Sunday, July 8, 2018
Late last week in a rally, President Trump dissed George HW Bush's "thousand points of light" phrase, which Bush used in the 1988 campaign as an image for volunteerism for the common good in a civil society:
"What the hell was that, by the way, thousand points of light? What did that mean? Does anyone know," said Trump. "I know one thing: Make America Great Again, we understand. Putting America first, we understand. Thousand points of light, I never quite got that one."
Commentators focused on how Trump's riff was mean to HW. But it and other riffs like it are harmful to religious freedom. Granted, Trump's Supreme Court picks are more likely than those of other presidents (e.g. HRC) to take religious freedom seriously across the range of applications; that's a major reason, it seems, why evangelical Christians supported him. (All of the short-listers for the new seat give strong indicia of supporting religious freedom. And I say this even though I strongly believe the Court dropped the ball on the travel ban--because my guess is these nominees will be pretty strong on Muslim freedom outside the immigration context.)
But however significant the short, even medium, -term benefit to religious freedom from a Court appointment, one must also reckon with the long-term harm to religious freedom that Trump has done by encouraging the undercutting of many of the reasons a society would care about protecting religious freedom. Last week's riff dissed the very concept of serving the common good through a plurality of institutions in a diverse civil society. Trump is beckoning conservative Christians, especially evangelicals--who seem to be quite willing to follow his pied piping--to jettison some of the most compelling accounts they can give for religious freedom to themselves first and then to others. That long-term harm to the cause of religious freedom may be harder to predict and quantify than the short-term benefits of a Supreme Court nominee who cares about the issue. But it may also be more serious and irreversible.
This point is an application not only of multiple Mike Gerson columns, but also of Marc and Kevin's fine Times op-ed of last week. The culture will matter in more pervasive, long-lasting ways than the new justice(s). And evangelicals are risking collaborating with Trump in irreversibly degrading their own culture.