When Conservatives Oppose 'Religious Freedom'

Christian conservatives who defend the rights of Muslims have come under attack by their ideological brethren.

Pamela Geller speaks at the Muhammad Art Exhibit and Contest in 2015. (Mike Stone / Reuters )

On March 28, Pamela Geller, co-founder of the group Stop Islamization of America, wrote a column on Breitbart that offered Donald Trump some advice: “Clean house.” Paul “Ryan has got to go. James Comey, too,” she urged. Then she added a more obscure name: “What’s Eric Treene still doing there?”

Treene, the Special Counsel for Religious Discrimination in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, is at first glance an odd Breitbart target. For starters, he’s a conservative evangelical Christian. His denomination, The Presbyterian Church in America, opposes abortion and gay marriage, and ordains only men. Before joining the Justice Department, Treene worked at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which later represented Hobby Lobby in its demand to be exempt from the Affordable Care Act’s mandate to cover contraception. When John Ashcroft hired Treene at the Justice Department in 2002, the anti-abortion group Faith and Action called it “a new day for Christians in Washington.” The liberal American Prospect, by contrast, warned that his appointment might be part of George W. Bush’s agenda for “moving us toward a form of Christian nationhood.”

Despite all this, Treene has become a reviled figure on the Trump-era right. His sin: defending the religious freedoms of American Muslims. Treene, declares Geller, serves as an “errand boy” for “Muslim Brotherhood operatives,” by which she means the leaders of America’s major Muslim organizations. And it’s not just Geller. Treene’s work has also come under attack from his fellow Christian conservatives. When the Justice Department filed an amicus brief defending a Muslim prisoner’s right to grow a beard in 2014, Robert Spencer, who the National Catholic Register has called the “foremost Catholic expert on Islam in our country,” accused Treene and his colleagues of believing that “wherever Islamic law and American law conflict, American law must give way.”

In 2010, when Treene’s office argued in favor of Muslims seeking to build a mosque in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, Pat Robertson warned that they were threatening the religious liberty of Christians, who if the mosque was built might be required to participate in “public prayer five times a day.”

In a way, it’s odd. American Muslims have a lot in common with Christian conservatives. According to a 2015 Pew Research Survey, they’re more likely than other Americans to affirm with complete certainty the existence of God and to pray every day. They are less likely to believe in evolution, less likely to believe that society benefits when women work outside the home and less likely to support same-sex marriage or abortion rights. In their religious devotion and attitudes toward gender and sexuality, American Muslims resemble evangelical Christians and traditional Catholics far more than they resemble secular progressives.

Moreover, they have in recent years faced mounting threats to their religious liberty at exactly the moment that religious liberty has become a Christian conservative preoccupation. Given these realities, one might think Treene would be a hero on the Christian right. Instead, he’s closer to a pariah. In their hour of need, American Muslims are finding that the people who might have been their staunchest defenders are among fiercest adversaries instead.

It wasn’t always this way. During George W. Bush’s presidency, Christian conservatives often described Muslims as ideological allies. When Bush launched his presidential campaign, Muslim activists asked him to include their community when he spoke on behalf of religious liberty. And Bush did. He denounced the Clinton administration for “profiling” Arab and Muslims and detaining them based on secret evidence. In 2000, the GOP became the first major party in American history to feature a Muslim prayer at its convention. Karl Rove invited Muslim clerics to the White House as part of his faith-based initiative.

After 9/11, some prominent evangelicals denounced Islam. But overall, a review of responses to the attacks noted that the Christian right is “refusing to vilify Islam after September 11 and remains committed to an alliance of ‘orthodox believers.’” In 2002, after evangelical and Catholic NGOs partnered with Muslim governments to resist the inclusion of pro-choice and pro-gay rights language in United Nations declarations, Austin Ruse, head of the conservative Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, gave a speech entitled “I’d Rather There be Muslims in My Foxhole.” In 2004, Pat Buchanan noted than on issues like “the morality of homosexual unions and stem cell research … conservative Americans have more in common with devout Muslims than with liberal Democrats.” And in 2007, Dinesh D’Souza wrote an entire book based on that premise. “By resisting the depravity of the left and the Europeans,” he argued, “conservatives can win friends among Muslims and other traditional people around the world.”

That same year, in a speech to the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention, Bush’s attorney general, Alberto Gonzalez, told the story of Nashala Hearn, a Muslim sixth grader from Muskogee, Oklahoma, who had been denied the right to wear a headscarf. “If you know of any Nashalas out there, who find themselves facing down religious intolerance, and who think they’re all alone in their fight,” he declared,” you tell them to come talk to me.” The Baptists replied by shouting, “Amen.”

