Debate over ‘Christian America’ spreads outside church

NAPERVILLE, Ill. (RNS)—In their own ways, Jim Wallis and Donald Trump each profess belief the Bible can save America.

Trump, who recently endorsed Lee Greenwood’s God Bless the USA Bible, a book that combines the King James Version with the U.S. Constitution and Declaration of Independence, has characterized the Christian Scripture as both a symbol of power and a sign to his followers that their way of life is under threat.

“We must make America pray again,” the former president said in a YouTube and social media promotional video released in Holy Week.

For Wallis, the evangelical Christian minister and longtime social justice activist, the Bible’s substance, not its symbolism, holds the power to address America’s ills and save democracy.

Speaking at a suburban Chicago bookstore April 8, Wallis quoted a passage from the Book of Genesis that asserts all human beings are made in God’s image. As such, he said, any attack on democracy is an attack on something holy.

Wallis agrees American democracy is in crisis and needs to be saved, but it won’t be accomplished by Americans giving in to their “worst demons” and tearing each other apart.

Jim Wallis is the author of “The False White Gospel.”

“We need to go deeper than politics,” he told the 20 or so people who had come out to hear him talk about his new book, The False White Gospel. The book turns to a series of biblical stories—from Genesis’ creation account to the parable of the good Samaritan—largely calling to end the polarization and fear that divide the country.

Despite the decline of organized religion, faith and politics still make a volatile combination in a country where the Republican candidate, a thrice-divorced former reality TV star with a history of sexual misconduct, is running as a defender of the Christian faith.

That fact was apparent in the past few weeks as Wallis’ book tour has taken him to cable news shows, yielding segments remarkable for their ardent questions about the meaning of Christianity, not from the evangelical Christian minister and longtime social justice activist, but from his hosts.

The day after Easter, Joe Scarborough of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” expressed exasperation as he asked Wallis about Trump’s followers: “Why do they have to embrace a failed reality TV host and take him on as the other Jesus, their new savior?”

Joy Reid, host of “The ReidOut,” another MSNBC show, called Trump’s Bible pitch blasphemy. “To Donald Trump, a Bible is no more sacred than a Trump board game. Or Trump water. It’s just another cheap tchotchke to sell to his followers.”

Amanda Henderson, director of the Institute for Religion, Politics & Culture at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver and host of the “Complexified” podcast, said Trump is one of a long line of politicians and leaders in history who understand the power of religion as political tool.

“At a time when so many people feel a sense of loneliness or disconnection, he is tapping into the desire we all have to be part of something bigger,” she said. “We can’t dismiss that underlying need that people have to feel a sense of connection and belonging and to be a part of something bigger than themselves.”

Even as some religious leaders oppose Trump’s use of faith, said Henderson, they can’t afford to cede the discussion of faith to the candidate. The outrage expressed by Reid, Scarborough and others shows the debate has spread beyond clergy to liberal Christians in the media and other sectors.

Civil religion promoted in mid-20th century

Brian Kaylor, author of Baptizing America, said mainline Protestants’ role in promoting “God and country” patriotism in the mid-20th century has resulted in religion becoming one more thing tearing the country apart today.

President Harry S. Truman, left, accepts a new Revised Standard Version of the Bible from Dean Emeritus of the Yale Divinity School, Luther A. Weigle, right, in a Rose Garden ceremony at the White House on Sept. 26, 1952. Weigle gave the book on behalf of the National Council of Churches.(Photo by United Press Associations. Harry S. Truman Library)

In the 1950s and 1960s, Americans rallied to a broad, consensual civil religion, reflected in the adoption of “In God We Trust” as the national motto and to add “Under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance, Kaylor said.

When translators of one of the most popular English translations of the Bible, the Revised Standard Version, finished their work after 15 years on the job, Kaylor pointed out, they presented President Harry Truman with a commemorative copy of the new translation in a Rose Garden ceremony.

At the time, 90 percent of Americans were Christians and largely viewed religion in a positive light, Kaylor said. Today, 80 percent of Americans say religion’s influence is on the decline, according to a new poll, while more than half of Americans rarely or never darken a church door.

“Civil religion worked in the 1950s and 1960s,” said Kaylor. “It no longer works today.”

Weaponized ‘God and country’

Calvin University history professor Kristin Kobes Du Mez said the “God Bless the USA Bible” is an attempt to fire up those who remain devoted, though even the number of evangelical Christians is declining.

Kristen Du Mez

Trump is “going to need every one of those evangelical votes,” Du Mez said.

But Trump may be appealing to “comfort food Christian nationalism,” a version of “God and country” patriotism familiar to older Christian voters who remember the heyday of civil religion.

“It was this more inclusive kind of Christian America—though if you weren’t Christian, you just had to be quiet and go along,” Du Mez said.

In Trump’s hands, that idea has been turned into a weapon, with his Christian followers portrayed as the “real Americans” pitted against not only non-Christians but Christians who don’t share their political views.

“You are either for us or against us,” said Du Mez, author of Jesus and John Wayne.

In this sense, Trump is trying to turn a bygone Christian consensus into a source of power, a message he made plain earlier this year at a meeting of evangelical Christian broadcasters in Nashville, Tenn., telling them, “If I get in, you’re going to be using that power at a level that you’ve never used before.”

Defending democracy or undermining it?

Tobin Miller Shearer, a professor of history at the University of Montana, points out civil religion appealed to faith in defense of democracy. Trump, Shearer argued in a recent essay, is instead using God to motivate people to undermine democracy.

“Regardless of the outcome of the 2024 election, the switch from historical claims of divine authority for democracy to divine authority to challenge democracy is already obvious and apparent,” he said.

Princeton historian Kevin Kruse, author of One Nation Under God, a study of Eisenhower-era “God and country” politics, said some of Trump’s supporters may still recall that earlier version of civil religion and long for that era, even if the former president has a different goal in mind.

When they hear “One nation, under God,” that means “We are all in this together,” Kruse said. “Not—if you don’t toe the line, you are out.”

Viewing Trump as ‘champion’ for evangelicals

Those who see Christianity as important to many Americans are exasperated at the gap between those teachings and the rise of Trump, said NPR political correspondent Sarah McCammon, even those who don’t embrace the Bible or Christianity but know its teachings.

McCammon, whose book The Exvangelicals was prompted by her experiences covering Trump’s 2016 campaign and his surprising hold on evangelicals, said she often gets asked, “How can Christian people think that this is what Christianity is all about?”

“I don’t think most white evangelicals are supporting Trump because they think he’s a devout Christian,” she said. “It’s not because they think Trump is one of them. It’s because they think he will be a champion for them. That distinction is really critical.”

 Even if many Americans no longer read the Bible—Trump’s endorsed version or any other—Christianity still is embedded for many in what it means to be an American. And it remains a force in American culture, McCammon said.

“Flannery O’Connor talked about how Christ-haunted the South was,” she said, referring to the mid-20th-century author from Georgia. “In a way, Christ has haunted America. We can’t get away from that history.”

For his part, Wallis said he still is hopeful about America’s future. During his bookstore talk, he spoke of the short-term goal of saving democracy. But the bigger goal, he said, is to transform the nation into the kind of inclusive community Christians—and all Americans—can share.

