Religious liberty is a rallying cry for many evangelical voters, and it has been popping up repeatedly throughout this presidential campaign. But in the current political climate, some conservative Christians are struggling with how to apply religious freedom to other faiths — like Islam.
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz made religious freedom a hallmark of his failed campaign for the Republican nomination. Now, presumptive nominee Donald Trump is picking up the theme.
On June 21, in a room full of evangelical leaders in New York City, Trump again promised to protect religious freedom. The presumptive GOP nominee said if he’s elected, “people are going to say ‘Merry Christmas’ again.”
For decades, fights over religious liberty in the U.S. have mostly been about the religious liberties of Christians. Evangelicals have rallied around issues like prayer in public schools, and more recently, whether conservative Christian vendors should be required by law to provide services for same-sex weddings.
“I would like to know how in the world someone within the Southern Baptist Convention can support the defending of rights for Muslims to construct mosques in the United States when these people threaten our very way of existence as Christians and Americans?” Wofford said. “They are murdering Christians, beheading Christians, imprisoning Christians all over the world.”
It had been just days since a gunman who had pledged loyalty to ISIS shot and killed 49 people at a gay nightclub in Orlando. The gunman was also killed.
In response, Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore warned that letting the government restrict Muslims could lead to restrictions on Christians. He believes Christianity is the only true faith, and people must choose it freely.
“Sometimes we have really hard decisions to make — this isn’t one of those things,” Moore said. “What it means to be a Baptist is to support soul freedom for everybody.”
Moore leads the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, which recently signed on to a legal brief supporting the right of a group of Muslims in New Jersey to build a mosque. His answer was met with enthusiastic applause — but he has also faced criticism from some fellow conservatives, including Wofford.
On a recent Sunday morning, after a fire-and-brimstone sermon, Wofford said he believes the U.S. Constitution protects all religions, including Islam. But Wofford doesn’t believe Southern Baptist leaders, who draw their salaries from dues paid by local congregations, should be advocating for the rights of Muslims.
“So what I am actually doing if I support and defend the rights of people to construct places of false worship, I am helping them go to hell. And I do not want to help people go to hell,” Wofford said.
Some Christian groups dedicated to defending religious freedom argue for equal treatment for all faiths, out of the principle that discriminating against one religion could threaten them all.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” said Matt Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Council, which focuses on religious freedom litigation on behalf of Christians but has also represented at least one Jewish client.
“Religious freedom is for all of us or it’s for none of us,” Staver said. “If we want to pick and choose, what’s the standard? And if it’s only that might makes right, then that means it’s a political struggle and whoever is the ruling class at any particular time, they’re the ones that have their say.”
In a tense presidential election year, such debates have a tendency to become political. After the meeting with Trump in New York last week, several evangelical leaders held a press conference, where they praised Trump’s promise to protect religious liberty.
Asked how that pledge applies to Muslims, conservative columnist Ken Blackwell responded that he favors freedom for all faiths, but his primary concern is the rights of Christians.
“I was more interested in hearing Donald Trump say that he was willing and ready to defend religious liberty not just for Christians, but including for Christians, in the public square,” he said.
Pressed on Trump’s call to temporarily ban Muslim immigration — a proposal that has appeared to shift over time, but which Trump has yet to explain in detail — Blackwell said that issue will be part of an ongoing “conversation” between Trump and evangelical leaders. He said many conservative Christians see the real estate developer as more favorable to their concerns about religious freedom and other issues than his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton.
“We’re not going to, in fact, throw him overboard” over the Muslim ban issue, Blackwell said.