Such a response is harder to imagine today. Treene’s former employer, The Becket Fund, continues to defend Muslims’ right to build mosques, a right that has encountered far more local opposition in recent years. But Christian conservative groups are increasingly jumping in on the other side. In 2012, Becket came under attack from a Catholic-aligned legal defense organization, The Thomas More Law Center, one of whose staffers tweeted, “Believe Islam a religion, then support the Becket Fund. Believe it will destroy US, then supt thomasmore.org.” When Becket filed an amicus brief last year on behalf of Muslims seeking to build a mosque in Basking Ridge, New Jersey, Thomas More announced that it would defend the mosque’s opponents, whose right to protest it claimed was being denied.

That’s become a pattern. An article in the conservative Catholic magazine Crisis slammed Becket’s support for the mosque in Murfreesboro. So did a Tennessee-based Christian group called Proclaiming Justice to the Nations, whose president sits on the President’s Council of the powerful National Religious Broadcasters association. And this March, the NRB came out strongly against Becket’s position, declaring that “Islam” and “sharia” are “absolutely antithetic [sic] to freedom of speech, freedom of religion or freedom of the press.”

Conservative Christians who remain committed to religious freedom for Muslims, and even a Christian-Muslim alliance based on shared conservative views, face a fundamental problem. They have fewer and fewer supporters in the pews. The University of North Carolina’s Charles Kurzman notes that between 2001 and 2010, according to an average of nine polls taken during that period, 29 percent of Republicans expressed negative views of Muslims. If you average the nine polls taken since then, the figure jumps to 58 percent. White evangelicals harbor more negative views of Muslims than do any other religious group. Seventy-six percent of them, according to a February Pew survey, backed Donald Trump’s travel ban.

This shift in public opinion has left pro-Muslim Christian conservatives vulnerable to populist challenge. In 2014, Robert P. George, a Becket board member, wrote a manifesto in the journal First Things entitled “Muslims, Our Natural Allies.”

He was immediately attacked by Spencer, who along with Geller co-founded Stop Islamization of America. Intellectually, it’s not much of a contest. George is the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton. Spencer lacks any academic affiliation, and does not even have a PhD. But there’s a reason the National Catholic Register calls Spencer the “foremost Catholic expert on Islam in our country.” He appears regularly on Catholic radio and in Catholic publications. And his books on Islam are among the most frequently sold at Catholic bookstores.

A populist, Islamophobic insurgency has shaken evangelical leaders too. In 2010, Richard Land, then-president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, joined an interfaith coalition to defend the rights of Muslims to build mosques. Within months, a popular cry forced him to withdraw. Land’s successor, Russell Moore, has also come under attack for his defense of American Muslims’ religious liberty. And this January, another Southern Baptist institution, the International Mission Board, rescinded its support for mosque building after several mega-churches threatened to withdraw their funds.

Even some of the Christian conservatives who once sympathized with American Muslims have changed their tune. A decade ago, Dinesh D’Souza attacked conservatives for “describing a religion of one billion people as ‘violent.’ This would be tactically imprudent even if it were true, but it is not true, so why repeat a canard that has the terrible effect of driving the traditional Muslims into the radical camp,” he wrote.

Since then, however, D’Souza’s concern for Muslim sensitivities had waned. “Can the media stop this rubbish about “the holy month of Ramadan?” he tweeted last year. “How come they never refer to “the holy season of Lent?” Austin Ruse, who in 2002 wanted Muslims in his foxhole, now wants them out of Europe. “The problem is whether largely secular Europe possesses the will to stop the new Muslim invasion,” he wrote last year in Breitbart. “Catholic Europe stopped Islam at Vienna once before, but Europe is hardly Catholic anymore.”

Jennifer Bryson, a pro-life Catholic who works at the Center for Islam and Religious Freedom, has found herself increasingly isolated in Christian conservative circles. In 2008, the conservative Witherspoon Institute, where she then worked, included Muslims in a project on the “Social Costs of Pornography.” Today, she fears, “it would be much harder to include Muslims as partners. So many supporters, including donors, would object that it would be viewed as more trouble as it’s worth.”

Bryson regularly participates in the annual March for Life on the National Mall. But “In past few years when people have found out about my work [with Muslims] it has become increasingly unpleasant and increasingly unbearable. When I’m at these events there are several people who will launch into tirades about Islam.” One of the anti-abortion publications she used to read is lifesitenews.com, which was created by a Canadian group called Campaign Life. But the site is now so infused with hostility to Muslims and Islam that she no longer reads it.