Hope is needed to make that possible, he said, turning to the New Testament Book of Hebrews. Faith, he said in quoting that book, “is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”




Pastors sign declaration opposing religious nationalism

WASHINGTON (RNS)—A group of Christian pastors, theologians and scholars signed a declaration committing the signers to preaching on “real moral issues” ahead of the 2024 election and opposing what the group calls “religious nationalism.”

The document defines religious nationalism as a political movement it says is exploiting “traditional values” to undermine democracy.

“This distorted religious nationalism has persuaded many well-meaning Christians to focus on a narrow set of divisive cultural wedge issues while ignoring the real moral issues that are at the heart of our Scriptures and tradition,” the declaration reads.

The New Haven Declaration of Moral & Spiritual Issues in the 2024 Presidential Election is one of the outcomes of Yale Divinity School’s first Public Theology and Public Policy Conference, which concluded April 9.

The declaration states “we love this nation,” before taking on what it describes as a “political movement (that) has co-opted our faith tradition.”

“We repent of not doing more to preach and teach against this misuse of our faith, and we pledge to proclaim in word and deed a public theology that is good news for all people,” it reads.

The declaration then calls on pastors to launch “a season of preaching the moral issues of living wages and union rights, healthcare and ecological justice,” among other issues.

Address inequality and injustice

William J. Barber II is the founding director of the Yale Center for Public Theology and Public Policy. (Courtesy Photo via RNS)

William J. Barber II, founding director of the Yale Center for Public Theology and Public Policy, said he hoped the conference helped educate pastors about the issues the Bible prioritizes—societal inequality and injustice.

“The very things that the prophets and that Jesus put at the center as primary are not being heard in the pews in this country,” Barber said. “And that is a deficit that we believe is a form of pastoral malpractice.”

Barber, noted for his anti-poverty activism, retired from the pulpit of his Goldsboro, N.C., church last year to devote his time to training future pastors.

He may be best known for organizing the Moral Mondays movement as a protest against cuts to unemployment benefits, health care funding and voting rights in his home state. In February, he met with Vice President Kamala Harris to talk about issues surrounding the plight of the poor.

Among the initial signers of the declaration are Pastor Jacqui Lewis of New York City’s historic Middle Church; Shane Claiborne, an activist with the Red Letter Christians; Bishop Yvette Flunder of the Fellowship of Affirming Ministries; and Willie James Jennings, a Yale Divinity School professor and theologian.

Another signer, Teresa Hord Owens, president of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), who attended the conference, said she would encourage pastors in her denomination of 3,000 congregations to sign the declaration as well.

“I think as Christians we have to really understand what the roots of our tradition are and not allow those things to be distorted or misused for purposes that really fly in the face of what we believe,” Owens said.

She said she believed voter apathy is the result of political candidates not addressing the issues that are important to so many people, such as jobs, wages and economic anxiety.

The conference featured a range of academic experts on Christian nationalism, including Philip Gorski and Anthea Butler. Participants also were invited to watch a new documentary on the rise of Christian nationalism called “Bad Faith.”

But the bulk of the conference was devoted to helping pastors and other Christian leaders better understand the issues Barber cares about most—poverty, racism, voting rights, criminal justice, health care.

“Christian nationalism glorifies hating, almost disdaining, others when our Christian teaching from Scripture calls us to embrace our neighbor and it doesn’t decide who our neighbor is,” Barber said. “It calls us to love everyone with the love of God.”




Indiana court upholds injunction on abortion ban

WASHINGTON (RNS)—The Indiana Court of Appeals has upheld a lower court’s injunction on the state’s near-total abortion ban, giving another win to those who say the ban ignores their religious beliefs about when human life begins.

In her majority opinion, issued April 4, Judge Leanna K. Weissmann argued the injunction was necessary to protect the religious freedom of those seeking an abortion, and it allowed the case to proceed as a class-action lawsuit.

“Without a preliminary injunction, Plaintiffs will suffer the loss of their right to exercise their sincere religious beliefs by obtaining an abortion when directed by their religion and prohibited by the Abortion Law,” Weissmann wrote.

In utilizing Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act to protect the right to an abortion, the plaintiffs in the case are seeking to reverse the political history of the law. Its passage in 2015, which was backed by conservative religious leaders, then spurred outcry from more liberal-leaning religious groups.

The case was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana on behalf of five anonymous residents and Hoosier Jews for Choice opposing a state law passed in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2022 Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision.

ACLU lawyers argued Indiana’s ban violates the state’s RFRA, a measure focused on religious liberty that was signed into law in 2015 by then-Gov. Mike Pence.

In a concurring opinion, Judge L. Mark Bailey suggested the abortion ban effectively privileged one form of faith over others by siding with a specific definition of when life begins.

“In accordance with abundant religious liberty and the recognition of a pluralistic society, our Constitution further provides: ‘No preference shall be given, by law, to any creed, religious society, or mode of worship,’” Bailey wrote. “Yet in this post-Dobbs world, our Legislature has done just that—preferred one creed over another.”

The lawsuit noted that, under Jewish law, “a fetus attains the status of a living person only at birth,” and that abortions “may occur, and should occur as a religious matter, under circumstances not allowed” under the state’s abortion ban.

It went on to note that various other religious groups—Muslims, Unitarian Universalists and Episcopalians, among others—also hold religious beliefs about abortion impacted by the abortion ban.

Legal challenges to state abortion bans filed

The case is one of several religious liberty-related legal challenges to state-level abortion bans filed across the country after the Dobbs decision overturned the decades-long national right to abortion established by Roe v. Wade.

From Kentucky to Florida to Missouri, leaders from an array of religious backgrounds have argued their faiths allow or even encourage access to abortion.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor cited the spectrum of religious thought regarding abortion during oral arguments over Dobbs, saying, “The issue of when life begins has been hotly debated by philosophers since the beginning of time—it’s still debated in religions.”

Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which filed an amicus brief in the case, celebrated the court’s decision.

“The court rightly found that Indiana’s abortion ban cannot override religious freedom protections in Indiana law,” Americans United CEO Rachel Laser said. “As we told the court, abortion bans undermine religious freedom by imposing one religious viewpoint on all of us. Abortion bans are a direct attack on the separation of church and state.”




Trump endorses ‘God Bless the USA Bible’

WASHINGTON (RNS)—During Holy Week, Donald Trump released a video promoting sales of the “God Bless the USA Bible.”

“We must make America pray again,” the former president said in a YouTube and social media promotional video for the Bible, named after country singer Lee Greenwood’s 1984 hit song.

Along with a King James Version translation of the Christian Scriptures, the “God Bless the USA Bible” also features the text of the U.S. Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, the Pledge of Allegiance and the chorus to Greenwood’s song—all for $59.99.

In the promo, Trump, who is seeking a return to the White House, laments the decline of organized religion in the United States.

A new poll from Gallup found more than half of Americans rarely or never go to church, while projections from Pew Research indicate that by 2070, fewer than half of Americans may be Christians. Most Americans believe religion is on the decline but are split on whether that is a good or bad thing.

“Religion and Christianity are the biggest things missing from this country,” said Trump in the promotional video. “And I truly believe that we need to bring them back. And we have to bring them back fast.”

Every American, says Trump, needs a Bible in their home. In the video, he is flanked by American flags and calls Greenwood a good friend.

