Religious liberty is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, yet the meaning of this core American value has been debated throughout the nation’s history. Today, conflicts most often arise from Christian nationalism, the anti-democratic notion that America is a nation by and for Christians alone. At its core, this idea threatens the principle of the separation of church and state and undermines the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. It also leads to discrimination, and at times violence, against religious minorities and the nonreligious. Christian nationalism is also a contributing ideology in the religious right’s misuse of religious liberty as a rationale for circumventing laws and regulations aimed at protecting a pluralistic democracy, such as nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQI+ people, women, and religious minorities. These issues will only draw more attention in the years ahead, since the 6-3 conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court appears eager to hear more religious liberty cases advancing Christian nationalist arguments than in previous years.
To learn more about the shifting landscape of religious liberty, the Center for American Progress conducted an interview over email in February 2022 with religious liberty expert Amanda Tyler. She is the executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty (BJC), which has a long history of championing religious freedom as both a democratic and a Baptist value. She is the co-host of BJC’s “Respecting Religion” podcast and a board member of the Center for Faith, Justice, and Reconciliation. A graduate of the University of Texas School of Law, Tyler previously worked for U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-TX) as district director and as counsel for the House Ways and Means Committee. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Center for American Progress: What are the most pressing threats to religious freedom in the United States today?
Tyler: I believe that the single biggest threat to religious freedom in the United States today is Christian nationalism. Christian nationalism is antithetical to the constitutional ideal that belonging in American society is not predicated on what faith one practices or whether someone is religious at all. The political ideology that seeks to merge American and Christian identities is deeply embedded in American society and manifests itself in a number of different ways, some more obviously harmful than others. The most violent expressions, such as what we saw at the January 6 insurrection, get most of the attention. But the more subtle ones—like state legislative efforts to promote the teaching of the Bible in public schools or to require the posting of “In God We Trust” in public schools and other public places—are also dangerous in that they perpetuate the false narrative that to be a true American one must be Christian—and often a certain type of Christian. Christian nationalism undergirds a number of threats to religious freedom, including anti-Muslim bigotry, anti-Semitism, and government-sponsored religion.
CAP: The country is still in the early stages of the new 6-3 conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court, but it’s clear that this new balance will have a major impact on how the court understands the First Amendment’s religious freedom clauses. How would you assess the current trajectory of Supreme Court jurisprudence on the Establishment Clause and Free Exercise Clause?
Tyler: As you note, the First Amendment protects religious freedom in two interconnected and necessary ways—by preventing government establishment of religion and by protecting the free exercise of religion from unnecessary government interference. In my view, both clauses are essential when it comes to protecting religious freedom. I’m concerned that the current Supreme Court seems overly deferential to free exercise claims of some, while not giving enough weight to Establishment Clause principles and how those principles protect religious freedom for all. Instead, the court has couched a number of its recent decisions in terms of trying to prevent discrimination against religion, interpreting Establishment Clause principles that gird against government-sponsored religion as “discrimination” in certain contexts.
CAP: The Supreme Court is considering a number of religious freedom cases this term, including Ramirez v. Collier, which the court recently decided, as well as Carson v. Makin, Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, and Shurtleff v. City of Boston. Do you see a common thread between what’s at stake in these cases? Why should Americans care about how the Supreme Court rules?
The most obvious common thread between the cases is that the court seems very engaged with religion. All Americans should care about these cases because how the court rules on religious freedom affects us all. I was pleased to see the court rule 8-to-1 in favor of Mr. Ramirez, affirming strong free exercise protections in the death chamber—a principle that had been contested over the past few years in prior cases that were on the court’s emergency, or “shadow,” docket.
The Center for American Progress’ Maggie Siddiqi released a statement praising the ruling in Ramirez v. Collier.
Carson v. Makin is probably the most significant religious freedom case of the term. It involves government funding of religious education. The court seems poised to say that the Free Exercise Clause requires Maine to use its public education dollars to fund religious schools. What will be telling, of course, is how narrowly written the opinion is—whether it applies to the peculiar facts of the Maine public school system or whether the court is paving the way for much more government funding of religious schools and, therefore, religion. From my perspective, that is an incredibly troubling direction for religious freedom, particularly as the court has recently expanded the rights of religious schools to hire and fire their teachers without regard to nondiscrimination laws.
I’m concerned about the court’s decision to take the Kennedy v. Bremerton case, possibly as a move to reverse decades of case law that has prohibited government-sponsored prayer in the public school context. Those landmark Establishment Clause cases go all the way back to the 1960s and say that everyone’s religious freedom is protected when the government cannot tell children in public school how or when to pray. The court reinforced this principle in the football game context as recently as 2000 in Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe. That decision has been repeatedly maligned by those who want more government-sponsored religion, and perhaps this court is trying to use this case as a vehicle to change course. That would be a decidedly wrong direction for religious freedom.
Of all these cases, Shurtleff v. Boston seems like the least consequential given that the practice that is being challenged—Boston’s flag-raising ceremony—seems to be unique and not likely to be emulated in other places. The court took this case on free speech grounds, not religious grounds, so there isn’t likely to be a big change when it comes to how religious freedom is protected.
CAP: The COVID-19 pandemic has seen a new spate of requests for religious exemptions from public health orders and laws. What impact is the pandemic having on the country’s understanding of religious freedom at large?
Tyler: I think the divides in American society over the COVID-19 pandemic illustrate a long-running debate about the nature of freedom, including religious freedom. There are some who subscribe to a more individual rights notion of freedom—that any infringement on a personal liberty is an attack on freedom and must be opposed. That notion of freedom, however, does not work in a large society, particularly one as pluralistic as the United States.