There are two ironies here. First, much of the Christian right’s influence rests on its success in building alliances between religious groups—evangelicals, Catholics, Mormons and Orthodox Jews—that were once bitterly hostile. Second, Christian conservatives have grown less sympathetic to Muslim religious freedom at exactly the moment that their rhetoric on behalf of religious freedom has grown more thunderous.

No one illustrates the contradiction better than Ted Cruz. When he ran for president, Cruz said fighting for people’s right to freely practice their faith had been his “life’s passion” and he predicted that “2016 is going to be a religious liberty election.” He sometimes invited “religious liberty heroes” on stage at his rallies.

Yet Cruz also chose as one of his foreign policy advisors Frank Gaffney, who testified against the building of a mosque in  Murfeesboro, Tennessee and has claimed that Islam is not really a religion. Cruz himself has called Sharia an “enormous problem” and introduced legislation that could lead to the closure of mosques. Neither Cruz himself, nor many of his Christian conservative supporters, see that a contradiction.

There are several potential explanations for the growing Christian conservative hostility to American Muslims. One is surely the endurance of jihadist terrorism and the bitter failure of America’s wars in the Middle East and South Asia, which has left conservatives both scared of Muslims and skeptical of their ability to embrace “Western values.” A second, less obvious, factor may be the weakening of the social conservative agenda that might have bound Muslims and conservative Christians together.

Ten or twenty years ago, hostility to gay marriage seemed like a powerful common cause. Now it’s a political afterthought. In 2001, George W. Bush devoted his first televised address to stem cell research. Now that issue has receded too. Abortion remains important. But overall, the intersection of sexual and religious morality—the political terrain on which Christian conservatives like Robert P. George imagine building an alliance with American Muslims—is smaller today than it was a decade or two ago. The biggest losers in all this are American Muslim conservatives, who find themselves stranded between a Christian right that dislikes Islam and a progressive left that dislikes what they see as core Islamic teachings.

Last year, a man named Daniel Haqiqatjou warned that, “Expressing any negative attitude toward homosexuality is now seen as hate speech, and the purveyors of that speech are sanctioned, boycotted, and can even face criminal charges in certain countries. It should not be underestimated how such steep consequences and strict policing have influenced the religious conversation on homosexuality.” The words could have been uttered by Ted Cruz. But Haqiqatjou uttered them at the annual Imam’s Conference of the Assembly of Muslim Jurists of America. Haqiqatjou worries that Islamophobia is leading American Muslims to embrace a left that does not actually respect Muslim religious beliefs.

“There has been this tendency to racialize Muslims,” he noted, “for Muslims to adopt this civil rights discourse for themselves and clearly that has moral traction because if you can think of yourself as the newest group that’s been stigmatized then you can use the language of civil rights, which has a lot of currency. But that has theological implications because Muslim is not a race, it’s a set of beliefs that you subscribe to.”

In the Trump era, however, few American Muslims seem to care. They’re willing to support the progressives who defend them against the present onslaught. “I’m not popular in the American Muslim community for speaking out on certain social issues,” Haqiqatjou admits, “because people say this is not a priority for Muslims” right now.

Muslims remain more culturally traditional than Americans as a whole. According to a 2011 Pew Research poll, 68 percent consider themselves “conservative.” But while most Christians who call themselves conservative identify with the GOP, most Muslims now identify with the Democrats. Like African Americans, who also hold some socially conservative views, they do not translate their social conservatism into conservative politics because they will not support a party that often openly disdains them.

Asma Uddin, a Muslim lawyer who worked at Becket before founding the Center for Islam and Religious Freedom, fears that, as a result, American Muslims will not even contemplate the way the progressive social agenda could harm them. In a 2015 speech at Georgetown, she warned that if the government could force a Christian bakery to bake a cake for a gay wedding, it could force a Muslim t-shirt company to print a t-shirt calling Mohammed a pedophile. But like Haqiqatjou, Uddin realizes her arguments hold little weight because “Young Muslim activists have taken the liberal perspective wholesale.”

In 2015, the Islamic Society of North America denounced the Indiana law that aimed to protect Christians from participating in gay weddings, the very protection that Uddin worries conservative Muslims may need themselves.

Of course, LGBT Americans, and women seeking access to abortions, will not lament the demise of a Christian-Muslim coalition aimed at undermining their rights. But the freedom of American Muslims would be more secure if they could form alliances on both sides of the ideological divide. Sadly, that doesn’t seem likely anytime soon, since Christian conservatives increasingly view Muslims not as fellow believers and moral traditionalists, but as members of a hostile tribe.

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