Washington, DC – “Just say no, Joe.” That’s the advice some are giving former Vice President Joe Biden when it comes to debates with President Trump. It may be in the best interest of the candidate, but not the country because in these unusual times, voters deserve to hear these men discuss their beliefs and how they’ll govern. From America’s role in the world to the Constitution’s role in America, I can’t remember a time when political philosophy and reality have clashed on so many fronts.
This is especially true on issues affecting people of faith. Given the recent quarantines and protests, the candidates need to tell Americans how they would apply the First Amendment to those who obey the First Commandment. The debates must take place and offer a healthy allotment of time to religion’s role in the public square. The areas of concern are many and include unequal enforcement of First Amendment protections, violence and vandalism against churches, religious discrimination in the military, religious tests for public office, and more.
In a presentation last fall, Attorney General Bill Barr said religious liberty is an “important priority” in the Trump administration because our founders believed our system of self-government “was only suitable and sustainable for a religious people.” He cited examples of how religion has been undermined over the last 50 years and the societal ills that have resulted.
COVID has brought new attacks on faith. In the last six months, mayors and governors have answered the prayers of protestors but have routinely fought against the rights of the faithful. The Golden State is violating the Golden Rule. Gavin Newsom says churches are non-essential and has issued orders requiring them to close, limit attendance, and ban singing. Some churches have taken legal action arguing his latest order prevents organized Bible studies.
That’s just the start. In New York, Catholics and Orthodox Jews sued Governor Andrew Cuomo for discriminating against religious institutions in how COVID restrictions are enforced. A pastor at Lighthouse Fellowship Church in Virginia faced criminal charges from Governor Ralph Northam’s administration for ministering to 16 people on Palm Sunday before the U.S. Justice Department came to the rescue. Similar prosecutions of piety have taken place in Michigan, Kansas, Nevada, Minnesota, Massachusetts, and other states.
In some parts of the country – Los Angeles and Montgomery County, Maryland for example – officials have tried to close Catholic schools arguing it’s unfair for them to open when we’re trying so hard to keep public schools closed. Community outrage in Maryland caused Governor Larry Hogan to intervene.
Violence against churches is on the rise too. Within weeks of one another, the historic Mission San Gabriel Archangel in southern California; Queen of Peace Catholic Church in Ocala, Florida; and Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Weymouth, Massachusetts were damaged or destroyed.
Vandalism of sacred statues and church property is a growth industry. In a letter to Attorney General Bill Barr, Tennessee Congressman Chuck Fleischmann noted a “disturbing trend” in church desecrations and asked for help saying that in times of pandemic “we naturally turn to religion for comfort and peace.”
Religious freedom in the military has long been a problem and members of Congress are waking up. Senator Ted Cruz raised the issue with Defense Secretary Mark Esper. He said the DoD “is unabashedly discriminating against religious individuals,” after Cruz learned of the case of Jay Lorenzen, an Air Force veteran who was denied a speaking opportunity at a Marine Corps training session because of his Christian faith and affiliations.
Citing numerous other violations, Congressmen Doug Collins and Doug Lamborn told Esper, “It is clear to us that the DoD has either willfully ignored or is unaware of its obligations to protect the religious freedom of its servicemembers.”
But even before COVID, some U.S. Senators were trying to faith-shame nominees for public service. In a January 2019 article, Matthew Continetti provides examples of how Senators Mazie Hirono, Sheldon Whitehouse, and Dianne Feinstein attacked Trump nominees during confirmation hearings. One of Trump’s district court nominees, Brian Buescher was interrogated by Kamala Harris for his membership in the Knights of Columbus – what she called “an all-male society comprised primarily of Catholic men.”
The candidates for president need to tell us how they would balance religious liberty with public safety and whether they believe our rights come from God or government, among other important issues. The Commission on Presidential Debates should see to this impanel moderators whose hearts are not hardened to the conversation.
Tom Kilgannon is the President of Freedom Alliance, a nonprofit organization that provides support to America’s military families and advocates for a strong national defense.