The Religious Freedom of Muslims and Christian Evangelicals Is Bound Together
Christians’ religious opponents may help solve Christians’ biggest political problem
“Our liberty is bound together” is one version of the stirring activist motto. Another version is, “Our liberation is bound together.” The origin of this call to solidarity is a remark by artist and activist Lilla Watson, who wrote: “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
Many on the political Left use this maxim to explain why a diverse array of minorities—racial, religious, sexual—should support each other’s rights. The idea is that a coherent collective defense of liberty is necessary to ensure individual liberty. We cannot advocate for Muslim minorities while diminishing the rights of LGBTQ Americans, and vice versa. Liberty makes strange bedfellows.
My 2021 book, The Politics of Vulnerability: How to Heal Muslim-Christian Relations in a Post-Christian America, suggests a perhaps even more counterintuitive alliance: Conservative white evangelicals and Muslim Americans. Having studied the complex dynamics of conservative white evangelicals’ antipathy to Muslims—I detail Christians’ challenges to Muslims’ religious rights in my first book, When Islam Is Not a Religion—one thing stood out as particularly compelling: Muslims are mostly collateral damage in a much more fundamental struggle.
In the Christian worldview, the political Left has waged an assault on conservative Christian beliefs and practices wherever those beliefs and practices pose obstacles for the full liberation of the LGBTQ community. The Christian shop owner who refuses to make a custom wedding cake or a floral wedding arrangement for a gay couple; the Christian school that fires a teacher when she enters a lesbian relationship; the Christian marital counselor who declines to counsel two men on their sexual relationship—all these refusals must apparently be made unlawful, Christians feel, if LGBTQ individuals are to fully realize their rights as the Left sees them. The ongoing legal, social and cultural attacks on Christians’ traditional practices has left many Christians feeling under siege in America.
As the Left wages this battle, it also advocates vociferously for the rights of American Muslims (alongside an array of other minorities). Muslims and the Left have become so politically intertwined that, in the words of Eboo Patel, Barack Obama’s former faith adviser, Muslims are a “totem, … a symbol that signals, above all, a tribal belonging.” I elaborate on the phenomenon in The Politics of Vulnerability:
Muslims—and especially liberal advocacy on behalf of Muslims—are traits of the liberal mega-identity and opposition to Muslims is a trait of the conservative mega-identity. Nothing captures this political football better than variations of Obama’s “Hope” poster with a woman in a hijab. The poster is used to protest Trump and was, for example, ubiquitous in the January 2017 Women’s March on Washington. More generally, liberals have championed the hijab for years and featured women who wear headscarves in numerous prominent outlets. The phenomenon might seem peculiar, since the hijab as a facet of a modest (or restrictive) dress code for women is not ordinarily something that liberals would champion. But Muslims and hijab are part of the Left’s mega-identity, and the Right—which isn’t normally associated with feminism—makes feminist arguments against the hijab.
The collective dynamics end up in a triangle of sorts: The more the Left challenges Christians’ traditional beliefs in marriage, the more fiercely Christians oppose everything the Left stands for. Correspondingly, the more advocacy for Muslims’ rights becomes a “lefty” thing to do, the more conservative Christians oppose Muslims’ rights.
How do we find our way of out this quagmire? Recent political science data suggests a path forward.
One researcher, Andrew Lewis, looked at how conservatives and liberals respond to religious liberty claims depending on how the claims are presented to them. First, respondents read about Muslim truck drivers who had to choose between transporting alcohol in violation of their religious beliefs or losing their jobs. Respondents then learned that either a well-known liberal or conservative law firm was representing the truck drivers in court.
Lewis found that Democratic respondents were more supportive of the religious freedom claims when they were told a liberal law firm represented the drivers. Strikingly, they were also more likely to support conservative Christian claims—including those brought by a Christian baker or florist who refused to render their services for a gay wedding—after they were exposed to religious freedom claims by Muslims.
The findings were further confirmed by Lewis’ 2018 survey of 1,100 men, women, liberals and conservatives across all major demographics and political affiliations. The purpose of the study was to understand how the general public responds to requests for religious exemptions—that is, people’s request that a law not apply to them because complying would violate their religious convictions. Specifically, Lewis wanted to see whether Americans “primed” with information about Muslims’ seeking of religious exemptions would be more receptive to evangelicals’ claims for religious exemptions.
He presented the (real) story of two Muslim truck drivers who refused to deliver beer and alcohol based on their religious beliefs and asked participants whether they supported the truck drivers’ right to religious freedom or the company’s right to fire the drivers. The case study was unique because the request came from a member of a religious minority, rather than a conservative Christian.
Unsurprisingly, Lewis found that liberals, much more than conservatives, supported the Muslim truck drivers. More unexpected is what he learned when he asked the same participants whether they would support a Christian-baker-type small-business owner. Lewis found that liberals were less opposed to the Christian same-sex marriage exemptions once they saw the issue from the perspective of the Muslims’ religious freedom case.
I’ve witnessed a similar phenomenon in my own work. For example, one of my public presentations ties together a diverse series of legal cases: Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, involving a Christian business owner’s refusal to pay for employees’ contraception; a Muslim prisoner religious-exemption case; a case involving Native Americans’ access to sacred eagle feathers; a case challenging an Oklahoma law that prohibits Muslim religious arbitration in personal and business disputes; and the Knights of Columbus’ fight to keep a statue of Jesus on federally owned, but privately leased land. In each case, I outline how deeply and sincerely the religious believer held his or her beliefs. Then I tie the cases together so that the audience understands how the same principles of religious liberty apply across all the scenarios, despite the vastly different facts involved. I’ve been told by liberal audiences that this presentation takes them on an “emotional roller coaster” because they find themselves wrestling with—rather than outright rejecting—the conservatives’ cases.
Empirical and anecdotal evidence make evident that there is something about understanding religious claims through diverse religious practices—and Muslim practices in particular—that helps liberals see religious freedom as something worth protecting for conservative Christians, too. In other words, the same religious group that many Christians so passionately oppose holds the key to solving Christians’ biggest political problem.
The liberty of Muslims and Christians is indeed “bound together.” Activists working for Muslims’ rights have tried making their case from a more altruistic angle—the idea of standing up for others’ rights because it’s the right thing to do. The data, however, make clear the wisdom of Watson’s more fundamental point, too: Show up because there’s something in it for you.
Copyright © The UnPopulist, 2022.