When it was announced that Donald Trump would give his first presidential commencement address at Liberty University, few had doubts about what the themes of that speech might be. When it came down to it, though, Trump's Liberty University speech was a red flag to all non-Christians — and, for that matter, even for Christians who don't subscribe to a very conservative reading of the faith.
Considering all the support he got from the evangelical community in the election, it's no surprise that Trump picked Liberty University to give his first commencement speech. Rev. Jerry Falwell Jr., head of the university and one of the major spokesmen of the religious right, played a role in helping Trump scoop fully 80 percent of the born-again or evangelical Christians vote. In contrast, just 52 percent of Catholics and 38 percent of religious groups besides Christians and Jews voted for Trump, according to statistics compiled by Pew Research Center. Trump certainly recognizes that this group is a large part of why he got elected, which explains why he, a man whose religious credentials have long been rightfully questioned, has lately been positioning himself as a president whose religious convictions match those of his ultra-conservative Christian vice president, Mike Pence.
What Trump seems to forget, if you listen to his Liberty speech, is that the American population is not actually 80 percent evangelical. In fact, evangelical Christians only make up a quarter of the population of religious Americans. While this is the biggest group overall, that shouldn't matter for a nation founded on the principle of a separation between church and state, and true freedom of religion.
The U.S. is actually 70 percent Christian, but that leaves another 30 percent of Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and of course the fastest growing group — the religious "nones", who don't claim adherence to any faith. And while it should come as no surprise after Trump's first four months of action that he doesn't prioritize the desires of that 30 percent, his speech at Liberty University really hammered home that point in a chilling way for those who value the secular way of life that the U.S. has always offered.
"In America, we don't worship government, we worship God," the president said at one point in his Liberty commencement speech. "As long as I am your president, no one is ever going to stop you from practicing your faith or from preaching what's in your heart," was another quote. And then again: "We proudly proclaim that we are one nation under God every time we say the Pledge of Allegiance."
As he speaks up for the freedom of the religious majority, Trump's presidency has launched one attack after another on minority religious groups. His attempts at instituting a Muslim ban, even though they failed, succeeded in creating a toxic environment for Muslims in the U.S. — even after the rate of hate crimes against Muslims had already risen over the course of 2016. His inclusion of noted anti-Semitist Steve Bannon on his cabinet and the many threats on Jewish community centers and synagogues put Jews on edge, even after it was revealed that a Jewish teen in Israel was behind many of the threats. As for the nones, whether that means atheists, agnostics, or simply people who don't label themselves by any faith community or lack thereof? They might has well not exist in the vision that Trump offered in his speech. In America, we worship God, remember?
President Trump at Liberty University: "In America, we don't worship government. We worship God!"— Alex 🇺🇸 (@SoCal4Trump) May 13, 2017
Amen! 🇺🇸 pic.twitter.com/Zm4WpsbIb2
Trump is catering to the belief frequently held by the religious right that they are the embattled minority, and that their freedom to worship is being threatened every time progressives get their way on a social issue. Requiring employer health care plans to include birth control is an attack on religious liberty. Giving people equal rights regardless of their sexual preferences or gender identity is an attack on religious liberty. Allowing abortion is an attack on religious liberty. Trump bends over backwards for them, and the misguided belief that they are under attack is what guided the executive orders on religious freedom and the travel ban.
Perhaps it's not as clear to those who have always been in the religious majority, but religious liberty doesn't actually mean being able to force others to live under your beliefs. Well before it was a country, the U.S. was an escape for those feeling the sting of religious persecution at home — but it also quickly became a place where minority religious groups found themselves persecuted by the majority. The Founding Fathers stepped in to insist on a government completely separated from religion was the only way forward. “Who does not see,” wrote James Madison, “that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other Religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other Sects?”
I remember a moment from my childhood — traumatic to an approximately 10-year-old Jewish girl, but it's since become one of those funny stories you tell when the timing is right: Our young neighbor, while he was playing with my younger brother, told him that since he wasn't a Christian, he would be going to hell. After finding out about the episode, his parents came over to apologize to us, the Jewish family on the block. "We've explained it to him," they said. "They know that you're Hebrew — and we're American."
You're Hebrew, and we're American. Did being a non-Christian somehow nullified my American citizenship? It was as though there was an asterisk on my passport, as though I was supposed to put "Hebrew" when asked for my nationality. Unfortunately, a lot of people hold similar sentiments — that Christians are the true Americans, and non-Christians simply aren't. As for Trump, by giving a speech like the one he gave at Liberty University, he has drawn battle lines — and it's clear who he's aligned himself with. It's a good thing, then, that we have the nation's founding documents on our side, because we certainly don't have its leaders to remind us what religious freedom really means.