Trump, who promised Christian broadcasters a revival of Christian power during an appearance in Nashville, Tenn., last month, has played Greenwood’s anthem during campaign events.

Paid endorsement?

While Trump claims in the promo the Bible is his favorite book, saying he owns many copies, his endorsement is likely a paid one—the promo video points viewers to godblesstheusabible.com, where they can order a copy.

The Associated Press reported a spokesman for Trump and the ‘God Bless the USA Bible’ did not respond to questions about how much Trump was paid for the licensing deal or how much he could profit from book sales.

The site includes a disclaimer that the Bible has no ties to the Trump campaign and funds from the Bible don’t go to the campaign. However, Trump was compensated for the endorsement.

GodBlessTheUSABible.com uses Donald J. Trump’s name, likeness and image under paid license from CIC Ventures LLC, which license may be terminated or revoked according to its terms,” an FAQ on the site reads. The Washington Post reported CIC Ventures LLC is owned by Trump.

Appealing to nostalgia

Endorsing the “God Bless the USA Bible” was likely a smart move for Trump, said Warren Throckmorton, a retired Grove City College professor who has studied the work of David Barton, a popular Christian speaker who has his own patriotic version of the Scriptures known as The Founders Bible.

That Bible and the one Trump endorses appeal to a sense of nostalgia about America’s past, based on efforts in the 1940s to market the United States as a Christian nation. The idea of the United States as a Christian country is commonly held, Throckmorton said, while not historically accurate.

“I think that’s the fallback position for many people, even if they’re not personally Christian themselves,” he said.

Throckmorton predicted the endorsement would pay off for Greenwood and Trump.

“It will sell Greenwood a profitable amount of Bibles, and it will solidify Trump’s image as a champion of morality to his fans,” he told Religion News Service. “Trump needs to shore up his base and this kind of Christian nationalist baby food will do the trick.”

Promoting Christian nationalism

Ruth Braunstein, associate professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut and director of the Meanings of Democracy Lab, said that the “God Bless the USA Bible” appeals to “God and country” religion. But it can be used to promote more radical forms of Christian nationalism—the idea that America belongs to Christians and that Christians have the right to run the country, she said.

“It’s one thing to say (or sing along to) ‘God Bless the USA’ and quite another to say (as Trump did in his announcement video), that ‘All Americans need a Bible in their home,,” she said in an email.

“This is not just promoting religion in general, which would perhaps draw criticism but still be considered within the pale. He is using his position as the former President to endorse a specific form of religiosity, to sell a Christian Bible.”

University of Oklahoma professor Samuel Perry, who has published two books on Christian nationalism, said Trump’s ad reflected the ideology’s penchant for framing Christianity as under siege. He pointed to the former president’s argument that the U.S. is not only tied to Christianity at its founding, but that the nation’s religious heritage is under attack.

“It’s not enough to say ‘We’re a Christian nation and we should honor that.’ What really needs to be communicated is that ‘We were a Christian nation, but not anymore, because of those people,’” Perry said in an email. “In other words, at the core of the political strategy of Christian nationalism is constantly evoking the felt sense of loss and future threat.”

Trump, he added, “can’t convincingly sell himself as an exemplar of Christian piety,” but can “sell himself as the defender of Christians against the attacks of leftists, socialists, Muslims, and immigrants.”

Put together by Greenwood with the help of a Nashville marketing firm, the “God Bless the USA Bible” has been controversial in the past. Plans for an edition using the New International Version of the Bible under agreement with the Christian publishing giant Zondervan were derailed after Christian authors with ties to Zondervan protested.

The project was resurrected using the King James Version, which is in the public domain.

A spokesperson for Greenwood did not respond to requests for comment.




Religious affairs expert Bowen adjusts to the White House

WASHINGTON (RNS)—In the month since moving from Mayor Muriel Bowser’s administration to the White House, Thomas L. Bowen keeps encountering familiar faces.

“It’s kind of funny, because there hasn’t been a meeting yet that I have not walked into a room and known somebody from previous interaction, be it through the mayor’s office or years gone by with the Children’s Defense Fund,” said Bowen, who was recently appointed a senior White House adviser charged with keeping faith leaders informed about national policy.

There’s an old adage that our nation’s capital is a small town, but in Bowen’s case, the phenomenon may have as much to do with his previous interactions.

A graduate of Morehouse College who studied at the University of Chicago Divinity School, the Ohio native worked in religious advocacy alongside now-Sen. Raphael Warnock and Chicago pastor Otis Moss III before moving to the Children’s Defense Fund, a nonprofit championed by first lady Hillary Clinton.

In 2002, he joined the staff at Shiloh Baptist Church, a historic Black congregation, where he is minister of social justice. There he became known as a voice for the faith community in the district, and in 2016, Bowser made it official by naming him director of religious affairs.

At both the local and national level, Bowen’s portfolio has gone beyond the realm of faith. He also was the director of African American affairs for the District of Columbia and led its Office on Fathers, Men and Boys.

At the White House, his responsibilities in the Office of Public Engagement also include outreach to “the diaspora of white, ethnic countries in Europe, such as Ireland, Italy, Greece.”

Bowen also is likely to be engaged in shoring up democracy, a major theme of Biden’s presidency and now his reelection campaign.

“He understands the moral and ethical underpinnings of democracy,” said Eddie S. Glaude Jr., religion scholar and professor of African American studies at Princeton University, of Bowen, with whom he attended Morehouse.

Mediating with former colleagues

Bowen has already been in touch with Barbara Williams-Skinner, a Washington-area faith leader and coordinator of Faiths United to Save Democracy, who describes Bowen as “the consummate example of faith in action.”

Williams-Skinner said she hopes one of his primary aims will be to arrange a meeting, something the Black faith community has long sought, between their leaders and Biden. After years of seeking to advocate with the president about anti-poverty legislation and raising the minimum wage, more recently Black church leaders have joined ardent cries for cease-fire in the Hamas-Israel war.

“Black clergy are the most consistent, faithful messengers of hope for vulnerable people, for reluctant voters, particularly younger voters,” said Williams-Skinner, who also co-chairs the National African American Clergy Network. “And it is a little bit shortsighted not to close the gap in that communication.”

Bowen is now in the position of mediating with his former colleagues on these issues.

“We always try to share with them how we are leading the humanitarian efforts in Gaza, and how we continue to try to negotiate, broker with both sides,” he said.

Continuing to serve church and community

While shifting to national domestic and international issues, he will still be acting as a clergyperson in the city that he has long served.

“Whenever there is a funeral of an unhoused person, and the pastor is unable to do it, Rev. Bowen is always our go-to person,” said George Mensah, executive minister at Shiloh Baptist.

Bowen said he conducted a funeral at Shiloh for “a beloved church member who unfortunately was experiencing homelessness” three weeks after starting his White House job.

“One of my commitments in ministry is I believe that everyone deserves a proper homegoing,” said Bowen, who also leads the church’s 7 a.m. prayer service via conference call on weekdays.

Bowen also takes part in the celebrations of different religious groups, including iftars, the meals when Muslims break their fasts during Ramadan, and Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights.

