The Real Threat to Religious Liberty

The Real Threat to Religious Liberty August 3, 2016

reginaUp front, you should know that I don’t intend to vote for either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump in November. It’s not a tough decision, frankly. I live in the bluest of blue states, Rhode Island, where the only real question is whether the Democratic nominee will go over or just miss the 60% mark. So, although I have deep moral objections to both candidates, it’s an easy call for me: I’m writing in Wendell Berry’s name again.

But if I lived in a battleground state and had to choose between Clinton and Trump, I’d vote for the former because I believe Donald Trump is the greatest threat to religious liberty facing the United States today.

Of course all sorts of people, Catholics and Protestants alike, have warned us of the threat posed by Clinton, especially the likelihood that she would appoint Supreme Court justices hostile to the exercise of faith in the public square. Honestly, I think a lot of this talk has been overblown, a consequence of the capture of religious conservatives by the Republican Party. Conservatives have rarely rushed to the defense of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Muslims or other religious minorities when their practices were proscribed or restricted by government. They don’t even complain when cities and towns outlaw the feeding of the hungry by fellow Christians, or when governors like Mike Pence seek to prevent Catholic Charities from serving refugees.

That said, I’m am concerned when the federal government seeks to force religious orders like the Little Sisters of Poor to pay for contraception for their employees. Or when local governments bring the hammer down on small business owners for recusing themselves from off-site catering of same-sex weddings. A still greater threat is the criminalization of sermons critical of homosexuality, as was attempted in Houston, Texas, a couple of years ago. But these hardly rise to the level of a wholesale assault on religious liberty, in my view.

On the other hand, Donald Trump, if he’s true to his word, promises to threaten religious liberty in new and disturbing ways. First, he has pledged to target Muslim communities and religious institutions for infiltration and government surveillance, and even claims that he’d have “no choice” but to close mosques. Imagine a presidential candidate saying he’d have “no choice” but to close down churches or synagogues. There would be widespread outrage, but when it comes to the persecution of Muslims many Evangelicals and Catholics have rewarded Trump with their votes, apparently not realizing that if liberty is for me but not thee then it isn’t liberty at all.

But perhaps the greatest threat Trump presents to religious liberty is his abiding promise to form a vast federal agency to hunt down, arrest, detain, and deport 11 million undocumented immigrants. What he doesn’t realize is that millions of Christians like me will consider it our religious obligation to protect our brothers and sisters, even at the cost of our lives. The few sanctuary cities Trump rails against will become thousands of sanctuary homes, churches, parish halls, schools, and hospitals. And when Trump sends his armed federal agents into these homes and religious institutions, then we’ll all see what an assault on religious liberty really looks like.

This is personal for me. The woman in the picture at the top of this post is “Regina.” (That’s not her real name, but her real name is none of your business.) She’s an “illegal” who came here from Haiti two years ago on a six-month B-2 tourist visa and deliberately stayed longer, thereby breaking the law. A religious sister, human rights activist and nurse, she was beaten and left for dead by thugs working for the government installed by Hillary Clinton’s State Department. When they found out she had survived, they threatened to finish the job and harm her family. So she fled and wound up here with nothing and nobody, homeless and unable to speak English.

My wife and I first met Regina through my work with the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. She was living on a borrowed scrap of floor in a Haitian family’s overcrowded apartment. At our first meeting, the only thing she wanted to know was where she could receive the Eucharist. We connected her with the Haitian community at an urban parish, paid her host family’s rent, brought them food from time to time, and kept Regina in pocket cash for toiletries. When her host family eventually told her she had to leave, she had nowhere to go, so we asked her to live with us.

That was a year ago. In the months since Regina has become a second daughter to us. She even calls us “Dad” and “Mom.” She had already applied for asylum (and is still waiting for a decision), so we helped her get employment authorization, take English language courses, get certified as a nursing assistant, and find a job. She now works two jobs and is looking forward to the day when she can resume her career as a nurse, get married (religious life is over for her), have some kids, and become an American citizen. She is now a member of our family and will be forever, come hell or Donald Trump. We love her. She loves us. And love is more powerful than human law.

What we did for Regina we did for Christ, and in the process we became Christ to her. That’s the beautiful exchange effected by the Works of Mercy. She is a remarkable young woman, but she’s not exceptional. Every “illegal” has a past, a future, a story, a hope, and a beautiful human face. If Donald Trump is elected and pursues his evil plan, he will become the greatest threat to the exercise of religious liberty in American history because for many Christians – though, sadly, not most – aiding the poorest of the poor, even in defiance of the law, is the very heart of the Gospel, and we won’t abandon the Gospel.

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