Late yesterday, Only Through US, an organization whose goal is empowering citizens to protect American principles and freedoms from fear-based politics, issued a long-titled press release, Shock and horror are insufficient responses to today’s New Zealand mosques shooting. The White House must be held accountable for elevating white supremacy. Legislators and tech companies must urgently enact policy changes.. It was anything but a religious document.

Friday’s terror attacks in New Zealand are the inevitable and direct result of overt hate speech and dehumanizing language towards Muslims and Islam both abroad and here in the U.S. We must come together as a country to hold accountable those actors–including the president–who mainstream this language. Any response to today’s events must go beyond shock, horror, and condolences. It must be clear that hate speech and fear-mongering towards Muslims, refugees, and immigrants writ-large will no longer be tolerated. In a 77-page manifesto, the shooter praised Trump as a ‘symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose’. The shooter joins in a long line of white supremacists such as former KKK-leader David Duke and Richard Spencer in doing so.

Fear-mongering and white supremacy: Beginning with then-candidate Trump declaring that “Islam hates us,” to saying that neo-nazis and white supremacists carrying AK-47s on the streets of Charlottesville and mowing through protesters are “fine people,” to his insistence today– even after these Christchurch terrorist attacks— that white supremacy is not a widespread problem, this president has paved the way for the rise of white supremacists.

Action: Congress must pass a collective resolution condemning the president’s repeated endorsements of white supremacy and demand an unequivocal condemnation of white supremacy as terrorism. Congress must finally codify white supremacist violence as terrorism under U.S. law.

Islamophobia: When President Trump retweets anti-Muslim videos from known Islamophobes, that is elevating Islamophobia. When the president bans Muslims from traveling to the U.S., that is legislating Islamophobia.

Action: Enough is enough. Congress must vote to dismantle the Muslim Ban and associated policies. The president must explicitly demonstrate support for Muslim communities affected by these terror attacks as well an ongoing commitment towards the safety and security of those of Muslim faith.

The Role of Facebook, Youtube, Twitter, 8Chan, etc: When tech companies are made aware– by their employees, law enforcement, and outside experts– that their platforms have become essential organizing grounds for violent white supremacists, violent misogynists, and violent racists, and fail to proportionately respond to make these online communities safe, that is enabling hate crimes and violence.

Action: Congress must give tech platforms a deadline to present a full and detailed accounting of the actions they have taken to make their platforms safe and hate-free. Should the tech companies fail to do so in a timely manner, Congress should consider mandating that the companies temporarily shut down operational functions of their platforms– from news feeds to content-sharing functions– until they ensure that these basic safety issues are resolved. Too much is at stake for business as usual.

We should have done more before today, but to be clear, we can do much more starting now.

No talk about thoughts and prayers and words of comfort. And indeed, elected officials in New Zealand put public safety over the profits of gun manufacturers, banning semiautomatic assault rifles less than 24 hours after the Christchurch massacre. Coincidentally, The Atlantic published an essay by Peter Beinert, Secular Democrats Are the New Normal. It was written before a Trump supporter murdered dozens of people worshipping in New Zealand and explained that the American “president” is “a symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose.” In his essay, Beinert made the point that instead of invoking God in their speeches, most of the 2020 Democratic presidential contenders identify religion as a source of division. He wrote that “Were a Democrat from the Clinton, Bush, or Obama eras to watch the presidential-announcement video that Beto O’Rourke released on Thursday, they would likely be struck by how it ended. Or, more specifically, by how it didn’t end. O’Rourke did not close with any mention of God. Until recently, farewells that invoke God were standard fare for Democratic and Republican candidates alike. Bill Clinton ended his 1992 convention speech with the words ‘God bless you, and God bless America.’ At the 1996 convention, he declared, ‘God bless you, and good night.’ Al Gore finished his 1999 presidential-announcement speech with the words ‘May God bless you. And God bless America.’ John Kerry closed his presidential-announcement speech in 2003 by saying, ‘Thank you, and God bless you all.’ Barack Obama ended his keynote address at the 2004 Democratic convention with the phrase ‘God bless you.’ (Although Obama didn’t mention God at the end of his 2007 announcement speech, he began it with ‘Giving all praise and honor to God for bringing us here today.’) Hillary Clinton closed her announcement speech in 2015 with ‘God bless you. And may God bless America.’ O’Rourke exemplifies a new normal. None of the other major white progressive candidates– Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, or Kirsten Gillibrand– invoked God in their presidential announcements either. (Amy Klobuchar, who is running as a comparative moderate, did.)”