“I think that we all can be better if we can learn from our neighbors and co-workers, how they celebrate their faith, and how it informs their life,” said the minister, who is affiliated with the American Baptist Churches USA and the Progressive National Baptist Convention.

Muslim and Christian clergy spoke of his concern for the safety of their houses of worship amid threats and violence.

Imam Talib M. Shareef, president of Masjid Muhammad, also known as The Nation’s Mosque, in Washington, described Bowen as “very responsive” when religious communities had been targeted with hatred.

“Any time an incident has occurred where a faith community was the target of violence, he would always check on us, and most of the time with a physical visit,” the imam said in an email message about Bowen, who he said has regularly visited the mosque.

William H. Lamar IV, pastor of Washington’s Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church and co-chair of the Washington Interfaith Network, also spoke of Bowen’s “very pastoral presence,’’ recalling how he supported the congregation “when the Proud Boys desecrated our congregation” by tearing down and destroying its Black Lives Matter sign.

Bowen expects to continue his public engagement work with people of no faith, including “nones,” or those with no particular affiliation, as well as atheists and humanists.

“I know that there are people who have something to offer in this space, who may not be associated with any organized religion,” he said.

Address security issues for houses of worship

Bowen said he also hopes to continue to address issues of security for houses of worship in his new role that interacts with the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

He has collaborated with the Department of Homeland Security office that administers the Nonprofit Security Grant Program, which provides funding to congregations at risk of attack.

“I don’t think that houses of worship can be told too much,” he said about the need for protection and planning to shore up their buildings, “because there are a lot of vulnerable congregations out there.”

Lamar said he prays that his colleague can be prophetic in the midst of the powerful.

“Whether he represented Mayor Bowser or he represents Joe Biden the question is this,” said Lamar, “when a decision is in front of him that he knows clearly goes against the dictates of the revolutionary gospel of Jesus Christ and against the tenets of the world’s religions that believe in faith and justice and fairness and all human beings being treated with dignity, what decision will he make?”

Bowen said he has had to make some choices, including giving up membership in a couple of religious roles as he moved to the White House position—the Socially Responsible Investing Advisory Council of the American Baptist Home Mission Societies and the board of Sixth & I, a Jewish cultural center in Washington for which he was the sole Black non-Jewish member.

But he also said he’s “comfortable” in his new post. “I’m happy to be in a room and in a space where I can just share not only my concerns, but the concerns of people that I talk to like Rev. Bill Lamar—not only that I talk to, but I respect,” he said.

Bowen said he believes there are listening ears in the White House, even if answers to concerns do not always come quickly.

“I gladly get into the arena to help share the thoughts and stand in the gap,” he said.




Most Americans say religion’s influence is waning

WASHINGTON (RNS)—As the United States continues to debate the fusion of faith and politics, a sweeping new survey reports most American adults have a positive view of religion’s role in public life but believe its influence is waning.

The development appears to unsettle at least half of the country, with growing concern among an array of religious Americans that their beliefs are in conflict with mainstream American culture.

That’s according to a new survey unveiled on March 14 by Pew Research, which was conducted in February and seeks to tease out attitudes regarding the influence of religion on American society.

“We see signs of sort of a growing disconnect between people’s own religious beliefs and their perceptions about the broader culture,” said Greg Smith, associate director of research at Pew Research Center.

He pointed to findings such as 80 percent of U.S. adults saying religion’s role in American life is shrinking—as high as it’s ever been in Pew surveys—and about half (49 percent) of U.S. adults say religion losing that influence is a bad thing.

What’s more, he noted 48 percent of U.S. adults say there’s “a great deal” of or “some” conflict between their religious beliefs and mainstream American culture, an increase from 42 percent in 2020.

The number of Americans who see themselves as a minority group because of their religious beliefs has increased as well, rising from 24 percent in 2020 to 29 percent this year.

The spike in Americans who see themselves as a religious minority, while small, appears across several faith groups: white evangelical Protestants rose from 32 percent to 37 percent, white non-evangelical Protestants from 11 percent to 16 percent, white Catholics from 13 percent to 23 percent, Hispanic Catholics from 17 percent to 26 percent and Jewish Americans from 78 percent to 83 percent.

Religiously unaffiliated Americans who see themselves as a minority because of their religious beliefs also rose from 21 percent to 25 percent.

“We’re seeing an uptick in the share of Americans who think of themselves as a minority because of their religious beliefs,” Smith said.

What about impact of Christian nationalism?

Researchers also homed in on Christian nationalism, an ideology that often insists the United States is given special status by God and usually features support for enshrining a specific kind of Christianity into U.S. law.

But while the movement has garnered prominent supporters and vocal critics—as well as backing from political figures such as Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia—Pew found views on the subject virtually unchanged from when they asked Americans about the topic in recent years.

“One thing that jumped out at me, given the amount of attention that’s been paid to Christian nationalism in the media and the level of conversation about it, is that the survey finds no change over the last year and a half or so in the share of the public who says they’ve heard anything about it,” Smith said.

About 45 percent of those polled said they had heard of Christian nationalism or read about it, with 54 percent saying they had never heard of the ideology—the same percentages as in September 2022. Overall, 25 percent had an unfavorable view of Christian nationalism, whereas only 5 percent had a favorable view and 6 percent had neither a favorable nor unfavorable view.

Researchers also pressed respondents on fusions of religion and politics, revealing a spectrum of views. A majority (55 percent) said the U.S. government should enforce the separation of church and state, whereas 16 percent said the government should stop enforcing it and another 28 percent saying neither or had no opinion.

Meanwhile, only 13 percent said the U.S. government should declare Christianity the nation’s official religion, compared to 39 percent who believed the United States should not declare Christianity the state religion or promote Christian moral values.

A plurality (44 percent) sided with a third option—the United States should not declare Christianity its official faith, but it should still promote Christian values.

Should the Bible influence U.S. law?

When asked whether the Bible should have influence over U.S. laws, respondents were evenly split: 49 percent said the Bible should have “a great deal” of or “some” influence, while 51 percent said it should have “not much” or “no influence.”

But things looked different when Pew asked an additional question of those who supported a Bible-based legal structure: If the Bible and the will of the people come into conflict, which should prevail?

Not quite two-thirds of that group—or 28 percent of Americans overall—said the Bible, but more than a third of the group (or 19 percent of the United States overall) said the will of the people should win out.

Here again, opinions have remained largely static, with researchers noting the numbers “have remained virtually unchanged over the past four years.”

Respondents were also asked whether they believed the Bible currently has influence over U.S. laws, with a majority (57 percent) agreeing it has at least some.

But there were notable differences among religious groups. White evangelicals (48 percent) and Black Protestants (40 percent) were the least likely to say the Bible has at least some influence on U.S. law, compared to slight majorities of white non-evangelical Protestants (56 percent) and both white and Hispanic Catholics (52 percent for both).

The religiously unaffiliated (70 percent), Jewish Americans (73 percent), atheists (86 percent) and agnostics (83 percent) were the most likely to agree the Bible is a significant factor in the U.S. legal system.

The survey polled 12,693 U.S. adults from Feb. 13 to Feb. 25.




Christian nationalism critic invited to State of the Union

WASHINGTON (RNS)—Amanda Tyler, lead organizer of Christians Against Christian Nationalism, will attend the State of the Union address Thursday, March 7, as a guest of U.S. Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.), co-founder of the Congressional Freethought Caucus.

