Eighty-eight years ago almost to the day, the famed African-American civil rights activist Martin Luther King, Jr. was born. Named for the monk who started the Reformation over four hundred years earlier, Dr. King would go on to become a Baptist minister and arguably the most important civil rights figure of the twentieth century.
His religious beliefs and the freedom to exercise and speak out based on those beliefs were essential to his advocacy for nonviolence as means of achieving civil rights for African-Americans. As King reminded us, “[o]ur lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” Yet without a public square that was open for religious conviction to work and speak, his efforts would not have met the success they did.
Fast forward to today, Religious Freedom Day 2017, which is on January 16, we find that the religious freedom which enabled Dr. King to do his work is just as needed for the challenges of today. For as King also said, “[t]here comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right.” Today, Americans need the same freedom in the workplace, in school, in the public square, in our homes, and in our churches. Everywhere there is air, there must be the freedom of conscience, the freedom of religion, and we must exercise it.
The importance of retaining this religious voice in the public square, and the feeling that it is under attack, significantly impacted the results of this past November’s election. Fifty-nine percent of Trump voters, according to a WPA Opinion Research survey commissioned by Family Research Council, stated that how they cast their ballots was impacted by the Republican Party platform’s positions on life and religious liberty. This represents over 37 million voters, and these issues will no doubt continue to be a priority for voters as the new administration takes office in just days.
What specifically can President-elect Trump do to demonstrate his commitment to the issue of religious liberty which motivated so many voters to turn out and vote?
To start, religious liberty in the military needs to be addressed. Over the past several years we have witnessed chaplains being disciplined for their faith, and religious speech being censored. President-elect Trump can direct that religious liberty in the military be clarified and strengthened, and that appropriate training is conducted to ensure the law is followed.
In addition, our foreign policy, contrary to the law, has not prioritized religious freedom like it should. President-elect Trump must direct that religious freedom be properly integrated into all foreign policy of the United States at every level. As even the United Nations has recognized, religious freedom is not just an American right, it is a human right. Defending that human right has been an American value until recent years.
President-elect Trump should also follow through with his pledge to issue an executive order, reinstating government-wide protections for religious liberty. But executive orders halting attacks on religious freedom are just the start, there are many more anti-religious freedom policies of the Obama administration that must be reversed. That’s why 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.
As we start a new year, Religious Freedom Day marks an era of new opportunity for our First Freedom. Let us look with hope to these advancements and beyond to increased protections for all Americans to live out their faith in the public square.
Tony Perkins is president of the Family Research Council in Washington, D.C.