bill which was at the time being proposed before the California state senate. The bill, SB 1146, as it appeared in the original form proposed by Sen. Ricardo Lara, would have restricted religious exemptions from Title IX non-discrimination requirements. Basically, the bill would have prohibited religious institutions of higher education in California who receive financial assistance from the state from denying their services, benefits, or admittance to people whose sexual behavior or gender identity transgress the religious beliefs of that institution – where before religious colleges and universities were exempt from those requirements of non-discrimination. (The bill has since been passed in gutted form, now no longer restricting religious exemptions but merely requiring that exempt institutions post publicly that they are exempt from those non-discrimination requirements and for what reasons.)

In Wood’s letter to Assemblies of God ministers, he frames the dangerous-looking bill as a further step in “the secular left’s” marginalization, discrimination, and, ultimately, persecution of Christians by further attacking religious freedom. As he says, “The threats to religious freedom that are now upon us can be likened to the frog put into a pan of water placed on the stove. The water warms gradually and the frog does not realize its peril until it is too late to jump out of the pan.” This is the sort of rhetoric which is often voiced by anxious conservative religious people – the idea being that political culture, considered to be largely both “secular” and “left,” is constantly exerting more and more pressure upon them to surrender their beliefs and practices that run against culture’s interests. This perceived pressure, to them, is always a sign of an impending persecution where contemporary history again becomes like Nero’s Rome, conservative Christians as the oppressed minority.

The same rhetoric shows up in the new evangelical movie God’s Not Dead 2, as several pastors discuss an imminent subpoena by the prosecutor’s office, “demanding that we submit copies of our sermons for the last three months for review.” One of the pastors reacts with a face full of fear, saying, “So now the government can determine what we can and can’t preach at our churches?” Another responds, much like Wood in the Assemblies of God letter, by saying “Unfortunately, I think this is just the beginning. We’ve been ignoring it, and now we’re paying the price for it.” Due to a failure of vigilance on the part of evangelical Christians, the government got what it wanted all along: to eliminate the truth-telling power of Christians. Finally, the eschatological end of these encroachments by the government is the flat-out suppression of Christianity. The last pastor to speak says, “Pressure today means persecution tomorrow.” George Wood says, “This is what is pending in the California legislature as I write—the outright persecution of Christian institutions by a state that says, “We will attempt to humiliate and marginalize you if you don’t give in.”

The perhaps impossible question in all this has to do with the particular character of the relationship between expressed belief and genuine concerns. Does this idea that there is a spiritual battle being waged between Christians and secularists/Satan (and I am not overstating the case here) merely serve to embolden the political movement for continued government tax exemptions and subsidies flowing into religious organizations? Is it a mask for the desire of influential religious leaders to impact elections in a way suitable to their interests? Or are these political movements the natural reaction of a group of people who genuinely see their social context as vehemently opposed to their basic convictions? It would be far too presumptuous to claim to know absolutely the “authenticity” of another’s faith, but perhaps we can see, within these questions, the effective role belief and, moreover, belief’s institutions can play in the discourse of how we go about constructing our democracy.

Certainly I have my own prejudices regarding these conversations, as I’m sure has peeked out of what I’ve written here, but it is incredibly important to pay attention to the power play of factions in politics, since perhaps, after all, the very reality of the democratic-political must involve the ongoing confrontation of factions vying for political hegemony. This is the sort realist-with-ameliorative-potential conception of democratic politics that Chantal Mouffe proffers in her book The Democratic Paradox[ii]. She argues against the frameworks of deliberative democracy and Rawlsian liberalism, saying that these conceptions hide the hegemonic nature of constituting a public – they characterize deliberative rationality in a way that reifies liberal political structures and makes all other normative conceptions of society illegitimate. “It is to deny the fact that, like any other regime, modern pluralist democracy constitutes a system of relations of power…” (32). In other words, all political systems are both contingent and hegemonic.

Mouffe prefers instead a concept she calls “agonistic pluralism,” in which particular self-constituted constellations of “a people” confront each other in an adversarial relationship, the ground of struggle being the very manner of constituting the public realm, the democratic relationship between citizens, the “good” of the society. This is a politics which has surrendered the hope for consensus but which instead must be willing always to unmake and remake itself, to admit that there is an outside-to-the-system and that the tension between differing viewpoints must always remain in tension.

Christian evangelicals have constituted themselves as a people with certain values and beliefs in the good of a political society, but, in many ways, they attempt to exert the expression of those values within a system made up by their adversaries. They see it this way, though they sublimate the character of their adversary up to a transcendent degree, such that the democratic contestation is not merely between flesh and blood. Meanwhile their adversaries, such as Sen. Lara, locate themselves within a people who define the relation of citizens as requiring prohibitions on discrimination, at least when the arena for that discrimination exists in a space considered constitutionally public. Government subsidies, within the liberalist hegemonic framework, are considered the outcome of an agreement by the entire political public (an idea laughable, perhaps, in practice) and therefore must only be received by those who commit themselves to the public’s values. The element of money is a common interest to competing factions and so coerces adversarial forces into problematic relationships with one another. It also lends the hegemonic factions a useful tool for coercing subordinated groups into compliance with hegemonic norms, under the guise of liberal principles. Money complicates everything.

So this is all perhaps to say that while evangelicals exaggerate their case in saying they are persecuted – this is on a certain level, after all, a flesh and blood agonism of adversaries, not necessarily enemies – they are not wrong to see that they are competing for public ground in a match-up of groups who are all running on fundamentally incompatible conceptions of the “good.” We cannot hope for consensus on certain of these issues regarding “religious liberty” or “religious freedom,” but we also should not kid ourselves into thinking that the way we have constituted our republic allows for all serene pluralism without anyone necessarily disempowered. The struggle is a good thing. The struggle is the process of empowerment for all sectors of the multitude. No project to define ourselves or to define the structures of our relations to each other should ever be closed.

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[i] “Full text: Trump Values Voter Summit remarks.” Politico.

[ii] Mouffe, Chantal. The Democratic Paradox. London: Verso, 2005. Print.

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