Tyler has become one of the loudest voices in Washington and in the country speaking against the Christian nationalist movement, a decentralized but insistent collection of preachers, politicians and self-appointed champions of ideas that fuse church and state, with many often insisting the United States is ordained by God to be governed by Christian principles with Christians in charge.

The executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, an organization that supports religious freedom, Tyler, a Texan who formerly worked for U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas), began opposing Christian nationalism even before she helped to found Christians Against Christian Nationalism in 2019.

Since then, she has testified to Congress repeatedly to raise concerns about the dangers of the movement, which she frames as destructive both to religious liberty and to American democracy.

In October, she told the U.S. House Oversight Committee’s Subcommittee on National Security, the Border and Foreign Affairs: “The single greatest threat to religious liberty in the United States today, and thus our reputation as leaders in the fight for religious liberty to the rest of the world, is Christian nationalism.”

Tyler’s presence at President Joe Biden’s speech to both houses of Congress is a signal that the Freethought Caucus, whose leadership Huffman shares with U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), is seeking to expand its role as a watchdog in how religion and politics are mixed in Washington.

Freethought Caucus

The caucus emerged following debates that sprung up in the wake of Huffman declaring himself a humanist—a first for a sitting member of Congress—and was announced at a Secular Coalition for America event.

“It has to be OK for someone who is nonreligious—for humanists or agnostics or atheists—to serve in the United States Congress,” Huffman said in a speech announcing the caucus.

While saying the group’s mission would be to oppose discrimination against “agnostics, humanists, seekers and nonreligious folks,” the California congressman also said it would be dedicated to promoting broader goals, such as “public policy formed on the basis of reason, science and moral values,” as well as protecting the “secular character of our government by adhering to the strict constitutional principle of the separation of church and state.”

In the years since, the caucus has grown to include more than 20 declared members of various religious identities, including Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.), Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) and Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.).

In November 2020, Huffman and Raskin presented a 28-page document written by the Secular Democrats of America PAC asking then President-elect Biden to consider policy proposals designed to stymie the influence of Christian nationalism, and encouraging fellow lawmakers to avoid phrases such as “God and country.”

Influence of Christian nationalism

The group escalated its criticism of Christian nationalism after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. Members of the caucus invited scholars and activists, including Tyler and figures from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, to brief them about the role Christian nationalism played in the attack.

Soon after, Huffman made a speech on the House floor, crediting the experts’ briefing, saying Christian nationalism “is infecting our government—from members of Congress and top officials in the previous administration, to the wife of a Supreme Court justice.”

Just before the report of the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack was to be issued, Raskin, who sat on the committee, brought Tyler to testify before the House Oversight Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, which Raskin chaired.

“Christian nationalism helped fuel the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, uniting disparate actors and infusing their political cause with religious fervor,” Tyler told the panel.

Some faith leaders were disappointed when the select committee’s report made only spare mention of Christian nationalism.

While relatively quiet most of last year, the caucus has been active since Mike Johnson, a U.S. representative from Louisiana and an evangelical Christian, became Speaker of the House in October. The caucus released a white paper accusing him of being “deeply connected in political practice and philosophy to Christian Nationalism.”

In February, the group joined with other Democratic lawmakers in sending a letter to Johnson voicing frustration that California megapastor Jack Hibbs had been allowed to serve as a guest chaplain to give the opening prayer in the House.

Hibbs, the letter contended, is a “radical Christian Nationalist who helped fuel the January 6th insurrection and has a long record of spewing hateful vitriol toward non-Christians, immigrants, and members of the LGBTQ community.”

Raising awareness

In a statement announcing Tyler’s appearance at the State of the Union, Huffman said, “The political climate surrounding this year’s State of the Union Address is unlike anything we’ve experienced.”

Huffman cited “Christian Nationalists seeking their ‘Seven Mountains’ domination of every level of government, from local school boards to state courts like Alabama’s, all the way to the halls of Congress,” referring to a movement of far-right Christians who aim to control the seven most influential social institutions: family, religion, education, media, entertainment, business and government.

He added: “Despite the serious threat the current Speaker of the House poses to true religious freedom, most Americans are unfamiliar with the dangerous agenda of Christian nationalism, and don’t realize how close we are to losing church-state separation and democracy as we know it. Amanda Tyler gets it.”

Tyler in return lauded the Freethought Caucus, calling the group of lawmakers “a strong ally in our work advancing faith freedom for all.”




Biden administration finalizes rule on religious liberty protections

(RNS)—Nine agencies of the Biden administration have finalized a new rule that officials say will improve religious freedom by protecting the rights of beneficiaries of social services funded by the government.

In particular, the rule will affect those receiving help from the many faith-based social service providers and will ensure providers cannot withhold help based on faith affiliation nor require beneficiaries to participate in any religious activity in order to receive help.

The rule restores some religious freedom protections rescinded by the Trump administration that also affected people seeking job search and job training assistance, housing services and academic enrichment. It also clarifies faith-based organizations should be able to compete equally with secular providers for awards while keeping their religious character.

“Today’s announcement establishes uniform policies to safeguard Americans from religious discrimination in social services,” said U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra in the March 1 statement. “These regulations aim to guarantee broad access to essential social services for eligible individuals, reinforcing awareness of religious liberty protections.”

Key features of the ruling

The 187-page rule, scheduled to be published in the Federal Register on March 4, was issued by the following departments: Health and Human Services, Agriculture, Education, Homeland Security, Housing and Urban Development, Justice, Labor, Veterans Affairs and the U.S. Agency for International Development.

One of the key protections is a requirement that organizations receiving federal grants for U.S. social service programs inform beneficiaries of their right to not be discriminated against on the basis of their religion. Grantees must provide a model notice to providers of this requirement, which applies to programs supported by grants or by vouchers.

Another key aspect of the rule is the encouragement of government agencies funding U.S. programs to aid beneficiaries in locating alternative providers in their region that are more compatible with their beliefs and also are federally funded.

Response of separation of church and state advocates

The announcement was hailed by organizations that long have supported religious freedom and the separation of church and state.

“We applaud the Biden administration for restoring religious freedom protections for the millions of often vulnerable and marginalized people who use government-funded social services,” said Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, in a statement.

“Religious freedom is a foundational American principle. No one should have to give up their religious freedom in order to have access to critical services. No one should ever be pressured to participate in religious activities or be required to meet a religious litmus test in exchange for the help they need,” the statement continued.

Interfaith Alliance said the new rule is an important step in restoration of rights of people who seek aid from social service providers that receive federal funds, including food banks, eldercare organizations and shelters aiding those who are coping with domestic violence or homelessness.

“This is an important course correction from the Trump administration’s attack on every person’s right to believe as they choose without coercion,” said the Rev. Paul Brandeis Raushenbush, Interfaith Alliance’s president and CEO, in a statement.

“The federal government has an obligation to ensure all people can equitably access life-saving social services without sacrificing their religious freedom rights and without fear of discrimination,” he continued.

Government offices and cabinet weigh in

The rule responds to an executive order in February 2021 when President Joe Biden re-established the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

Stanley Carlson-Thies, founder of the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance, also welcomed the development that long has involved staffers of that office and its cabinet-level counterparts.

