NEW YORK — It may be the one issue in America capable of uniting Mormons, Native Americans, Roman Catholics and Evangelical Christians. The issue of religious liberty has, in recent years, increasingly galvanized people of many faith traditions in the United States to unite against secular forces.
One of its most-vocal backers and eloquent advocates has been opinion journalist David French.
While religious liberty has also gained traction in other parts of the world, Americans enjoy more religious freedom than most because of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The country’s predominantly Protestant founders knew the best way to protect religious liberty was to keep the government out of religion. As a result, many of the religious conflicts that are the standard around the world have not occurred in the United States. Nonetheless, French said politics has torn Americans apart like never before and that has caused increased conflict.
“The state of religious liberty in our country is a product of our national polarization,” French said, pointing out that our fragmented society has led to increased conflicts in American political discourse.
French, a senior writer for the conservative magazine National Review, made those comments on Monday during a lecture at The King’s College in New York before a crowd of 100 people, largely made up of students. The lecture — co-sponsored by National Review Institute and the John McCandlish Phillips Journalism Institute — also featured French’s observations regarding President Trump’s record after two years in office as well as a spirited question-and-answer session with students.
The biggest threat, French and social conservatives argue, is secular culture and the insistence that people of faith forgo their religious convictions to accommodate those in society who do not adhere to a faith tradition. There have been plenty of examples in recent years. Should a Catholic hospital be compelled to offer abortions? Can a Sikh be forced to shave his beard and not wear a turban in order to serve in the U.S Army? These are both real cases — and both have been successfully defended by conservatives in courtrooms across the country.
The U.S. Supreme Court has already weighed in on several noteworthy cases. The issue of religious liberty was highlighted by a Christian baker’s refusal to make a cake for a gay couple’s wedding in 2012. After lower courts had sided with the couple, Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority last June, argued that it was “unexceptional” that Colorado sought to protect gay couples from discrimination and ensure equal access to goods and services.
Colorado went wrong, he added, in its hostile treatment of Jack Phillips’ business, Masterpiece Cakeshop, and his religious beliefs. During the case, Colorado’s Civil Rights Commission had expressed the view that faith has no place in the public square and that religious freedom is another word for bigotry. Indeed, supporters of civil, gay and abortion rights have expressed alarm at these decisions — and by efforts over the past two years by the Trump administration — saying it gives people are license to discriminate.
While the Supreme Court ruling was a victory for Phillips, people like French remain vigilant that the religious rights of Americans are not trampled upon.
“I’m not hating a single human being by adhering to fundamental Christian theology,” said French, who is a Christian. “We should not concede that point — ever!”
French also conceded that the law isn’t enough these days and that religion has come under pressure from secular society in large part due to the increased polarization between Republicans and Democrats.
“Compared to the power of American culture, the law is much less important,” he said.
Politically, French, a constitutional lawyer, journalist and U.S. Army veteran who served in Iraq, has also led the charge in the “Never Trump” movement — something that has garnered him much scorn by members of the alt-right and Trump supporters on Twitter. After briefly considering his own White House run in 2016 in an effort to thwart Trump, French decided not to run. Instead, he’s used his columns to attack the Republican president, while also extolling the virtues that make him one of the greatest thinkers of the American conservative movement.
Writing in National Review earlier this month, for example, French noted the increasing polarization between Christians in this country and those who consider themselves secular. He wrote: “It’s time to face facts: In large parts of the country, religious intolerance is popular. And indeed, conservative anger against religious intolerance may well serve to make that intolerance even more popular, given our nation’s negative polarization. After all, politicians increasingly become heroes merely by attracting the right enemies, and facing down Christian conservatives can put a star in a progressive politician’s crown.
“The Christian task is to defend our unalienable rights vigorously without deceiving ourselves into believing that the defense of our liberty is the principle challenge of our time. In fact, reversing the cultural decline of Christianity would do more to preserve religious freedom than any conceivable Supreme Court case.”
It is observations such as these that make French both beloved by conservatives and polarizing among progressives. In his talk, French also discussed the recent Karen Pence controversy — defending her in an appearance last week on MSNBC — and how it had become “perceived conventional wisdom that she’s a bigot.”
Karen Pence, the wife of U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, made headlines earlier this month when she announced that she’d accepted, as The New York Times put it, “a part-time position at a private Christian school that does not allow gay students and requires employees to affirm that marriage should only be between a man and a woman.”
French said “the shock and horror” of Democrats and others on the left was an example of the country’s political polarization and that there was nothing wrong with a Second Lady who “actually adheres to orthodox Christian teaching.”
French said the situation has grown so bad that even people in “The Bible Belt” — areas of the Midwest and Southern U.S. where Evangelical Protestantism is widely practiced — now fear retaliation for being open about their faith.
“They’re afraid to share their Christian beliefs in Nashville, Tennessee, because they might be fired,” he said.
French also discussed defending ideas and actions that he doesn’t believe in himself, but should be allowed to take place under the First Amendment. He cited former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s decision to take a knee during the playing of the National Anthem to protest racial injustice and police brutality. While he did not agree with Kaepernick’s action, French said Trump’s involvement calling on players who had taken up the cause to stop was wrong.
To make his point about the defense of religious freedom and the First Amendment as a whole, French said: “Fight for the rights of others you would like to have for yourself.”