The Year in Religion and Politics

Selections from The Atlantic’s coverage of 2016—from religious-liberty bills to Donald Trump's polarizing effect on evangelicals.

David Goldman, Richard Drew, Steve Helber, Chuck Burton / AP / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

Every December, The Atlantic looks back on the previous year—to highlight not just the “big moments” but also the progression of “big ideas.” Below, the third of three installments looks at the year in religion coverage.

A contentious presidential race that reshuffled political coalitions put religion in the national spotlight in 2016. Many religious voters, feeling ostracized in a changing national landscape, chose to support Donald Trump—a candidate who hardly seemed to exemplify Christian morality, but who nevertheless promised to “make America great again.” Those who could not connect with Trump’s controversial rhetoric instead challenged his candidacy, dividing religious communities. Over the course of the year, Atlantic writers also delved into other prominent issues—from the battle over religious freedom to the country’s growing Islamophobia.

The Year’s Coverage

The Freedom to Choose: Religious liberty came to the fore of the national conversation after the Supreme Court’s landmark 2014 decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby. In 2016, it produced a push for legislation that would give businesses, public bathrooms, and religious colleges the right to limit services to LGBT people. Emma Green followed these bills closely throughout the year. She covered the challenges state legislatures face working to protect LGBT civil-rights while also upholding religious freedom. In another story, she examined what the death of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia will mean for the future of religious-freedom decisions. Jonathan Merritt also weighed in, writing that the problems these laws claim to address don’t actually exist. Alan Noble offered a plea for accommodation between activists and religious colleges, and Alan Levinovitz argued that trigger warnings served to make campuses hostile to religious students.

Living in Fear: Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and policy platforms sparked questions over how Muslims should be treated in the United States. Research suggests that his divisive rhetoric—from calling for a ban on Muslim entry into the country to strategizing plans for a nationwide registry—may fuel Islamophobia and hate crimes, wrote Clare Foran. And Nafisa Eltahir looked at the bind facing religious Muslims, who can downplay their religious identity to avoid discrimination, but may find that approach “can only bring exhaustion, along with the loss of distinctive elements of Muslim culture.”

A Community Divided: Donald Trump proved to be a controversial figure within evangelical communities, as well. Molly Ball highlighted the split among evangelical leaders after Trump gave a speech at Liberty University in January; Emma Green returned to the campus in October, to find students fatigued with politics and the Republican Party that gave them Trump. Jonathan Merritt examined the shift away from looking to politicians for moral leadership, and Yoni Appelbaum argued that in Trump, evangelicals had found a champion, not a moral exemplar.

Christianity in the Contemporary United States: White evangelicals began the year feeling besieged, and ended it in triumph. Emma Green reported on a survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute and Brookings that found almost half of Americans believe Christian discrimination is as much of a problem as discrimination against minorities. She also explored the historical context of Trump’s appeal to evangelicals. Robert P. Jones delved deeper into these feelings of displacement and asked “why white Protestantism as a whole—arguably the most powerful cultural force in the history of the United States—has faded.” And in the wake of Trump’s election, Green found white evangelicals newly hopeful.

The Politics of Abortion: The tension between maintaining religious freedom and protecting women’s health continued to play out in American politics this year. Stephanie Russell-Kraft argued that U.S. courts tend to favor conservative Christian viewpoints when ruling on these cases. Garrett Epps shared how this might play out in a Supreme Court case involving a group of religious nonprofits that do not want to provide contraception coverage for their employees. The 2016 candidates also weighed in on the debate. Hillary Clinton has been a pro-choice advocate, but the University of Chicago professor Myriam Renaud argued that “her Methodist upbringing has shaped her ambivalence about the procedure.” Donald Trump promised to appoint a Supreme Court justice who would overturn Roe v. Wade “automatically.” But many, including Peter Beinart, questioned how Trump really feels about abortion.