“I’m glad to see the rights of beneficiaries not to participate in unwanted religion be well protected again,” he said in a statement to Religion News Service. “Government needs to do a better job on the positive side: accommodating beneficiaries who can best be helped when a religion shaped program is one of the options.”

In January 2021, Americans United joined other groups in suing on the day the Trump administration rule became effective, shortly before the end of his presidential term. The suit has been on hold while the Biden administration worked to finalize the new rule.

Melissa Rogers, who was appointed by Biden in 2021 to oversee the so-called faith-based office, as she had in former President Barack Obama’s second term, also had opposed the Trump administration’s plans to remove the requirement that faith-based social service providers offer a secular alternative to people seeking their assistance.

“You can’t benefit from protections you don’t know you have,” she tweeted in January 2020. “The religious liberty of social service beneficiaries is as important as the religious liberty of faith-based providers.”




Trump promises televangelists revival of Christian power

NASHVILLE (RNS)—In an evening filled with apocalyptic rhetoric, patriotic songs and campaign promises, former President Donald Trump promised religious broadcasters he would make a triumphant return to the White House next year and restore Christian preachers to power in American culture.

“If I get in, you’re going to be using that power at a level that you’ve never used before,” Trump told the annual gathering of National Religious Broadcasters at Nashville’s Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Center on Feb. 22.

Speaking to a packed ballroom of radio and television preachers and other Christian communicators, Trump described himself as a friend and fellow believer and someone ready to restore God to his rightful place in American culture.

“With your help and God’s grace, the great revival of America begins on November 5th,” he said.

Pledge to root out ‘anti-Christian bias’

In a speech that lasted more than an hour, Trump portrayed evangelical Christians as a persecuted group under President Joe Biden’s administration, a status he told them he shared in his 2020 election loss, which he said had been “rigged.”

He told the religious broadcasters one of his first acts in a second term would be to set up a task force to root out “anti-Christian bias.”

Trump said he also would come to the aid of “political prisoners,” referring to those imprisoned for their actions at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. Some of those convicts were heard in a recorded rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner by the self-described J6 Prison Choir as Trump was being introduced.

Trump appealed to the religious audience with Bible verses and promises of world peace.

“The Bible says blessed are the peacemakers,” said Trump, quoting from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. “I will be a peacemaker, and I will be the only president who can say—and I say this with great conviction—I will prevent World War III.”

Though he admitted he wasn’t a very good Christian and didn’t know much about the Bible, Trump told broadcasters he shared their faith and always would stand up for God—lines that brought thunderous applause.

But Trump’s biggest applause lines came when he promised to promote school vouchers, seal the U.S. southern border and prevent transgender men from participating in women’s sports. With him as president, he vowed America would have only two genders—male and female.

‘Make America Pray Again’

Conference attendees stood in long lines as they waited to be screened by the Secret Service and security personnel before being admitted to the ballroom. Kelley Paine, from Rockport, who wore a “Make America Pray Again” baseball cap, said Trump had been a great president and could be one again.

“He’s a businessman, and that is what our country needs,” she said.

While a representative of Pray.com touted the slogan on Paine’s hat, on the whole, the NRB gathering was less tricked out in MAGA gear than normally can be found at a Trump campaign event, and the coarser messages that have popped up among Trump supporters in recent years were not in evidence.

One vendor in the NRB exhibition hall turned a MAGA chant of “Let’s Go Brandon”—meant to send an obscene message to President Biden—into “Let’s Go Jesus” flags, hats and shirts.

Analia Anderson, who said she has sold T-shirts at MAGA-themed “Reawaken America” events, is a fan of President Trump, but she said some rhetoric at those events went too far.

“It’s not very Christian,” she said.

Trump’s arrival at the Opryland resort was delayed for more than an hour, and a Southern gospel group, Ernie Hass & Signature Sound, was pressed into an impromptu concert of gospel songs, at one point leading the crowd in an a cappella rendition of “God Bless America.”

Just as attendees had begun to drift out of the room, Trump arrived and was greeted with a standing ovation.

NRB President Troy Miller began the evening session, labeled a president forum, by saying the group had reached out to all presidential candidates, inviting them to speak. He also said, because the NRB is a nonprofit, the group did not endorse candidates—and any comments made by speakers were not official statements of the NRB.

Talk show hosts praise Trump

Conservative talk show host Hugh Hewitt and Kevin Roberts, president of the Heritage Foundation, also spoke before Trump took the stage, praising the former president and warning that the country and conservatives face grave perils from their political foes.

Hewitt called Trump the “best interview in America.”

“I have no idea what he is going to say—nobody does,” he said, a line that drew thunderous applause.

Hewitt took aim at the term Christian nationalism, a movement that promotes the belief that the United States should be run by and for the benefit of Christians. Hewitt called the term a “slander on the church and on Christians who want to be involved in politics.”

Roberts dismissed concerns expressed by Trump’s foes about corruption and authoritarianism if the former president returns to office. But Roberts alleged Democrats act in corrupt and authoritarian ways themselves.

“They want to fundamentally transform America, because they don’t like this country,” he said. “The establishment does not hate Donald Trump, because he’s a threat to America. They hate him, because he is a threat to them.”

‘I’m being indicted for you’

Trump made similar comments, saying the greatest threat to the United States came from inside the country, not from external enemies. Those enemies, he said, had let the country fall apart since he left office.

He referred repeatedly to “Marxist” district attorneys who were suing him, framing his legal troubles as a form of political attacks against him.

“I have been indicted more than any times than the great gangster Al Capone,” he told the religious broadcasters.

He also claimed he was being indicted for standing up on behalf of Christians and conservatives.

“I am being indicted for you,” he said.

He claimed “bad things” were being done to Christian crosses, another thing that would stop if he became president again. And he would work to reverse the decline of organized religion and church-going in America.

“We have to bring back our religion,” he said. “We have to bring back Christianity.”




Peace pilgrimage sees war in Gaza as civil rights issue

WASHINGTON (RNS)—When Pastor Stephen Green began planning a march from Independence Hall in Philadelphia to the White House to urge an end to the war in Gaza, he settled on what he hoped was an auspicious start date: Wednesday, Feb. 14, Douglass Day.

The day, honoring the life and legacy of famed 19th-century abolitionist and orator Frederick Douglass, seemed an appropriate occasion to make a moral case to President Joe Biden and his administration to stop supporting Israel’s ongoing assault in Gaza that has killed 28,000 Palestinians.

The Peace Pilgrimage, an eight-day march, expanded to include a host of sponsors, including the National Council of Churches and other interfaith groups. But at its core, it is an effort led by the organization Green founded four years ago, Faith for Black Lives.

For many Black Americans, the Palestinian cause has emerged as a central plank in the ongoing struggle for civil rights. In November, more than 1,000 Black pastors representing hundreds of thousands of congregants bought a full-page ad in The New York Times calling for a cease-fire and the release of Israeli hostages in Gaza.

Black writers, athletes, celebrities and elected officials have spoken in support of Palestinians. Some have even likened the renewed energy in support of Palestinians to the fervor of the Black Lives Matter movement that came in 2020 after the killing of George Floyd.

