By the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber
From the New York Times to the Dallas Morning News, a mainstream consensus has emerged in the 2016 Presidential race. This week, even USA Today weighed in: Donald Trump is a real danger to America.
But Trumpism has not become a legitimate threat to American democracy because of Donald Trump. Despite the best efforts of the Republican Party and his revolving door of campaign managers, Trump is bent on self-destruction. But the Trump train continues in spite of its candidate because its twisted promise to “Make America Great Again” has been embraced by so-called “religious liberty” defenders.
No one embodies this embrace more prominently than Mike Pence, who will take the debate stage this Tuesday to defend Trump’s policy proposals. The polite and self-effacing governor of Indiana, Pence has been a hero of those who want to convince Christians that gay marriage and public accomodations for transgender people are somehow a threat to their religious freedom. Pence does not flaunt his wealth, boast of infidelity, or stoop to insult. But he is all the more dangerous because he endorses Trump’s extremism and defends his policy proposals with a smile on his face.
Pence gained national attention in 2015 when he signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, hallmark legislation for a national strategy designed to convince evangelical voters that their “values” had been attacked by the Obama administration and the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision. Ignoring the gospel’s overwhelming concern for the poor, the sick, the immigrant and the incarcerated, this “evangelical outreach” has aimed to convince Christians that they face persecution simple because members of the LGBTQ community are guaranteed equal protection under the law.
Under pressure from the business community, Pence backed off from the most extreme demands of the RFRA, persuading the most extreme among the religious right that he had sold out. But several well-funded campaigns have continued this strategy of evangelical outreach, through traditional engines of the so-called “religious right,” like Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council, as well as new organizations, like My Faith Votes. Franklin Graham, heir to the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, has invested $10 million dollars in his Decision America tour, which is not designed to invite a personal decision for Jesus so much as a decision to embrace an understanding of “religious liberty” that turns the very notion against itself.
The Revival: Time for a Moral Revolution of Values is in Indiana today. We are going to Mike Pence’s home state—to Indianapolis, the city where I was born—to revive the heart of our democracy. But to do it, we must call people of faith together across religious and denominational lines to reclaim the true meaning of religious liberty.
Quakers, Puritans, Catholics and Baptists who were persecuted for their faith in Europe came to America in search of religious freedom. They knew that freedom of religion, above all else, meant freedom from any government that might try to write its own interpretation of God’s law into human law. Whether Americans agree with Mike Pence when it comes to the Bible’s definition of marriage should not be a political issue in America. The First Amendment guarantees him the right to believe whatever he wants. It also guarantees gay and transgendered people freedom from his religious beliefs.
But freedom of religion doesn’t only guarantee Americans freedom from others’ religious belief. It also guarantees the free exercise of faith. And the free exercise of Christianity, Islam, Judaism and a principled agnosticism is what The Revival is about.
In over a dozen cities across America, we have gathered people of various faiths to ask, “What is the moral heart of our traditions?” and, “What kind of policies does our faith inspire us to promote in the public square?”
Over 3,000 faith leaders have now signed our Higher Ground Moral Declaration, proclaiming a broad consensus that, while we may be both conservative and liberal, while we are Democrat, Republican and Independent, we can agree beyond partisan differences that an economy that lifts up the poor is moral. Public education that serves all people is moral. Access to healthcare is a moral issue. Criminal justice reform is a moral issue. Voting rights are a moral issue. Equal protection under the law, immigrant justice, environmetal protection and defense spending are all moral issues.
For far too long, the only religious voices in America’s public square have been those of Franklin Graham and James Dobson, rallying people to support the policies of politicians like Mike Pence. But however polite he may be in his presentation, Pence is just as wrong—and just as dangerous—as Trump. The so-called religious liberty advocates who back him are now driving the Trump train. We have a moral obligation to cry aloud and spare not. This is not what true religion looks like. There is a better way. We can move forward together toward higher ground.