President Trump’s Anti-Secular Foreign Policy
Lawfare has an interesting piece by Jacques Berlinerblau:
Jacques Berlinerblau is the Rabbi Harold S. White Professor of Jewish Civilization at the Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. He is the author of The Secular Bible: Why Nonbelievers Must Take Religion Seriously (Cambridge), How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), and co-editor of Secularism on the Edge: Rethinking Church-State Relations in the United States, France, and Israel (Palgrave Macmillan).
President Trump is taking the U.S. in many new directions. This piece explores one of them:
Editor’s Note: The Trump administration is turning many things on their heads, not least the role religion is playing in society. But what is happening is also shaping U.S. policy overseas. Jacques Berlinerblau, my colleague at Georgetown, argues that the Trump administration’s foreign policy represents a dramatic shift for the United States and one that may prove disastrous.
In a landmark 1960 speech, John F. Kennedy warned against pointing “a finger of suspicion” at any one religious group. “Today,” intoned the man who would soon be the nation’s first Catholic president, “I may be the victim, but tomorrow it may be you—until the whole fabric of our harmonious society is ripped.” Kennedy’s sentiments express what might be the Golden Rule of modern American secularism: our government cannot discriminate against, nor show preference towards, citizens on the basis of their religious beliefs.
The administration of Donald J. Trump appears eager to turn this secular logic completely upside down. As for preference, the president has made common cause with conservative Christians and their particular policy goals, like the reinstatement of the Reagan-era Mexico City Policy, which bans federal funding for any NGO providing abortion counseling, often affecting the provision of other forms of birth control. As for discrimination, Trump’s flagging “Muslim Ban” points “the finger of suspicion” at members of one religious group. Just a few weeks past his inauguration, Trump is poised to become the most anti-secular president in recent American history.
What does that mean in practice? Drawing a distinction between anti-secularism’s domestic and foreign policy applications is a good first step toward understanding its implications. On the domestic front, Trump’s disdain for mid-century secular conventions is evident in everything from the “Merry Christmas” sign ostentatiously glued to his podium at a post-election rally to his Supreme Court and cabinet nominations. At the National Prayer Breakfast, Trump vowed that he would “totally destroy” the Johnson Amendment, which prevents pulpits from becoming veritable PACs. Alongside his GOP allies, Trump may try to nationalize countless “religious freedom” bills, like the one Mike Pence signed in Indiana. That legislation, which was framed as a “restoration” of religious freedom, legitimated discrimination in accordance with one’s faith convictions, including denying services to members of the LGBT community.
Implementing an anti-secular agenda in world affairs, however, is a different matter altogether. For starters, the activism that takes place in Republican state houses is usually a pipeline for ideas about national, as opposed to international, policies. Second, the infrastructure for effectuating such policies on an international scale is less built-out; there are far fewer operatives, legal advocates, think tanks, pressure groups, and donors committed to the promulgation of anti-secularism in global relations.
One also wonders if an anti-secular Trump administration would have partners in the State Department and elsewhere as helpful and reliable as the Republican Party. As recently as 2006, The Economist dubbed America’s foreign policy elite “one of the most secular groups in the country.” It is telling that Madeleine Albright describes the study of international relations in the 1980s as “theorized in almost exclusively secular terms.” “I cannot remember,” writes the former secretary of state reflecting on the pre-9/11 period, “any leading American diplomat…speaking in depth about the role of religion in shaping the world.”
From the Kennedy era to 9/11, while experts like Albright were steadfastly avoiding religious questions, a culture war was raging within U.S. politics. In the 1960s a late-blooming variant of secularism known as “separationism” achieved unprecedented judicial victories. Resurrecting a Jeffersonian metaphor, mid-century secularists spoke of a “Wall of Separation.” They proceeded to shunt prayer out of public schools and eliminate religious tests for civil service employment. These separationists challenged the idea that the federal government should be for, or against, any religion.
The backlash, led by conservative Christian activists who first came to national prominence during the Reagan years, was swift and devastatingly effective. In the intervening decades they endeavored to dismantle the Wall brick by brick. They were buoyed by Justice William Rehnquist’s 1985 dissent in Wallace v. Jaffree that the Wall was “a metaphor based on bad history…and should be frankly and explicitly abandoned.” The result has been a notable decline in the acceptance of separationism as a judicial or governing ideology on the local, state, and federal levels.
The activism of the Christian Right has yet to achieve globally what it has achieved nationally. That could now begin to shift. . .