Stephen A. Green (Photo / National Council of Churches)

“We’re carrying this message to remind America of the values that she was birthed in and to be a leader in this moment to provide a moral vision for the world,” said Green, pastor of St. Luke AME Church in New York City’s Harlem.

The 25 or so supporting organizations that will march on average 10 miles a day include a few groups with Muslim members—the Maryland chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights.

It also includes a host of Jewish-led organizations and synagogues, all on the far left of the U.S. Jewish scene. Conspicuously absent are mainstream Jewish organizations that have resisted calls for cease-fire, believing Israel’s war on Gaza is just.

Tense relationship between Black and Jewish progressives

While U.S. Jews and Black Americans often see themselves as like-minded progressives, they historically have had a fraught and often tense relationship, and they part ways when it comes to Israel.

Martin Luther King Jr. enjoyed good relations with American Jews and famously was flanked by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel in his 1965 Selma to Montgomery march. In 1964, two Jewish civil rights workers and a Black man were murdered trying to register Blacks to vote in Mississippi.

But that period of civil rights alignment between Blacks and Jews was short-lived.

The Black Power movement of the 1960s backed Palestinians over Israelis, creating tensions with U.S. Jews. Malcolm X visited Gaza in 1964 and expressed anti-Zionist views soon after.

The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Black Panther Movement were solidly pro-Palestinian, said Michael Fischbach, a historian who wrote Black Power and Palestine: Transnational Countries of Color.

“They understood that there was a worldwide uprising of what today we call people of color,” said Fischbach. “They were rising up, they wanted revolution, they wanted independence and freedom on their own terms.”

That meant siding with stateless Palestinians who either fled or were violently displaced during Israel’s War of Independence in 1948. Later, many more Palestinians became an occupied people when Israel captured the West Bank and Gaza in 1967.

Group links Palestinian and African American experiences

Today, many Black Americans who support the Palestinian cause are not doing so out of the revolutionary fervor of the 1960s. The group Faith for Black Lives defines itself as “grounded in the principles of Kingian nonviolence.” They view the Palestinian cause in the context of the African American experience of oppression and subjugation.

“This is a spirit journey for us to call the nation into consciousness as it relates to poverty, war and racism,” said Green, the group’s founder.

Numerous polls show that African Americans—and more generally people of color—are more likely than whites to side with Palestinians. A Gallup poll from November showed 64 percent of American people of color (including Black, Hispanic, Asian, Pacific Islander and Native American adults) disapproved of Israel’s actions in Gaza, compared with 36 percent of white Americans.

For Lisa Sharon Harper, a prominent evangelical activist, the war in Gaza spurred her to action. Since the start of the war, she has kept a commitment to post something about the war to Instagram every single day—now more than 120 posts.

She also joined multiple campaigns, including the global Gaza Ceasefire Pilgrimage, a Lenten walk now planned in 85 cities in 12 countries.

“When I look at what’s happening right now in Gaza, what I see is a war against the image of God on earth. And so, of course, I will stand and defend it,” she said.

Harper sees Palestinians as dispossessed people living behind walls and security fences, unable to vote or travel, and now homeless and starving. And she is furious that the U.S. administration is supporting this attack on a minority group.

“When we look at what’s happening in Gaza and we see our country saying, ‘that’s OK,’ well, that means that we’re not that far from our country saying, ‘that’s OK,’ if it happens to us,” she said, speaking of Black Americans.

“Dr. King said injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. This is an existential threat for people of African descent in the West.”

The United States earmarked $3.3 billion in assistance to Israel in 2022. It has given Israel more aid than any other nation since World War II, about $260 billion. On Feb. 13, the Senate passed a foreign aid package that includes $14.1 billion for Israel’s war in Gaza. It’s not clear if it will pass in the House.

‘Pulls on the threads of the Civil Rights Movement’

A growing, but still minor, group of American Jews will march in the Peace Pilgrimage from Philadelphia to Washington, believing like African Americans and others that a cease-fire is imperative.

“This pilgrimage pulls on the threads of the Civil Rights Movement,” said Rabbi Alissa Wise, founder of Rabbis for Ceasefire. “It updates the Black Jewish alliance but also expands it further.”

The Jewish contingent includes Rabbi Alana Alpert of Congregation T’chiyah in Ferndale, Mich., north of Detroit. The congregation meets in a United Methodist Church and recently posted a banner outside the church building that reads “Jews and Christians praying for ceasefire now.”

Alpert said she was joining the march to be with like-minded people of different faiths in prayer and protest in favor of cease-fire and against the funding of U.S. tax dollars to Israel’s military.

“I have so few colleagues who are on the same page or who are even having the same conversation,” said Alpert, speaking of fellow rabbis in Michigan. “I know it will feel grounding and nourishing to have this time with other colleagues. The situation is so heartbreaking that I’m saying ‘yes’ to any opportunity that I can.”




How did sports betting spread in spite of faith leaders?

WASHINGTON—On Sunday, millions of Americans will gather with friends to eat snacks, laugh at the latest TV commercials and watch a little football as the Kansas City Chiefs take on the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl LVIII.

More than a few will place bets, often on their cellphones.

Americans are expected to bet $1.3 billion on the big game, according to online gaming industry news site Legal Sports Report, thanks to the explosive growth of legalized sports gambling, which has spread to nearly 40 states.

But not to Alabama or Texas, who are among the holdouts, and where faith leaders in particular have been working to keep legal sports betting out.

For Greg Davis, a Baptist pastor and president of the Alabama Citizens Action Program, that has meant opposing any changes to the state’s constitution, which bans lotteries and most forms of gambling. Davis said he knows that people bet informally on sports in Alabama.

But those wagers are relatively low-stakes, he said, compared to industrial-strength sports gambling. Davis said he and other faith leaders in Alabama believe sports gambling is harmful and addictive. They object to the idea of the state profiting off the gambling losses of Alabama’s citizens.

“We don’t think the state government should be in business with corporate gaming to prey on its own people,” he said.

Some of the nation’s largest faith groups have long considered gambling immoral, or a “menace to society,” as the United Methodist Church social principles put it.

Fighting against the odds

But faith leaders like Davis are likely fighting an uphill battle, said longtime Boston College professor and Jesuit priest Richard McGowan.

McGowan, who has been nicknamed “the Odds Father” because of his research on gambling, said faith leaders were caught flatfooted by how fast legalized sports gambling became commonplace.

After New Hampshire started the first state-run lottery in 1964, he said, it took nearly 60 years for 40 other states to follow suit. Legalized sports betting took five years to get that popular—after the Supreme Court struck down a 1992 federal law limiting legal sports betting to Nevada.

Instead of having to jet off to Las Vegas to place a legal bet, in most states, people can pull out their phones and use an app to place bets on the outcomes of games along with almost anything else that happens in a game.

The ease of legalized betting coincided with what McGowan called “the ethics of tolerance.”

“The ethical theory a lot of people go by is you should be able to do what you want as long as you don’t harm somebody else,” he said. That makes it hard to argue against activities like gambling, which many people see as harmless entertainment but can have harmful side effects when people become addicted.

The states that have legalized gambling, he said, also see gambling as a pain-free source of revenue, which is then used for popular social causes like funding college scholarships. That also makes it hard to raise ethical questions about gambling.

