Washington Watch: Separation anxiety

It didn’t take long for the new administration to send a chilling message to the Jews.

An activist waves an LGBT flag near Israel's Knesset building (photo credit: REUTERS)
An activist waves an LGBT flag near Israel's Knesset building
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Donald Trump wasted no time in implementing the one campaign promise most Jews prayed he would not keep. He has begun to chip away at the wall of separation between church and state that has made this country the “Golden Medina” for Jews. What he spoke of as a candidate – make this a more Christian country – he is now implementing as president.
The First Amendment is sacred. It protects free speech and a free press – favorite targets of Trump’s wrath – and prohibits the “establishment of religion” while protecting “the free exercise” of one’s faith without government coercion. Never in history have Jews had that written into the basic law of the land.
Trump seems intent on changing that. (Jews have greater freedom to practice their religion as they wish in America than even in Israel.) “We are going to protect Christianity... it’s under siege,” he vowed during his campaign without a shred of evidence.
His first and most public target continues to be Muslims. He banned immigration of groups of Muslims by executive order while specifically welcoming Christian refugees.
It didn’t take long for the new administration to send a chilling message to the Jews. A presidential proclamation marking Holocaust Remembrance Day deliberately excluded any mention of antisemitism or Hitler’s six million Jewish victims. Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-New York) said the omission had clear “antisemitic themes” and smacked of Holocaust denial.
Since he began running for president, Trump has inspired antisemites, white supremacists, neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klansmen and alt-right nativists. He tweeted and retweeted antisemitic messages and graphics during his campaign. The president falsely accused the media of not reporting terrorism incidents on a White House list that omitted attacks in Israel and threats here at home to more than 30 Jewish community centers.
Another Trump campaign promise was broken by his new attorney-general, former Alabama senator Jeff Sessions, on his first full day in office. The Justice Department dropped its support for Obama-era guidelines providing access to school bathrooms for transgender students.
Opposition to transgender rights is prevalent in Trump’s cabinet, most notably from Sessions and Vice President Mike Pence, and particularly among the president’s Evangelical base and in the GOP platform.
As a candidate he vowed to “do everything in my power to protect our LGBTQ citizens from violence and oppression of the hateful, foreign ideology, believe me.” But that didn’t last long. Press secretary Sean Spicer has said the president would be issuing an executive order that would effectively condone discrimination in the name of “religious freedom,” The Washington Post reported. Trump has said if Congress passes it “I will sign” the First Amendment Defense Act – misnamed because it actually sanctions religious discrimination while claiming to prevent it.
Vice President Pence signed similar legislation when he was governor of Indiana. It would permit individuals, religious organizations, churches and businesses to discriminate against LGBT people if they claim religious or moral objections. The popular example is the bakery refusing to make a wedding cake for a gay couple because the owner disapproves of same-sex marriage. From there it’s a short step to refusing to cater a bar mitzvah because Jews refuse to accept Jesus as their savior.
If the law passes it is sure to draw court challenges and if Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Judge Neil Gorsuch is confirmed, he could be expected to uphold it. From his seat on the Tenth Circuit Court he has sided with religious conservatives on several key cases.
Speaking to the National Prayer Breakfast earlier this month Trump continued his assault on the establishment clause.
He promised to put politics in the pulpits by effectively turning churches into Super PACs. To do that he pledged to “totally destroy” the Johnson Amendment, which bars religious institutions from using their tax-exempt contributions for political advocacy.
It is a payoff to white Evangelicals, who gave Trump 80% of their votes last November and were critical to his victory. He has given the religious Right unprecedented access, influence and senior posts in his administration. He promised them a Supreme Court nominee to their liking, and he delivered.
There is no indication that Trump, a Presbyterian, has any strong religious beliefs beyond his own political aggrandizement.
Chairing that prayer breakfast was an early Trump supporter, Rev. Jerry Falwell, Jr., head of the Evangelical Liberty College. Falwell, a creationist, has said he accepted Trump’s offer to head a task force on reforming higher education after turning down the president’s offer to be secretary of education.
That job went to Betsy DeVos, an inexperienced opponent of public schools and an advocate of federal funding for religious schools. She has defined education reform as part of her mission to “advance God’s kingdom.”
Her support for taxpayer funding of parochial schools won endorsements from many in Trump’s conservative Jewish base, which tends to be Orthodox, notably the Orthodox Union and Agudath Israel.
But the vast majority of American Jews – 75% voted against Trump in November – support the public school system, which has made a vital contribution to their success in America.
“The Trump administration’s sustained assault on the separation of religion and state is likely only to exacerbate the already wide gap between Orthodox Jews and the more progressive majority,” writes Jane Eisner, editor-in-chief of The Forward.
Trump’s biggest gift to the religious Right was picking as his vice president a man who has been called “a poster child for Evangelical conservative politics.”
As a congressional candidate in 2000 Pence had advocated using AIDS funding for gay conversion therapy.
The religious Right is better represented in the Trump cabinet than Goldman Sachs.
Sessions, the nation’s chief law enforcement officer, has said the “wall of separation... is not constitutional and is not historical.”
Thomas Jefferson had a different view: “Separation of church and state is absolutely essential in a free society.” For Donald Trump it is an inconvenience.