It should have been their finest moment, the crowning achievement of a nearly decade-long effort to convince traditionalist Americans that their right of “religious freedom” is under assault from secularists who would shove same-sex marriage and free contraceptives down their throats. Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, stood up before a group of conservative Christians and called religious liberty “the No. 1 question” and promised to make its defense a priority in his administration:
I think maybe that will be my greatest contribution to Christianity—and other religions—is to allow you, when you talk religious liberty, to go and speak openly.
He told the assembled group that “you don’t have any religious freedom if you think about it,” and promised to work on “freeing up your religion, freeing up your thoughts,” including removing the ban on churches making political endorsements.
Leaving aside the fact that the United States consistently ranks high on the list of the countries with the most religious freedom, you would think that conservative Catholic leaders who have been behind the promotion of the idea that we are undergoing a sustained assault on religious freedom would be ecstatic at Trump’s defense of “religious liberty.”
But no. Princeton University professor Robert George, who has been one of the most influential thinkers behind the perverted idea of religious liberty that has swept through the religious right—both Catholic and evangelical—refused to attend the gathering and told the Washington Post that anyone who publicly embraced Trump would be disgraced:
For those of us who believe in limited government, the rule of law, flourishing institutions of civil society and traditional Judeo-Christian moral principles, and who believe that our leaders must be persons of integrity and good character, this election is presenting a horrible choice. May God help us.
Well, as they say, God helps those who help themselves and for years George and his ilk have been presenting a vision of a country undergoing a moral armageddon and overrun by an out-of-control federal government, a crisis so severe that George and fellow conservatives threatened civil disobedience rather than comply with unjust laws. They declared in the 2009 Manhattan Declaration that they would refuse to “comply with any edict that purports to compel” them to participate in abortion, same-sex marriage or violates their sense of religious freedom.
It’s this same energy that they stirred up with their alarmist talk of government overreach into the lives of faithful Christians, a government so morally corrupt that it must be disobeyed, and a harkening back to the good old days of black-and-white moral values—the “slithering id of a nervous age,” to use Kevin Baker’s phrase—that propels Trump. Now George and his compatriots in ginning up fears of a genuine assault on religious liberty repudiate what they themselves helped create because they don’t like the messy messenger, with his divorces and affairs and lust for money. But the message is theirs and they own it, and its messenger, whether they like it or not.