Equality is different than the "religious freedom" the Christian right fights for.

Earlier today, this tweet came across my timeline:

I added the following comment:

This was an insight I owe to Sarah Posner’s book Unholy.

In the chapter titled “The Civil Rights Era is Over,” Posner details how, beginning with Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ enforcement of Trump religious freedom agenda, one of the main departments that implemented a definition of “religious freedom” that aligned solely with the Christian right was the Department of Health and Human Services. Posner writes that the HHS is:

“A sprawling agency of nearly eighty thousand employees and an annual budget in excess of one billion dollars. It has a vast mandate related to health care and social services. It oversees a range of services that touch the life of nearly every American: Medicare and Medicaid, food and drug safety, disease control and prevention, health research and policy, refugee resettlement, adoption and foster care, substance abuse treatment, and much more. From the very outset of the Trump presidency, the administration began stacking the agency with political appointees who would prioritize restricting abortion and contraception access, scale back Obama era efforts to protect LGBTQ rights, and broaden the ways in which social services providers—working with the agency as taxpayer-funded grantees and contractors—could refuse to refer clients for reproductive health care, to serve LGBTQ people or non-Christians—all in the name of protecting “religious freedom.”

The HHS has an Office of Civil Rights, which is supposed to enforce anti-discrimination. Under the leadership of the Trump-appointed Roger Severino (part of the DC power-couple recently profiled in the NYT), the OCR has nearly exclusively pursued the goals of the Christian right. Posner’s covers the consequences in incredible detail that is too long to share here, but here are some highlights:

  • “Once installed at the OCR, Severino proceeded to hire staff from leading Christian right organizations who had track records of advocating for special religious protections for people who oppose abortion and LGBTQ rights, and access against access to health care for women.”

  • Severino told a Federalist Society gathering that “as the state tends to grow, religious liberty tends to shrink. As he spoke—calling for a shrinking of government—he was looking to expand it, putting together an entirely new division within the OCR for the sole purpose of protecting “conscience” and “religious freedom.””

  • “The division Severino is now leading will consider, as an appropriate penalty for providing or even talking about abortion, the elimination of all funding to an entire state, potentially stripping poor children and the elderly of health care and eliminating countless other services to citizens.”

The receipts are available, if you know where to find them. Sarah does. The remainder of the chapter elucidates how these sorts of initiatives were pursued within other government departments as well.

With the Trump administration coming to a close (regardless of Trump, Charlie Kirk, and Eric Metaxas’ feelings about it), the religious right will no longer be “on the inside looking out,” as Tony Perkins said in 2019. But they remain both politically powerful and viable, even if their hands are removed from the levers of power—they thrive on persecution narratives after all—and the true religious freedom that comes from pluralism is worth fighting for.

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Further Reading/Listening

I spoke to Sarah about her book on Powers & Principalities earlier this year. You can listen to that conversation here:

There’s another story that I’m tracking which I owe my understanding of to Sarah Posner’s book, which I hope to explore in another edition. Here’s that story:

On the topic of pluralism, my friend Chrissy Stroop has a helpful infographic about how pluralism is good citizenship. I’d also add that it is good governance, which she writes about here.

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