Doug Pagitt, a progressive evangelical pastor, is the executive director of Vote Common Good, which has been working with progressive candidates to communicate better with evangelical voters. He told us that “There is great work going on around the country with both the religious community and politicians to make deeper connections with people of faith and Democratic candidates. There is no doubt that the progressive policies of the Democratic party match the convictions and beliefs of Christians and other people of faith. There is no reason for the perceived nor real disconnect.” Beinert isn’t seeing the granular level Vote Common Good works in, although he’s scratching around the edges:

Today’s white liberals don’t only talk about faith less than their predecessors did. They talk about it in a strikingly different way. Earlier Democrats invoked religion as a source of national unity… Today, by contrast, progressive white candidates more often cite religion as a source of division. In his announcement video, O’Rourke boasted that during his Senate campaign in Texas, ‘people allowed no difference, however great or however small, to stand between them and divide us. Whether it was religion or gender or geography or income, we put our labels and our differences aside.’ The only reference to faith in Warren’s announcement speech was an acknowledgment that ‘we come from different backgrounds. Different religions.’ The lone reference in Sanders’s was a call for ‘ending religious bigotry.’ While white progressives once described religion as something that brought Americans together, they’re now more likely to describe it as something that drives them apart.

It’s not hard to understand why. For starters, the percentage of white Democrats who express no religious affiliation has skyrocketed. According to unpublished data tabulated for me last year by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), 8 percent of white Democrats expressed no religious affiliation in 1990. By 2016, the figure was 33 percent. In 1990, white self-described liberals were 39 points more likely to describe themselves as Protestant than as religiously unaffiliated. By 2016, religiously unaffiliated beat Protestant by nine points.

Secular Democrats haven’t only grown more numerous. They’ve also become some of the party’s most motivated activists. As The Atlantic’s Emma Green has noted, a PRRI poll taken last August and September found that Democrats who shun organized religion were more than twice as likely to have attended a political rally in the previous year than Democrats who identify with a religious group. Today’s Democratic candidates cannot simply assert, as Obama did in 2004, that “we worship an awesome God in the blue states,” because so many active Democrats do not.

The other reason liberal candidates more often describe religion as a source of division is the rise of Islamophobia and anti-Semitism. Before Donald Trump, Republican religious discourse was more ecumenical. The 2000 Republican convention featured a Muslim prayer, and George W. Bush regularly spoke about Americans who attended a “church, synagogue, or mosque.” In such an environment, it was easier for Democrats to depict an America divided by race, class, and gender but unified by religious faith, even if different Americans expressed that faith in different ways. Today, by contrast, since more Americans don’t practice a religion, and the president demonizes some of those who do, it’s more natural to describe religion as a rift to be overcome.

But while there are legitimate reasons to talk about religion less (America has become a less religious country) and to describe it more negatively (religious bigotry has risen sharply), doing so could hurt Democrats such as O’Rourke in their efforts to defeat Trump. According to a 2016 Pew Research Center poll, while a small plurality of Democrats thinks politicians talk about religion too much, Republicans overwhelmingly think politicians talk about it too little. Among those Republicans are devout Christians who agree with Trump on abortion but consider him a detestable human being, and might be lured into voting against him by a Democrat who both spoke compellingly about a guiding faith and appeared to live by it.

Democratic candidates might be tempted to pursue an opposite strategy: employing secular rhetoric to rouse their secular base. But the Democratic base isn’t overwhelmingly secular; it’s partly secular and partly religious. Republicans, by contrast, are overwhelmingly religious. Which may explain why, according to a 2017 study in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, candidates who were perceived as secular experienced a “drop in Republican support that… was not balanced by an increase in Democratic support.”

That’s partly because of African Americans. While many white Democrats want politicians to speak about religion less, black Democrats overwhelmingly want them to speak about it more. When asked in 2016 whether political leaders were talking about “their faith and prayer” too much or too little, black Protestants said “too little” by a larger margin than even Republicans. While only 41 percent of Democrats said it was very or somewhat important that a president shared their religious views, among black Protestants, the figure was 72 percent, again even higher than among Republicans.

All of which may help Kamala Harris and Cory Booker. It’s no coincidence that Harris ended her campaign-announcement speech with the words “God bless you, and God bless the United States of America,” and that Booker ended his speech at the 2016 Democratic convention by declaring, “God bless America.” In his campaign video, a bystander calls out, “2020!” To which Booker responds, “Amen!”

This religious language may reflect a genuine religious belief. But it also bespeaks a political reality: For Harris and Booker, whose path to the Democratic nomination requires winning the black vote, religious language is a necessity. And the same religious language that helps them win over African Americans in the primary may help them win over Republicans in the general election. In their appetite for public professions of faith, black Democrats and white Republicans are similar. It’s white liberals who stand out.

White progressives such as O’Rourke, Sanders, and Warren tacitly recognize that religion is no longer the force for national unity it once was. For Harris and Booker, the intriguing possibility is that it’s still unifying enough to propel them to the White House.


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