The better path, I believe, is an understanding of freedom that takes into account the rights of everyone in our pluralistic democracy. In the introduction to her new book of cultural criticism titled On Freedom, author Maggie Nelson writes that she “takes it as a given that our entire existence, including our freedoms and unfreedoms, is built upon a ‘we’ instead of an ‘I.’” This “we” version of freedom understands the need to protect individual rights as much as we can, while recognizing a limit when protecting one person’s freedom starts to infringe on another’s. Absolutist language when it comes to freedom might be elegantly simple, but it is not effective at ensuring a free society. I think this has played out in areas of the country that opposed public health measures in the short run, only to see the pandemic persist in ways that have continued to limit freedom and tragically taken a huge toll in the form of loss of human life and health.
There are some who subscribe to a more individual rights notion of freedom ... That notion of freedom, however, does not work in a large society, particularly one as pluralistic as the United States.
The law is still being shaped in this area, so it is too early to definitively say how this will result in terms of changes made to the way religious freedom is viewed. Context is incredibly important in all of these cases.
CAP: The ideology of Christian nationalism presents a significant threat to religious freedom and religious pluralism. BJC’s Christians Against Christian Nationalism initiative is a unique and important campaign to address this. How do you define Christian nationalism, and why was this campaign a priority for BJC?
Tyler: Christian nationalism is a political ideology and cultural framework that seeks to merge American and Christian identities. It heavily relies upon a mythological founding of the United States as a “Christian nation,” singled out for God’s special favor. It is not a religion, but it intersects with Christianity in its use of Christian symbols and language. But the “Christian” in Christian nationalism is more about identity than religion and carries with it assumptions about nativism, white supremacy, authoritarianism, patriarchy, and militarism.
The 'Christian' in Christian nationalism is more about identity than religion and carries with it assumptions about nativism, white supremacy, authoritarianism, patriarchy, and militarism.
BJC first organized Christians Against Christian Nationalism in July 2019, when we and our ecumenical partners saw a rising tide of violent Christian nationalism and wanted to organize a resource specifically for Christians to learn more about it and take a stand against it. As we have learned more, I am convinced that Christian nationalism is the single biggest threat to religious freedom today. The best way to combat Christian nationalism is to recommit to foundational ideas of religious freedom for all—principles such as:
- People of all faiths and none have the right and responsibility to engage constructively in the public square.
- One’s religious affiliation, or lack thereof, should be irrelevant to one’s standing in the civic community.
- Government should not prefer one religion over another or religion over nonreligion.
- Religious instruction is best left to our houses of worship and other religious institutions.
These are among the core values that are at the center of the initiative and part of a statement that anyone who identifies as a Christian is invited to sign.
We are concerned not only about the threat of Christian nationalism to American democracy but also its threat to Christianity itself. Christian nationalism, which merges political and religious authority, can quickly lead to idolatry and a confusion of allegiance. Patriotism is a laudable value and one that statement signers embrace as well. But when patriotism requires us to sacrifice our religious convictions, then it has ceased to be patriotism and has become nationalism. BJC’s unique voice as a faith-based advocacy group for everyone’s religious freedom allowed us to lead this initiative, collecting resources for Christians to interrogate Christian nationalism in their own communities and congregations. Christians, particularly white Christians, have a special responsibility and opportunity to understand and dismantle Christian nationalism.
[BJC is] concerned not only about the threat of Christian nationalism to American democracy but also its threat to Christianity itself.
CAP: It’s not just the courts where religious freedom battles play out. The legislative and the executive branches of government each have roles to play in defending religious freedom. What opportunities does BJC see to advance religious freedom through its engagement with Congress and the Biden administration?
Tyler: BJC has long advocated for religious freedom in Congress and with the executive branch. The Biden administration is keenly aware of religious freedom issues and benefits greatly from the expertise of Melissa Rogers, who serves as executive director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships and as senior director for faith and public policy on the Domestic Policy Council. In its first year, the Biden administration made good strides in reversing some of the policies of the Trump administration that harmed religious freedom, including the Muslim and African travel ban.
One particular policy that often flies under the radar has to do with protection of Indigenous sacred lands. Too often, our Indigenous neighbors are expected to sacrifice their holy places to satisfy capitalism’s greed. BJC is working to protect Chi’chil Bildagoteel, loosely translated as “Oak Flat” in English, which is sacred to the San Carlos Apache and other Western tribes. The current plan to mine the low-grade copper deposit under Chi’chil Bildagoteel won’t make America more secure or fill American coffers, but it will permanently destroy a sacred sanctuary and encumber already scarce water resources in Arizona. We are continuing to pressure the administration and advocate in Congress for passage of the Save Oak Flat Act.
CAP: Baptists have a long history of advocating for religious freedom. How has your faith shaped your own career?
Tyler: I am Baptist, and it was through the church that I first encountered BJC as a college student. I immediately connected with the mission of BJC, which is grounded in theology and expressed in robust advocacy for constitutional principles that are meant to protect everyone’s religious freedom. That “we” concept of freedom I referenced earlier is expressed beautifully in the Bible by Paul in his ode to freedom—his letter to the Galatians:
It is absolutely clear that God has called you to a free life. Just make sure that you don’t use this freedom as an excuse to do whatever you want to do and destroy your freedom. Rather, use your freedom to serve one another in love; that’s how freedom grows. For everything we know about God’s Word is summed up in a single sentence: Love others as you love yourself. That’s an act of true freedom. (Galatians 5:13-14, The Message)
This scripture is a touchpoint for my life and for my work at BJC.
With multiple U.S. Supreme Court rulings coming soon, the future of religious liberty in the United States is uncertain. But defense of the separation of church and state must continue no matter what direction the court takes. The country’s founding promise of religious freedom requires everyone to do their part to defend it today. Thankfully, the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty and many of CAP’s other faith-based partners are doing just that.