White Christian Complaints About Religious Persecution Are Especially Ugly on MLK Day

The Family Research Council's Tony Perkins.

This year, our national commemoration of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday coincided with Religious Freedom Day, marked as it has been for the past 27 years with a presidential proclamation. January 16 saw thousands take to the street in “marades” and marches intended to honor the life and legacy of one of the giants of the 20th century’s Civil Rights Movement (who would have turned 88 this month had he not been assassinated nearly 50 years ago).

But while people of color and the white allies took to the street, several leaders of the anti-LGBT right wing saw an opportunity to rewrite the narrative. After all, it wouldn’t be Martin Luther King, Jr., Day if there weren’t a white man trying to twist Dr. King’s legacy to his own discriminatory benefit.

Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Council, authored a seemingly innocuous post for Fox News about the importance of defending religious freedom. The man who in 2016 helped the Republican Party author the most aggressively anti-LGBT platform in decades began his rumination by suggesting that fear of losing religious freedom was a deciding factor for a majority of voters who cast their ballot for Donald Trump. As such, Perkins asserts, the President-elect should prioritize such protections.

Of course his op-ed, billed as a defense of religious freedom, doesn’t spare a single word to denounce Trump’s most blatant attack on this bedrock principle: his suggested mandatory registration of American Muslims, and a blanket ban on entry into the U.S. of anyone who practices Islam.

Instead, Perkins suggested that “President-elect Trump must direct that religious freedom be properly integrated into all foreign policy of the United States at every level.” (Emphasis added.)

It’s been well documented, here on RD and elsewhere, that American evangelicals, in particular, have weaponized the concept of “religious freedom” or “religious liberty” to fight equality. In recent months, members of this ideological cohort have grown increasingly forthright about their objective. Perkins, for example, plainly demands that “government nondiscrimination legislation is needed to protect supporters of marriage between one man and one woman.”

“People of faith should not be punished by the government for living in accordance with their beliefs,” he continues. Again, Perkins betrays no empathy for American Muslims, Sikhs, or Jews who have seen their houses of worship terrorized and vandalized, and the lives they live “in accordance with their beliefs” routinely demonized by the soon-to-be President of the United States.

Although he doesn’t mention specific legislation, it’s not hard to read between the lines and infer that Perkins is referring to the so-called First Amendment Defense Act, a sweeping federal bill that could allow any individual, health care provider, business or corporation to refuse to serve or treat LGBT people or unmarried mothers, so long as they cite a “sincerely held religious belief.”

Despite the demonstrated support of the incoming administration of such efforts (Trump has promised to sign FADA, and Vice President-elect Mike Pence has a long history of supporting “religious freedom” efforts that legally privilege conservative religious morality), the new president of the right-wing Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) says he is preparing for the coming assault on those who hold tight to certain faith-based convictions.

As Right Wing Watch reported Friday, incoming ADF president Mike Farris believes the left, angered by Trump’s victory, are poised to lash out at defenders of what Farris and his allies call “traditional marriage” or morality. Perhaps taking a cue from the President-elect’s promise that “we’ll do so much winning,” Farris is committed to victory for his cause, and he’s clear about the barriers that stand in his way:

“Winning means religious freedom is robustly protected,” Farris said on ADF’s “Freedom Matters” podcast. “Winning means Roe v. Wade is reversed. Winning means that same-sex marriage by judicial edict is reversed, and we go back to the states and let the states make their own policy on this.”

Although he doesn’t mention it explicitly, a brief review of ADF’s advocacy indicates that the organization’s definition of “winning” also includes defeating any trans-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinances at the local, state, or national level. If you don’t believe me, take a look at ThinkProgress editor Zack Ford’s excellent (and terrifying) deep dive into the cascade of transphobic bills already introduced in legislatures around the country.

Dr. King was a Baptist preacher—not coincidentally a member of the same denomination whose persecution in early America prompted the creation of this nation’s first legislative defense of religious freedom. As Monday’s blog post by Americans United for Separation of Church and State explains, the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom paved the way for modern bills at the state and federal level intended to protect religious freedom, and even informed the crafting of the First Amendment. The bill was the brainchild of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, who grew incensed watching Baptist preachers beaten for baptizing converts.

Upon even slight examination, modern arguments about the desecration of religious liberty in America ring hollow. But the claims of religious persecution, particularly by cisgender, straight white men who run multi-million-dollar advocacy groups, are especially heinous on a day intended to commemorate Dr. King’s life.