In mere moments — in a speech given at the Department of Justice’s Religious Liberty Summit in Washington, D.C. — Attorney General Jeff Sessions doubled down on the Trump administration’s commitment to religious liberty.
On July 30, Sessions made an announcement that would further electrify right-wing evangelicals in this country — the creation of a “religious liberty task force.”
President Trump signed an executive order last May that directed Sessions to “issue guidance interpreting religious liberty protections in federal law.” Subsequently, Sessions issued a religious liberty memorandum in October that outlined guidance for religious liberty protections.
Finally — and what is making the headlines in recent weeks — came the announcement of the newly created “religious liberty task force.” This new initiative will be tasked to implement the Sessions’ memo released last year.
Critics worry the task force will have a broad-reaching interpretation of what is considered religious liberty and will be to the detriment of LGBT folks, women and other marginalized communities. They point to cases like the famous “cake-baking” incident that allows businesses to discriminate against certain people because of their deeply held religious beliefs.
In today’s culture, where identity politics controls so much of the conversation, it’s easy for marginalized folks to feel as though their voices don’t matter. I’m here to say they do.
This task force is unmistakably created to protect Christians — specifically evangelicals — from persecution without direct regard for other religions or secular people.
Sessions vehemently believes that secularism is the problem in our country, and it must be combated. “A dangerous movement, undetected by many, is now challenging and eroding our great tradition of religious freedom,” Sessions said, which “must be confronted and defeated.”
I couldn’t disagree more.
Jeff Sessions goes on to say, “There can be no doubt that we are stronger as a nation because of the contribution of religious people.” He makes the point that religious folks feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, educate the young and care for the sick.
I couldn’t agree more.
Religion plays a crucial role by advancing society and taking care of the most vulnerable among us. Think of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit: Without the Jewish concept of tikkun olam, repairing the world, Federation would not have the impact it does and would not touch the lives it is able to touch.
It’s not in spite of religion, rather because of it, that our community dynamic is just that — dynamic. Through the power of tikkun olam, the elderly in our community are cared for, kids of all backgrounds are able to attend Tamarack Camps, entrepreneurs are able to start their own businesses through the amazing network of Hebrew Free Loan and young LGBT folks have a home in our community through NEXTGen Detroit Pride, an initiative I created and currently chair. As community members, we can see the impact religion has on all our lives every day.
I’m calling on our community to take Jeff Sessions’ remarks and implementation of this task force as a call to action.
We should take his words seriously and hold him accountable when he remarks on the power religion has in the world. But we should also be deeply skeptical by his definition of religious freedom and his views of secularism.
It’s understandable for disenfranchised groups to view themselves as victims or oppressed. And it’s quite easy for a task force such as this to exacerbate those feelings. But those groups have a choice: solely focus on their victimhood or rise above it and not let their oppression define their productivity in society.
Jews know all too well how important religious liberty is — true religious liberty for all people of all religions. In this polarizing time of heated rhetoric and inflammatory comments, we have an opportunity to lead a discussion of what true religious liberty looks like.
Defending true religious liberty will combat the narrative that secularism and secular people are the ills of society. We must rise above our oppression status and actively work within our own communities to make this country one that is peaceful and fair for all people — regardless of their religious affiliation.
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks gracefully says, “The crimes of religion have one thing in common. They involve making God in our image instead of letting Him remake us in His.”
Let us allow our Jewish teachings to guide us and give us strength through whatever more seems like a confusing and scary world. Only then, will the present seem brighter and the future more promising — for all.
Sam Dubin is creator and chair of NEXTGen Detroit Pride and board member of NEXTGen Detroit.