On Sunday, panelists on MSNBC’s AM Joy attacked Attorney General Jeff Sessions and his defense of religious liberty in the United States. Without question or dissent, Sessions was condemned in the harshest of terms.
Host Joy Reid asked Minister Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove about his position that defending religious liberty is really only defending conservative Christians. He claimed: “I think this way that religious freedom is being framed is rooted in the history of slave holder religion and the way in the 20th century that it tried to justify discrimination.”
Robert Jones of the Public Religion Research Institute argued that cases such as Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission have, “echos of lunch counter, you know, refusals and businesses turning away African-Americans.”
Jones reiterated Wilson-Hartgrove’s point on religious liberty, saying: "[Sessions] talks about protecting people of faith. But I want to sharpen that up a little bit because when Sessions says protecting people of faith, what he really means is conservative white Christians and particularly white evangelical Christians.” He claimed that such people are an “outlier,” and he said that “White evangelical Protestants are the only religious group now that opposes same-sex marriage in the country”
In making these arguments, Jones ignored the nuances of the situation, conflating the denial and segregation of an entire class of people with the denial of a certain class of services. Moreover, he seemed to suggest that because evangelical Christians are “outliers” (or a minority), they do not deserve robust protection of their religious liberties.
Nevertheless, guest Bishop William Barber doubled down, repeating the claim: “the same rationale as Robbie said that is used to say a business ought to be able to deny an LGBT person is the same rationale as the segregation issue and the slave holders used.” The actions of Sessions in the name of religious liberty, Barber said, “suggest that God is an agent of systemic racism, a homophobe, a God that wants to take healthcare, steal voting rights, a gun toting God, and an anti-immigrant bigot.”
Reid asked if there was an argument that would be more attractive to evangelical Christians than the arguments for religious liberty that Sessions has presented. Wilson-Hartford responded: “The important thing for white Christians is to realize that we can be free from this slave holder religion, we can trust the true and living gospel.”
On MSNBC, rather than a nuanced view of the careful negotiation between religious liberty and protected classes, a stark choice between bigotry or tolerance was presented.
The full transcript is below:
11:40:04 AM - 11:40:29 AM
JONATHAN WILSON-HARTGROVE: Well, yes, I think that's the history of the ADF if you look at it. And, more broadly, I think this way that religious freedom is being framed is rooted in the history of slave holder religion and the way in the 20th century that it tried to justify discrimination by using this American value of religious freedom. This is what Bob Jones University did when they tried to keep black students out by saying they were a religious institution that had the right to exclude them...
11:41:14 AM - 11:45:06 AM
ROBERT P. JONES: So we've seen a shift in about five points more toward allowing businesses- particularly wedding-related businesses to -- allow them to refuse service. However, one of the more important numbers is if you look at African-Americans on this issue, we find among African-Americans who by the way are fairly divided on the issue of same-sex marriage but nonetheless when we asked them about this 63% of African-Americans say that small businesses should not be allowed to refuse service to gay and lesbian Americans even if it's based on their religious objections. I think there we see just the very basic experience that this has echos of lunch counter, you know, refusals and businesses turning away African-Americans. That's in our not so distant past that's going on. One other point I want to make is that there is a slight of hand going on here. If you listen carefully to Sessions' rationale, he talks about protecting people of faith. But I want to sharpen that up a little bit because when Sessions says protecting people of faith, what he really means is conservative white Christians and particularly white evangelical Christians but increasingly that group is an outlier in the country on these issues. They are the only group that opposes -- only religious group that opposes same-sex marriage in the country. White evangelical Protestants are the only religious group now that opposes same-sex marriage in the country and they are the only religious group that strongly opposes- - that wants to allow small businesses to refuse service to LGBT people.
JOY REID: Bishop Barber, it felt for a while like this whole question of LGBT rights was sort of settled in the country even among religious people, as Robbie just said, even most religious people. Does this surprise you that this battlefront is being reopened?
WILLIAM BARBER: It doesn't because if you understand the same rationale as Robbie said that is used to say a business ought to be able to deny an LGBT person is the same rationale as the segregation issue and the slave holders used. They said religion said segregation and slavery is all right. It seems like that Sessions has been hollering to protect religious, but the religious freedom he wants to protect, if you look at the policies, are those that create policies and support policies that suggest that God is an agent of systemic racism, a homophobe, a God that wants to take healthcare, steal voting rights, a gun toting God, and an anti-immigrant bigot. That seems to be the freedoms he wants to protect. He doesn't want to protect the freedom really of that religious tradition that critiques our government. In fact, I just said the other day that if Sessions wants to do something rooted in religious values, Joy, he should ask -- the task force should repent and say repent and stop misusing scripture to justify snatching, kidnapping and abusing brown children. Get the babies back with their families and admit it is a crime against humanity and pay those human beings compensatory and punitive damages. Stop attacking voting rights, stop attacking healthcare, stop attacking workers.
REID: I'm not sure the mic will be better, but Jonathan, is there some argument that can be made to these religious conservatives that would be more powerful than what Jeff Sessions is offering?
WILSON-HARTGROVE: Oh, yes, that's why I'm here. Thank you for inviting me to preach the good news because there is good news even for white Christians. It's the same thing that every messenger that comes to the people of God says in the bible: Don't be afraid. Fear not is what the angels say because fear is being used to play religious values for political gain. The important thing for white Christians is to realize that we can be free from this slave holder religion, we can trust the true and living gospel, we can learn from those people who have prayed the psalms through great struggles and know that weeping may endure for a night but joy comes in the morning, that's the original "A.M. Joy."