Donald Trump and Religious Liberty

By Richard Nelson

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January 5, 2016

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There are many reasons to not support Donald Trump’s bid for the Republican nomination. From his sketchy-at-best conservative credentials to his propensity for outlandish and inane commentary, Trump is an “outsider,” not to the Washington machine of power that his supporters claim he is, but an outsider to common sense, common decency and intellectual fortitude.

But perhaps the most compelling reason to withhold support from Trump is religious liberty.

Religious liberty is one of the most pressing issues facing the country this election season. From the widely felt reverberations of Obergefell vs Hodges, to the Obama administration’s continued assault  on religious organizations through the Affordable Care Act, to federal bullying of colleges and schools, religious liberty faces arguably its most important November in generations. It is vital for the continued protection of conscience that the next President understand religious motivation and be courageous enough to publicly call for respect and tolerance for those who stand outside cultural consensus.

There’s not a shred of evidence that Donald Trump can be that candidate.

It is not my place to cast doubt on the sincerity of Trump’s professed Presbyterianism, but it is completely appropriate to wonder whether Trump really understands religious conviction at the level that the next President must understand it. Nearly every time Trump has been asked about his religious practices, the answer has been confusing, uninformed, and borderline offensive. Trump describes’s his religious experience as taking his “little bread” with his “little juice” and feeling better about himself afterward, although such feelings are hardly necessary for Mr. Trump, who told an audience that he’s not sure if he’s ever asked forgiveness from God for anything.

These are not the words of a man who understands the impact of religious conviction on public life. It would be a drastic mistake to assume that simply because Trump is running as a Republican (at least, for now), he is qualified to lead the protection of First Amendment rights as President. Trump has displayed a serious amount of ignorance about religious conviction; could that ignorance stand up to the Sexual Revolution’s enforcers, not just in Washington but across the country?

I don’t think so. Mr. Trump has already given the country a window into how his opportunistic worldview works. He was pro-choice, until he wasn’t. He considered himself a Democrat, until he didn’t. Trump has reminded debate audiences dozens of times that he is first and foremost a successful businessman. I don’t know about you, dear reader, but the thought of a businessman, with a history of selling his convictions to the highest bidder, being asked to defend the conscience rights of millions of religious Americans makes me tremble.

Religious liberty isn’t simply one issue on the menu of American politics. It is the first freedom, the foundational liberty without which all other liberties are worthless. Religious freedom should be one of the sharpest and most unforgiving tests we administer to candidates seeking the most powerful position in the world. Mr. Trump has shown virtually no sign that he can pass that test. For Americans who cherish the right of conscience, that should be a deal breaker.  

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Director, Commonwealth Policy Center