Religion and The Politics of Exclusion
By ALEX ADESEYE | June 1, 2017
Exclusion is the most pervasive theme of America’s political history. At worst, this claim is a sweeping generalization; at best, it is a gravely accurate concern. Exclusion is prohibition, denial, prevention, and removal, relative to the context to which it is applied. In the construction of American political ideologies, like democracy and justice, exclusion has motivated distinctions between the valuations and privileges of certain groups at the expense of others.
Of course, exclusion is not solely an American issue. In fact, this country is debatably not even the worst perpetrator of exclusion throughout the world. However, to use this idea as an objection to the issue of exclusion in the United States would be dismissive. This essay seeks to analyze exclusion in the context of the United States, especially as it relates to politics and religion. For the remainder of this essay, examine this problem as a member of the United States, who benefits from the progress of American society.
From before the genesis of American independence to the end of the Civil War, exclusion was manifested through the massive commodification of largely Africans and the forced denial of their status as humans rather than economic tools and property. Colonialism and imperialism were ineffectual campaigns without the violent displacement, domination, or assimilation of different peoples in their homelands, enabling American civilization to expand its physical and political boundaries. From the period of segregation under Jim Crow laws, to the spike in Islamophobia following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, to even the long-standing stigmas against mental health victims, the United States has experienced waves of divisive rhetoric to maintain its oppressive systems. Any single prejudice, stereotype, or intolerance that has gained traction in this country is arguably a symptom of the underlying American culture of exclusivity.
Now, with this understanding in mind, ask yourself a question: Is this exclusion still political in the context of religion? This question does not only consider matters related to public and government affairs, but also to any interest in a power dynamic or authority over any interest in a principle. Consider America, founded with an understanding of the separation of church and state. Through the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause in the Constitution, Thomas Jefferson explained that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..." Yet, the separation of church and state does not prevent a religious element in political society. Sociologist Robert N. Bellah has stated that certain common elements of religious orientation among most Americans has played a crucial role in the development of American institutions. He says that these elements “provide a religious dimension for the whole fabric of American life, including the political sphere.” Former President Obama has also said that “our law is a codification of morality, much of it grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition.”
A 2014 Pew Research study of 35,000 Americans from all states found 70.6% of participants to be Christian; only 22.8% were unaffiliated with a religious group. So, although it is not a national religion, it may be safe to call Christianity the main, representative religion for most Americans. In fact, every President voted into office has been affiliated with Christianity except Abraham Lincoln, around whom multiple contradicting opinions have revolved. For Christianity or any religion to have a majority representation in a political society, it must engage with what it means to be political. According to Eugene F. Miller, a professor of Political Science, "political" is used to speak of different kinds of things - institutions, actions, conflicts, expenditures, a type of discourse, etc. Conflict is a key quality that stands out among these. Based on The Concept of the Political, Carl Schmitt would assert that such conflict is a product of the distinction between friends and enemies, which is central to a political state. This is certainly true of political parties and groups, composed of individuals with opposing ideas about how a nation should function; for these purposes, Republicans and Democrats can be noted as political enemies. Political friendships are opportunistic because political groups have calculating personal interests in their missions to sway civil society.
As well, for a religion to engage with political society is not necessarily to alter the content of the religion to support a political movement. However, this is often the case. Political leaders in the 19th century cited Manifest Destiny as a warrant for their political interests by thematizing God in unison with American Exceptionalism; this is noted in William Earl Weeks’ Building the Continental Empire: American Expansion from the Revolution to the Civil War. Even in modern American political society, God and faith are often credited for political purposes. So when considering Christianity as a politicized, representative religion in the US, who is America’s enemy? One could make a compelling argument that its political enemy is potentially Russia or North Korea. However, in the context of the Christian religion, as it underlays American ideologies, it may be accurate to name Islam as its enemy. This claim has been publicly denied on countless occasions; former Presidents Obama and Bush have made points of stating that the US is not at war with Islam following Islamist terrorist attacks. Yet, general United States sentiments appear to express otherwise.
When President Trump was still a nominee, he became especially well-known for his outlandish and blatantly offensive remarks regarding Muslims. Even as his words were met with harsh criticism, many rallied behind his reasoning. Following his inauguration, he imposed a Muslim ban against seven countries under the false pretext that he was preventing Islamist terrorist attacks. However, Judeo/Christian immigration from these countries was still permitted. As well, even prior to Trump’s reign, Obama was a target of attacks related to Islam. He was regularly criticized by Republicans for not using the phrase “radical Islam.” Prior to that, from the early stages of his presidency, he was labeled an illegitimate Christian, the Anti-Christ, and a Muslim by some citizens and officials, especially as a result of his middle name “Hussein.” Some went so far as to question his citizenship, demanding his birth certificate. Although these concerns were likely influenced by prejudice and racism, their relations specifically to Islam are clear.
According to the aforementioned Pew Research study, 73% of Republican adults said that they believe in God; 55% of Democratic adults said the same. 78% of Conservative adults and 45% of Liberal adults said that they believe in God. As well, religion was most important for both Republican and Conservative adults. Now, consider this as it may relate to the perception of Islam. Many Republicans praised Trump for his overly cautious and prejudicial claims about Muslims, whether privately or publicly. According to a Reuters/Ipsos online poll of over 7,000 Americans prior to the election, supporters of Trump were more than twice as likely than supporters of Clinton to view Islam negatively. At the 2016 Republican National Convention, the focus on “radical Islam” and “Islamic terrorists” served as a uniting concern for the crowd.
While no unified message has been espoused by the Christian community against the Muslim community, it is clear that a state authority wields the power to inspire such a message. With the support of a political party that is more likely to view Muslims unfavorably, Donald Trump can succeed in implicitly rejecting the American diversity of beliefs by politically excluding Muslims. He does not even have to publicly identify with a religion; he has not shown himself to be a religious Christian at all. Trump and like-minded Republican officials breed this negative sentiment. They prove that exclusion through religion can be essential to bolster pro-American ideals. Thus, religion serves solely as a political tool in this context.
On May 19, Ivanka Trump tweeted that she was “looking forward to a meaningful visit to the Middle East and the Vatican in promotion of religious tolerance globally.” Not only has the Trump family shown no credibility in their value of religion in general, but Donald Trump specifically has highlighted his lack of concern for religious tolerance through his declarations about Islam. During Trump’s recent trip to Saudi Arabia, a country with some of the most repressive laws among Muslim countries, many Christian and Jewish leaders were hoping he would speak up in defense of religious minorities. Instead he praised the country and his sale of arms; his concern about Islam as a threat was unapparent as well. Clearly, Trump’s rhetoric is regularly employed as a method to mobilize Americans against Islam.
Tolerance appears inimical to his ever-expanding, political applications of anti-Muslim sentiment. He is successful among his supporters because they are not threatened; Christianity maintains supremacy in America and can be acceptably used to represent American interests even in opposition to another religion, such as Islam. When Trump publicly discriminates against other religious or ethnic groups, he follows his own brand of an American tradition. As long as intolerance remains vital to political exclusion, the purpose of global religious tolerance will remain unrealized.