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Frightened Samaritans: How Religion Is Being Used To Divide Americans


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    SANTA FE, NEW MEXICO - JUNE 21, 2020: The sun rises behind a stone cross atop the historic ... [+] Cathedral Basilica of St. Frances of Assisi in Santa Fe, New Mexico. (Photo by Robert Alexander/Getty Images)

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    Tucked away in the business news last month was a story that unwittingly revealed much about how and why we Americans are divided these days. On May 2, nineteen Republican State Attorneys General wrote a letter to JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon claiming that his bank, the largest in the country, “has persistently discriminated against certain customers due to their religious or political affiliation.” Specifically, it pointed to the bank closing, without explanation, the account of the National Committee for Religious Freedom, an organization recently established by former Kansas governor (and proud conservative) Sam Brownback that defends Americans’ fundamental right to practice their religion.

    For its part, JP Morgan categorically denied the allegations of religious bias, and shareholders of the bank rejected a proposal demanding a further inquiry into the issue. Nonetheless, religious voices on the right are sounding the alarm. In a speech to the National Religious Broadcasters convention, Rev. Franklin Graham warned the assembled that some banks could close conservative and religious accounts. “I believe there’s a coming storm that we’re all going to be ready for,” Graham said. “It’s not going to be good. The world is deteriorating so quickly. It seems like every demon in Hell has been turned loose.”

    So, what is going on here? Given that 70% of Americans consider themselves religious, it is bad for business for companies to be biased against people of religious faith. And I’m sure many readers would justifiably take issue with elected Republicans complaining about discrimination while they are working to defund DEI programs, deny women a right to bodily autonomy, and ban books and pride parades. That said, I want to focus on the broader picture and some of the worrying trends this story reflects.

    For one, this letter does reflect a genuine sentiment in our country. According to a 2016 survey by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) and Brookings, almost half of all Americans, including three-quarters of Republicans and eight out of ten white evangelical Protestants, believe discrimination against Christians is as big a problem as discrimination against African-Americans and minorities. This may seem peculiar to many people – Christians aren’t being killed by the police or incarcerated at disproportionate rates – but the feeling is widespread.

    In a more recent PRRI/Brookings poll, more than half of Republicans and nearly two-thirds of white evangelicals said that America should be officially and strictly a Christian nation. Supporters of Christian nationalism, the survey researchers noted, also tended to hold anti-Black, anti-immigrant, antisemitic, and patriarchal views. For example, about eight in ten Christian nationalism supporters – but only one in three Americans overall – agree that “immigrants are invading our country and replacing our cultural and ethnic background.”

    I point this out not to shame the respondents but to try understanding them. Because this seems to be a classic case of “othering,” or deciding, for whatever reason, that some groups of people are not like us and don’t fully belong. Once we’ve made that cognitive leap and created an us versus them frame, we develop narratives and consume propaganda that reinforces these notions until they get culturally socialized. Eventually, it feels like it must be true that non-Christians – or black people, immigrants, or “woke leftists” – are different from us because everything we read, watch, or listen to says so. And then we start to fear these other people, often irrationally.

    On a trip to Ireland last year, I visited a farmer in Connemara who was steeped in the history of the potato famine, and he shared a great example of how this sort of othering can be harmful and deadly. There, Anglicans passed Penal Laws that oppressed Catholics and were justified because their prevailing narrative went that Irish Catholics were uneducated, violent, alcoholic, and lazy. There was also some sense that Anglicans would be at risk if Catholics fully participated in the economy, government, and society. If you met two Irish guys – one Catholic, one Protestant – you would have no way to tell them apart unless they wore green or orange. But the narratives were created, the propaganda circulated, and a real divide was created that still causes issues today.

    This same type of othering happens repeatedly and is usually rooted in fear. It’s a feeling –often exploited by opportunistic politicians – that there are limited resources, that we live in a zero-sum game, and the winner is either going to be us or them, so it might as well be us – even if the difference is entirely arbitrary and based on and reinforced by socialized narratives. Over time, our systems evolve to reflect these once-imaginary divides.

    In this case, you’d be hard-pressed to find much in the way of real discrimination against Christians in America today, especially compared to what women and minorities face. The cited cases are usually random one-off events like the JP Morgan story above or a baker not wanting to make a cake for Pride Day. But it is true that Christianity is no longer as dominant in America as it once was. According to a Pew poll, roughly two-thirds of Americans (64%) identified as Christian in 2020 – still a large majority, but down considerably from 90% in the early 1990s. (Religiously unaffiliated people, meanwhile, have grown from 16% in 2007 to 30%.) This puts many Christians on edge. As Rev. Tonya Barnette, a lesbian youth minister in Big Stone Gap, Tennessee, well put it, “I think it’s some kind of fear of difference – fear of me as being different, fear of the nation changing so that it’s not white, cis, straight, male Christians in charge only. And it’s moving toward people who are different.”

    Unfortunately, this fear is exacerbated by politicians, who argue it’s time for “real” Christians to stand against the cultural tide in America. At a speech before the Faith and Freedom Coalition, Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis told the audience, “You got to put on the full armor of God” to “take a stand against the left’s schemes…you will face flaming arrows but take up the shield of faith and fight on.”

    Indeed, many conservatives are now calling for an end to the separation of church and state in America. “I am a Christian, and I say it proudly, we should be Christian nationalists,” Rep. Marjorie Taylor Green told a conservative audience last August. Doug Mastriano, the Republican candidate for governor in Pennsylvania last cycle, called the separation of church and state “a myth” and that, “in November, we are going to take our state back, my God will make it so.” Rep. Lauren Boebert of Colorado has said, “The church is supposed to direct the government” and “I’m tired of this separation of church and state junk.”

    For most Americans – even most Christians – the idea of overturning the separation of church and state is a non-starter. One of the things that has made America great since its founding is our openness to all faiths. But we should be concerned about the growing use of religion as a bludgeon to stoke fear and hatred, as it divides one-half of our population against the other. It’s both un-American and un-Christian. After all, the Bible is very specific about what we should do unto others, how we should love one another, and treat strangers in our midst.

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