Decoding the Radical Right: What Republicans Really Mean When They Talk About “Religious Freedom”
To: Interested Parties
From: NARAL Opposition Research
Date: October 21, 2020
AT A GLANCE: Republicans have been hiding under a mantle of faux-religiosity and exploiting Americans’ respect for religious freedom. Don’t be fooled by their disingenuous claims that they’re defenders of “religious freedom.” In reality, that language has long been used to justify discrimination and bolster white supremacy—and has roots in their racist attempts to maintain segregation.
It’s important to remember what religious freedom really means, and how drastically that differs from Republicans’ manipulative rhetoric. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects the right for all people in the U.S. to freely practice their religion or no religion at all, and prohibits the government from encouraging or promoting (“establishing”) in any way. Progressives and Democrats have rightly been defending against policies that harm faith communities, particularly religious minorities.
As Republicans barrel forward with their illegitimate attempts to capture the U.S. Supreme Court as a right-wing partisan institution—while undermining our democracy at every turn— they continue to deflect criticism by hiding behind misleading appeals to religion.
- Throughout the 2020 campaign, they’ve baselessly fearmongered that Democrats are somehow hostile to religion—despite the fact that Democrats up and down the ballot, including Vice President Joe Biden, openly discuss their own faith.
- In Amy Barrett’s Supreme Court hearings, Republicans worked to shield their nominee from any legitimate questions about her record or judicial philosophy by lobbing baseless accusations that anyone who questioned her suitability for the Court was guilty of “religious bigotry.”
But here’s what makes their arguments so brazen: Conservatives have long misused claims of “religious freedom” and “religious liberty” to justify discrimination and uphold white supremacy—and Barrett has given every indication of holding similarly troubling stances.
REMEMBER, REPUBLICANS’ DISINGENUOUS CLAIMS HAVE DEEP TIES TO WHITE SUPREMACY & DISCRIMINATION: For decades, the Radical Right has worked to disingenuously paint Democrats as being anti-religion. This tactic has historically been used to justify conservatives’ efforts to discriminate against others on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression. In fact, Republican politicians’ frequent claim that “religious freedom” is under attack has roots in the Republican Party’s efforts to maintain school segregation in the 1960s.
In the aftermath of Brown v. Board of Education, white Southerners set up all-white, church-affiliated “segregation academies” to avoid integrating schools. They invoked “religious freedom” to justify circumventing the law. In the words of late Radical Right leader Jerry Falwell, white supremacy was effectively a religious practice that deserved legal protection: “The facilities should be separate. When God has drawn a line of distinction, we should not attempt to cross that line.”
These manipulative attacks formed the foundation for the modern conservative movement. Over the past decades, conservatives have recycled their “religious freedom” arguments anytime their attempts to discriminate or control others are challenged, using the claim as a weapon against contraceptive coverage, marriage equality, abortion rights, worker’s rights, racial justice, LGBTQ equality, and more.
HOW THIS TACTIC WORKS TODAY: Republicans’ use of this tactic continues today, and shows every sign of ramping up. Last week, as they were wholly focused on helping Barrett dodge critical questions about her record, Republicans aimed bad-faith attacks at their Democratic colleagues. Here’s what that sounded like:
- Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) claimed Democrats were “attacking somebody for their faith and suggesting that that disqualifies them from holding public office.”
- Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) accused Democrats of playing the “politics of personal destruction” and perpetuating “stereotypes” about “women on the political right,” which other Republican senators suggested include “being unashamedly pro-life” and “strong religious faith.”
- Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) told Barrett, “we were assured that you would not be attacked on the basis of your faith; I noticed that didn’t last 24 hours,” despite the fact that none of the questions asked by Democratic senators during her Supreme Court confirmation hearings attacked Barrett on the basis of her faith.
- After Barrett was asked for her legal opinion about the landmark case of Griswold v. Connecticut, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) stated: “I just heard my colleague Sen. Coons make a reference to an old case–the Griswold case–which I can only assume is another hit at Judge Barrett’s religious faith–referring to Catholic doctrinal beliefs.”
Overall, religion was a key topic of conversation in the hearings, but not among Democrats. Senators invoked the words “religion,” “Catholic,” “Christian,” and “faith” about 80 times over the two days of question and answer sessions during Barrett’s hearings, with 75 of those mentions coming from Republicans. In contrast, Democrats spent the time focused on their job—highlighting what’s at stake with this Supreme Court vacancy and the threat that Barrett poses to reproductive freedom, health care access, and more—though they were stonewalled at every turn.
We can expect to see more of Republicans’ unfounded attacks in the coming week, as Republicans continue to push Barrett’s confirmation process forward at a breakneck speed.
Make no mistake: Republicans think we won’t see through their manipulative rhetoric, even as they work openly to dismantle democracy. But that only works if we fail to call them out. Not only is their “religious freedom” dodge a shameless attempt to prop up white supremacy and the patriarchy at the expense of American’s freedoms, the argument has a long and sordid history that must be called out.
For more information, see:
- The Lie That Binds book & podcast
- The Real Origins of the Religious Right