PROVO — President Donald Trump is presiding over a new "era of fracture" and division that threatens to splinter religious communities that already find themselves in a pressure cooker over issues of religious liberty, a reporter for The Atlantic magazine said Thursday at BYU.
"The mechanisms for religious freedom are changing under Trump," said Emma Green, who delivered the final day's keynote address at BYU's Religious Freedom Annual Review conference. "The question is, who are those mechanisms and changes really for, and what are they actually preserving and changing on that landscape of fracture?"
Green said many of the rifts existed prior to Trump's presidency but the hostility and nastiness in social interaction is becoming an accepted norm that has increased the challenges faced by churches.
"The legacy of the Trump administration, ultimately, in my view, is going to be one of breakage," she said. "It's going to be one of remapping, how different demographic groups think about their own religious identity and how that relates to political advocacy and political presence and voice, and it ultimately will probably lead to some sort of formal or informal splitting, fracturing between different groups in different religious communities."
Green covers politics, policy and religion at The Atlantic. She won the 2017 Religion News Association award for excellence in religion-news analysis.
"Presumably as people attuned to the delicacy of pluralism," she said to her audience of primarily legal scholars, advocates, academics and journalists, "you appreciate the necessity of good, strong discourse for resolving some of those tensions and sidestepping some of the perils of trying to live pluralistically."
But Green shared multiple examples of recent infighting among religious groups. The Southern Baptist Convention wrestled with questions about its relationship to political advocacy during its annual meeting last week. This week, the Presbyterian Church USA voted to approve a new resolution against using religious freedom to justify exclusion and discrimination. Jewish leaders are wrestling with the right approach to advocacy and politics while the Catholic faith is experiencing a gap in positions taken by leaders and those in the pews.
"I am interested to watch what will happen to these communities as they grapple with their own sense of identities and priorities," she said.
Green also said the Utah Legislature and LDS Church are grappling with pluralism and religious freedom.
"Utah is the only model of a pluralistic experiment in the country in terms of the way it's dealt with the conflicting claims of religious groups and LGBT populations," she said, referring to the fairness-for-all approach of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that provided backing to a nondiscrimination laws passed by the Legislature in 2015. The laws protect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people against discrimination in housing and employment, while also reaffirming protections for religious objectors to same-sex marriage.
Green said that hasn't kept the LDS Church from experiencing turbulence about LGBT issues.
"This is an example that even in places where there is a commitment to pluralistic compromise, there can still be issues that carry over and create pain," she said.
Green spent the past year stationed in Jerusalem. The experience taught her several things. One was about religious infighting, "that family fights are often brutal."
She also found that while religion in Israel and Palestine has greater cultural dominance than in the United States and Utah, many issues are similar.
Both Israel and the United States are grappling with issues over public and private spheres and who should control the framework for culture and religion, she said. Both also are experiencing a fight over the character and identity of their countries.
"People invested in a certain type of religious freedom issue are often defending or protecting their community," she said, "but often there is an underlying concern about who we are as a country, what kinds of values we should have, what kind of place we should be."
Green said it is difficult to characterize what the courts are doing in the Trump era because they move so slowly. But there is a clear interest from the judiciary to accept cases about religious freedom and religious plurality, she said.
What is clearer is that the Trump administration is proving the limits and impermanence of executive power by rolling back Obama-era executive orders.
Still, Trump is rolling out his own executive orders, making major speeches and holding ceremonies about religious liberty protections and interpretations of rules about abortion and birth control. Green said those ceremonies are short on practical effect but have what she called a signaling effect.
For example, Jewish and Muslim groups say actions taken by Trump have explicitly and implicitly infringed on their religious freedom.
She said most action on religious liberty will happen in statehouses because Congress is in gridlock.
The good news, she said, is religious communities and other voluntary organizations build language and mechanisms that help them navigate debate and resolve disputes.31 comments on this story
Other presentations and workshops at Thursday's conference considered issues of media coverage of religious freedom, political engagement and religion in schools.
Sister Neill F. Marriott, a mother of 11 children, grandmother to 37 and former second counselor in the LDS Church's Young Women general presidency, gave a presentation on how a layperson can make a difference.
She encouraged regular people who care about religious liberty to be aware by learning from others, be articulate by becoming educated about the issues, and be active by speaking up with courage and restraint.