During the UN General Assembly in September, at an event dubbed a “Global Call to Protect Religious Freedom,” US President Donald Trump announced the formation of a coalition of American business leaders whose mandate will be to “encourage the private sector to protect people of all faiths in the workplace.” I was in the audience at the invitation of the US Department of State to represent the interests of humanists and other nontheists.
Given this administration’s relentless attempts to permit religious bigotry and discrimination under the guise of religious freedom, this coalition is likely nothing more than a thinly veiled attempt to privilege Christianity at the expense of true religious freedom for all. The announcement reminded me of two other attempts by the Trump regime to create publicly funded groups dedicated to the elimination of our civil rights. In July 2018, the then attorney general Jeff Sessions announced a Religious Liberty Task Force, meant to enforce a dangerous October 2017 executive order. Just a year later, in July 2019, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo launched the Commission on Unalienable Rights to ostensibly enshrine “rights” as the word pertains to US foreign policy. But religious liberty and civil rights activists are concerned that this commission is yet another attempt to remove LGBTQ+ rights and those of the nonreligious from the international conversation.
The American Humanist Association’s constituents were noticeably left out of Trump’s call Monday for freedoms for the faithful, as we have been in every so-called religious freedom action taken by this administration. And so it is critical that nontheistic Americans—humanists, atheists, and others—remind the administration, and all those who would prefer to see our existence ignored, that we’re in the room, listening to the conversation. That we’re actively working in the courts, in the halls of government, and in the public square to combat the dismissal of nontheists and the religiously unaffiliated. We cannot allow an agenda that privileges Christians over all others to escape scrutiny.
The Trump administration also announced efforts to encourage foreign governments to allow their people to “follow their conscience, live by their faith, and give glory to God.” However, the number of countries in which nontheists experience harassment is growing rapidly. According to a Pew Research report released this past summer, harassment of religiously unaffiliated people (both by their government and by private groups) has become much more widespread since 2012. In fact, Buddhists and the unaffiliated were the only two groups in the study to see an increase in harassment in 2017. Twenty-two countries in the world have criminalized apostasy, or renunciation of religious faith, and in twelve countries the crime is punishable by death.
President Trump began his remarks at the UN bragging about having “obliterated the Johnson Amendment.” This was an egregious misrepresentation of the administration’s failed attempts to repeal the political speech restrictions on churches and other nonprofit entities. While it’s true that Trump has protected the legal provision from enforcement, it’s still very much alive in the US Tax Code, waiting for a leader who values the separation of religion and government.
“The United States was founded on the principle that our rights do not come from government; they come from God,” Trump stated at one point. He then closed his remarks, in a complete repudiation of millions of Americans, by asking that “God bless the faithful.” Since his election, Trump has attempted to create and enforce special privileges for the religious right of this country, despite claims to stand by all who seek religious freedom. Religious freedom is not, nor should it ever be, a license to discriminate.
But perhaps the most concerning aspect of the president’s UN address is the motivation behind it. Simultaneously, just down the hall, Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg spoke at a daylong summit focused on the reduction of harmful greenhouse gas emissions. Trump, threatened by the sixteen-year-old who has garnered worldwide acclaim, convened his own summit focused on international religious freedom. The so-called leader of the free world has a habit of skipping tough climate conversations—he was absent from the climate change session at the G7 summit last month, for example. While international religious freedom is a critical issue that endangers millions of religious and nonreligious minority groups, focusing on it should not come at the expense of increased action to combat the ongoing climate disaster.
The American Humanist Association will continue to monitor and respond to the actions taken by the president’s new coalition of US business leaders, as we work to protect the freedom of and from religion for all.