Religious freedom, Andrew L. Seidel said, is a shield — a shield against government overreach, a shield to protect minorities from the “tyranny of the majority,” and it’s a right guaranteed by the separation of church and state.
At least, it used to be. The shield, Seidel said, is becoming a sword.
“Thanks to a packed Supreme Court, religious freedom has become the tool, the weapon of Christian privilege, of Christian supremacy,” Seidel said Wednesday afternoon in the Hall of Philosophy, where he spoke for the Interfaith Lecture Series and its Week Eight theme dedicated to “Freedom of Religious Expression.”
A well-funded and powerful network — “a billion-dollar shadow network” — of Christian nationalist organizations are working to turn religious freedom into a weapon of privilege and supremacy in a war of conquest, Seidel warned.
“They are seeking to conquer our Constitution and remake it in their image,” he said. “America is not a Christian nation, but they would make it so.”
Seidel, an attorney, author and an executive at Americans United for Separation of Church and State, wanted to outline exactly how Christian nationalists are “waging this crusade,” but first wanted to examine why. Largely, he said, it’s a backlash against equality. Studies show that the conservative religious right “conflate demographic loss with a threat to their religious freedom” — which means people misunderstand liberty as privilege.
“These deeply conservative Christians, accustomed to deference and privilege, feel that expansions of freedom and changing demographics violate their rights. But we know that’s not true,” he said. “Parity is not oppression. Equality, even when it means the erosion of privilege, is not discrimination. We’re actually not expanding rights or giving new rights. We are recognizing rights that have always existed under the law, but were never enforced. We are affirming the humanity of our brothers and sisters and siblings and admitting that we’ve been wrong.”
White Christian America is “raging against the dying of their privilege,” he said. So, they declare war, using legal channels as their approach.
In his 2022 book, American Crusade: How the Supreme Court Is Weaponizing Religious Freedom, Seidel wanted to do what he thought was lacking in other popular law books, which treat Christian nationalists — people he called “Crusaders” — as “fair-minded and genuine and honest” simply by portraying facts at their surface level. Because “it’s not just that facts can be manipulated. It’s also that the law itself can be manipulated — especially by judges,” he said. “I think that we legal professionals are prone to getting buried under legalese, under jargon, under civil procedure and judicial philosophies and levels of scrutiny and legal tests. I think a lot of times we hide behind those things; and often it’s better to just shed all of those trappings and … just look at the heart of what’s going on.”
The simple truth is that cases of religious freedom before the Supreme Court and the lower courts are “pretty easy to solve,” he said. Unless there’s an ulterior motive. Seidel laid out three lines of distinction. One is the difference between action and belief.
“Your right to believe is absolute. Your right to act on that belief is not,” he said, giving examples from his book of people who “literally let Jesus take the wheel,” deliberately letting go of control of their vehicle.
“They’re free to believe that Jesus is going to take the wheel, but they’re not free to act on that belief,” he said. “They’re not free to risk everybody else’s lives by acting on that belief.”
Seidel’s second line of distinction is when government should intercede — essentially, “your right to swing your fist ends at the other person’s nose.”
“Your right to exercise your religion ends where the rights of other people begin,” he said. “Religion is not a license to violate somebody else’s rights, harm them or to infringe their rights in any way.”
The third line of distinction is the separation of church and state — a distinction that Seidel has made his life’s work.
“Our government is a secular one. It has no religion to exercise,” he said.
Considering those three lines of distinction, the questions before the courts are simple to answer. But, “Crusaders laid the groundwork for this crusade for decades — beginning after Brown v. Board of Education with the rise of the religious right and the Moral Majority and school choice and choosing abortion as their wedge issue,” Seidel said.
The Court, however, only started to signal its willingness to be a part of the crusade in 2010, with Salazar v. Buono — or the case of a Christian cross in the Mojave National Preserve. The Court remanded the case, and conservative groups “heard the message of the Supreme Court; the floodgates opened, and they filed lawsuit after lawsuit,” stoking the fear of loss of privilege, Seidel said. He rattled off more than half-a-dozen examples since 2011, and said that fear has only accelerated since the election of President Donald Trump, whose administration “packed the Court with Crusaders” with help from the Federalist Society and its board chair, Leonard Leo.
Even before the Trump administration, the Court was undergoing a specifically pro-Christian shift, under Chief Justice John Roberts. Seidel said that studies looking at earlier Courts found that Christianity was “overtly favored in only about 44% of the cases.” Under Roberts, that number jumps to 85%, almost double, indicating to Seidel that “religious freedom really has become Christian privilege.”
Seidel wanted to conclude by touching on both violence, and hope. He evoked the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol and the Aug. 12, 2022, attack on Salman Rushdie, which he said differed in the attacks on public education and book bans “only in its violence.”
“If we wish for America to be an asylum for free expression, then we need to defeat the rising Christian nationalism that is threatening our public institutions,” he said. He reminded the audience that when dominant groups feel threatened, which America is seeing now, they “rage against the dying of their privilege, and that rage can easily turn to violence.”
Still, Seidel is hopeful. White Christian nationalists, he said, alienate more and more people with every win — so their “power-hungry aggression is growing our movement.” But the path to a better country won’t be quick or easy, he said.
“We have to shatter the myth that the judicial system will fix this for us or that there’s a silver bullet on our side — that there’s some brilliant legal case we can craft that’s going to convince these Crusaders that they’re wrong,” he said. “Above all, we must organize and message in ways that build power and fight to realize the aspirational ideals of freedom, equality and democracy.”