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What U.S. Religious Liberty Means — Especially When It Comes To Islam


The Trump administration has made religious liberty a central theme of this presidency. For example, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services now has a Conscience and Religious Freedom Division. The president has championed judges who have ruled in favor of people seeking religious exemptions to laws. And just last month, the White House strengthened protections for kids who want to pray at school. Asma Uddin is part - Asma Uddin is part of the Inclusive America Project at the Aspen Institute. She is also the author of a book on religious liberty called "When Islam Is Not A Religion." She told me that President Trump's focus marks a change from previous administrations.

ASMA UDDIN: There has been just a more pronounced public affirmation of the positive role of religion in American society, the need to protect it. Often, we hear from various government officials - whether it be Mike Pompeo or President Trump or U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr or even Jeff Sessions when he announced a religious liberty task force of the Department of Justice - is this constant refrain about religion is under threat by secularization, threatening forces on the left. So the protection of religion and the protection of our religious freedom - that has become a constant refrain.

CORNISH: What communities have benefited from the administration's attention to the issue? Are there religious communities that have, essentially, been left out?

UDDIN: Yeah. So, you know, then-candidate Ted Cruz said that it was - he called it the religious liberty election, and he said that it was ultimately about, like, the person who would be able to defend religious liberty the best. And President Trump and Ben Carson and Rick Santorum all got on that bandwagon and said absolutely, this is about religious liberty, and we're going to protect religious liberty if we're elected president. But at the same time as they were making these statements, they were also competing with each other to determine who could be the most discriminatory against Muslims, whether it be President Trump's suggestions about creating a Muslim registry or about banning Muslims from the U.S. - which, as we know, he has moved forward with that as well - or it be Ted Cruz's suggestion that we surveil Muslim neighborhoods in the aftermath - he brought that up in the aftermath of a terrorist incident - or Rick Santorum saying that Islam absolutely was different from Christianity. He said that it's not as protected under the First Amendment as Christianity is. And so there was, like, this obvious hypocrisy.

CORNISH: So what you saw was the creation of a hierarchy of faiths, even within this world of law.

UDDIN: To me, I saw even beyond just the creation of a hierarchy. I actually saw denial of Islam even being a religion that had access to religious freedom. Another suggestion that President Trump brought up during the campaign was to close down mosques. When you create such a stark disparity between the types of things that you're willing to protect for, quote-unquote, "religion" and then say that the most basic of religious freedom rights are not afforded to a particular group of people, you know, how exactly are you explaining that? What's the logic there? And it didn't take much to figure out what that is because unfortunately, an increasingly common talking point among many people in the White House and in that sort of larger network is that Islam is not a religion. It is a dangerous political ideology. And therefore, Muslims don't have religious freedom rights.

CORNISH: Can you think of a policy directive from the Trump administration that, on paper, looks good for religious liberties but, in reality, has really only been a net positive for evangelical Christians, more or less just one group?

UDDIN: Well, I think that even in the space of Christianity, increasingly, you hear the sort of outcry from more progressive Christians that they feel that the way that Christianity is being defined and championed tends to only happen from this particular angle. And, of course, a constant concern in the context of, specifically, the sexuality-related culture wars is that the rights of LGBT individuals, including LGBT individuals of faith or people who hold different positions on abortion, contraception from a religious standpoint, are being undermined.

And to that end, I think that it has to come from an understanding that religious liberty is not in some way just a safeguard for traditional religious beliefs. It is a safeguard just for beliefs of wide diversity, anywhere they fall on the political spectrum and, again, on the diverse religious spectrum. And so what I hope for - and I do see some movement in this from more progressive religious liberty groups - to bring to the floor more progressive religious claims and say, look; religious liberty is for this, too. My concern is if the rhetoric and the enforcement of some of these policies continues to be only thought through in the frame of traditional religious beliefs, then there will be other types of religious claims that won't be as protected. I don't currently have a concrete example of their not being protected, but I do see this increasing sort of urgency from more progressive groups to be like, well, we have these claims, too; and because religious liberty protects the range and doesn't privilege one particular interpretation or another, that our religious claims are also protected.

CORNISH: Asma Uddin, thank you so much for speaking with us.

UDDIN: Thank you.

CORNISH: Asma Uddin is part of the Inclusive America Project at the Aspen Institute and the author of the book "When Islam Is Not A Religion." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.