“People have been doing it for years and years and years illegally, and now the government is basically saying, all right, it’s fine to do it legally, and by the way, we’ll make lots of money,” said McGowan.

Sports books also have an added advantage, McGowan said, in that they allow people to combine two things they like to do—gambling and cheering for their teams.

“When they bet,” he said, “people think they’re supporting the team that they’re betting on.”

Sports leagues cozy with gaming industry

Public approval of gambling has grown steadily in recent decades. In 2009, Gallup, which has measured public views on gambling and other moral issues since 2003, found that 58 percent of Americans said gambling was morally acceptable. In 2023, 70 percent of those surveyed said it was moral to gamble.

Legal sports gambling has become a lucrative business, according to a recent report from the American Gaming Association. Commercial sports betting companies took in $9.2 billion in revenue on more than $106 billion in bets from January to November of 2023.

Laura Everett, executive director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches, said faith leaders who raise questions about the downsides of legalized gambling can feel like they are facing overwhelming odds. She worries that sports leagues have become too cozy with the gambling industry.

“The sports leagues—not only didn’t oppose this—they rolled over and said, ‘Scratch my belly,’” she said.

Still, she said faith groups that don’t agree on all kinds of other issues can find common ground in raising concerns about the ubiquity of sports gambling. And they still can have a voice, she said.

For example, Massachusetts is looking at allowing bars to install sports-betting kiosks, and faith leaders like Everett have been asked to give public feedback about their concerns.

High human cost of gambling expansion

She worries the human cost of expanding gambling is too high.

“Every time you expand gambling, there is a percentage of the population whose lives will be destroyed,” she said.

The National Council on Problem Gambling estimates that about 2 million Americans—or 1 percent of the population—have a severe gambling problem, with between 4 and 6 million having moderate or mild gambling problems.

John Litzler, director of public policy of the Christian Life Commission for the Baptist General Convention of Texas, said those with gambling addictions often show up at the door of churches or other faith groups when their lives fall apart.

John Litzler

Texas Baptists oppose making sports betting legal in their state—which, with California, remain the two largest untapped markets for the gaming industry. Legal Sports Report estimated that those states could generate half a billion dollars in bets on the Super Bowl alone.

Litzler agrees opponents of expanded sports betting face a perception problem. Many people believe sports betting is a harmless pastime, while a series of recent commercials from the gaming industry portray gambling as a way to give games more meaning and excitement.

When he talks to churches or legislators about gambling, Litzler stresses the potential for harm, especially in the use of betting apps. When people had to go to a casino to gamble, they had to be more intentional about what they were doing. And if they lost money, they would have time on the ride home to cool off.

That’s not the case when a bet is a click away, he said.

“What you have to do is say, ‘I know it doesn’t seem like it’s harming you, but here’s how it’s harming your neighbor,’” Litzler said.

In Alabama, where the issue of gambling is about to come up in the next session of the state Legislature, Davis, of Alabama Citizens Action Program, said he also talks about gambling as a threat to the integrity of sports.

He pointed to the recent case of Brad Bohannon, the former coach of the University of Alabama baseball team who was fired last year in a betting scandal. This week, the NCAA ruled Bohannon had told a bettor the team’s starting pitcher was injured and would miss a game. That led the bettor to try to place a $100,000 bet on the game, according to ESPN.com.

According to the sanction imposed by the NCAA, any team that hires Bohannon as a coach must suspend him for “100 percent of the baseball regular season for the first five seasons of his employment.”

Davis said that scandal was a sign of things to come.

“It is going to ruin sports,” he said.




CVS employee fired for refusing to sell birth control sues

WASHINGTON (RNS)—A former CVS Health employee filed a federal lawsuit in Florida against the company after she was fired for refusing to prescribe contraceptives due to her religious beliefs.

The employee, nurse practitioner Gunna Kristofersdottir, joins three other former CVS workers who sued the company for religious discrimination after being fired for similar reasons.

Gunna Kristofersdottir (First Liberty Photo via RNS)

Kristofersdottir is being represented by the Plano-based religious freedom-oriented legal group First Liberty Institute.

Its lawyers argue that the company’s refusal to exempt religious employees from filling contraceptive prescriptions constitutes religion-based discrimination and a Title VII violation.

The Title VII law of the 1964 Civil Rights Act protects employees and job applicants from discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin.

“It’s important that nurse practitioners are able to serve their patients in a way that doesn’t require them to violate their religious beliefs,” said Stephanie Taub, senior counsel at First Liberty Institute.

A Roman Catholic, Kristofersdottir believes “the procreative potential of intercourse” shouldn’t be “subverted by the device or procedure,” according to the complaint filed by First Liberty. The court document quotes portions of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which summarizes the Catholic Church’s doctrine.

Religious accommodation revoked

During her eight years at various Florida CVS clinics, Kristofersdottir benefited from a religious accommodation. After informing her managers of her wishes and filling out a form, she was excused from prescribing hormonal contraceptives and abortion drugs. When clients asked Kristofersdottir for guidance on contraceptive products, she referred them to another employee.

But three years ago, her religious accommodation was revoked as part of a broader change in the company’s policy on religious exemptions.

In August 2021, CVS’ chief nursing officer, Angela Patterson, announced all employees would be required to perform functions deemed essential, including all services related to sexual health.

When Kristofersdottir learned about the new policy, she said, she asked to be sent to another CVS Health facility. Her demand was denied, and she was fired in March 2022.

Taub argued that the company had legal obligations to explore alternatives to accommodate Kristofersdottir.

In an email statement, Mike DeAngelis, CVS Health’s director of communications, wrote that the company still has a specific policy to grant “reasonable” religious accommodations “unless it poses an undue hardship on the business and our ability to provide convenient, accessible care to our patient.”

“We continue to enhance our MinuteClinic services, growing from providing urgent care to offering more holistic care,” wrote DeAngelis.

Other employees file suit

First Liberty Institute specializes in cases related to religious freedom and regularly raises funds to finance its defense of clients in similar situations. Earlier, the firm filed a suit on behalf of Robyn Strader, a Baptist nurse practitioner from Texas who was fired from CVS for similar reasons.

In an article published on the First Liberty Institute website, Jorge Gomez wrote that CVS’ refusal to grant religious exemptions sends a message “that religious health care workers are not welcome and need not apply” and that “instead of following the law, CVS preferred to join the ranks of the ‘woke’ corporations rendering religious employees second class citizens.”

Since CVS enacted the new policy, two other nurse practitioners also sued the company, alleging religious discrimination. In September 2022, Page Casey, a former CVS employee from Virginia, sued after she was fired for refusing to prescribe contraceptives. She is represented by Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian conservative legal group.

In October 2022, Suzanne Schuler, a former CVS employee from Kansas, sued the company after her religious accommodation was revoked. In October 2023, both parties settled.

In January, CVS and Walgreens announced they would be selling the mifepristone abortion pill after the Food and Drug Administration dropped a 20-year rule that prevented drugstores from doing so. The pill, available on the market since 2000, can be used through the 10th week of pregnancy.

Since November 2022, the Alliance for Hippocratic Medicine, an anti-abortion group, has been challenging the FDA’s approval of the drug at the Supreme Court. The group includes religious organizations such as the Catholic Medical Association, the Christian Medical & Dental Associations and the Coptic Medical Association of North America.