Last Friday was a banner day for religious favoritism in the Trump administration.
In Nashville, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivered a “speech” that was — for all intents and purposes — a Christian sermon. Addressing an association of Christian counselors, Secretary Pompeo discussed how to be a good Christian leader, quoting scripture and urging audience members to conduct themselves in accordance with his interpretation of biblical tenets. He also commandeered State Department resources to advertise his sermon in advance, broadcast it live, and disseminate a video of it afterward using the State Department’s official social media channels and website.
As we explained in a letter sent today to the State Department’s Inspector General, this is not an appropriate or constitutional use of government resources. The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment prohibits government officials from using their office to proselytize or promote religious favoritism. All anyone needed to do to confirm that the State Department crossed this constitutional line was visit the department’s website over the weekend, which prominently featured Secretary Pompeo’s sermon, “Being a Christian Leader.”
Thus, we’ve demanded that the Inspector General launch an investigation to identify all misappropriations of State Department resources in connection with Friday’s speech, including the misuse of government employees’ time and the department’s social media accounts, website, and other technical resources. We also filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the State Department, seeking all documents relating to this matter.
While Secretary Pompeo was sermonizing in Tennessee, another member of Trump’s cabinet, Attorney General William Barr, was delivering his own problematic speech at University of Notre Dame Law School in South Bend, Indiana.
From the start, the Trump administration has made clear that it favors Christians, or at least those Christians who fall in line with its anti-Muslim, anti-immigration, anti-abortion, anti-LGBTQ political agenda. Trump officials have twisted religious-liberty principles beyond recognition in an unrepentant and unyielding effort to protect and extend religious privilege to these select few Christians.
But Barr’s address Friday took things even further, incorrectly pushing the view that free government is “only suitable and sustainable for a religious people,” and suggesting that those who don’t subscribe to “Christian morality” are “foes” of democracy. In the process, he railed at length against non-theists — or “secularists” as he calls them — accusing them of being immoral and plotting the “organized destruction” of religion. According to him, without religion, humans are “enslaved” by “the unbridled pursuit of personal appetites at the expense of the common good” and “the possibility of any healthy community life crumbles.”
For an administration that claims to lead the fight against persecution based on religious belief, Trump officials are certainly comfortable denigrating and demonizing huge numbers of people based solely on *checks notes* what they believe or don’t.
In Barr’s view, which is shared by many Trump administration officials, the United States was founded as a Christian nation and must return to its purported roots. He’s wrong. It’s true that most people were Christian at the founding of our country and that Christianity enjoys a majority-faith status even today. But the Constitution establishes a secular government because the framers were wise enough to recognize that faith (or lack thereof) should not determine an individual’s political standing within our society and that religious freedom thrives best when the government remains neutral and avoids religious favoritism. If only the Trump administration would heed their good judgment.
Heather L. Weaver, Senior Staff Attorney, ACLU