Four Faiths, Four Perspectives: A Year in, How Trump's Presidency Galvanized People into Action

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Image via RNS/Jerome Socolovsky  

At his inaugural one year ago, Donald Trump thrilled religious conservatives by laying his hand on a family Bible and the Lincoln Bible and promising that the United States would “be protected by God.” Though Trump lost the popular vote, he won the presidency with the support of the vast majority of white evangelical Christians. And he had taken on a cadre of evangelical preachers and lay leaders as his advisers.

But if Trump has invigorated that swath of religious America, he has also galvanized the religious left.

Some progressive, mainline Protestant Christian churches reportedly saw a “Trump bump” in attendance in the weeks after his election. Religious organizations on the left side of the political spectrum, such as Auburn Seminary, Sojourners, and Faith in Public Life, reported increased interest and donations.

People of many religions, motivated by their faith, joined huge demonstrations across the country protesting the president’s rhetoric and campaign promises. Those gatherings included the March for Science and Women’s March, whose co-chair is one of the religious left’s best-known leaders, Muslim activist Linda Sarsour.

They’ve lobbied lawmakers, joined campaigns, and volunteered with organizations whose causes they support. Their concerns are manifold and include Trump’s approach to refugees, immigration, the budget, taxes, climate change, health care, and abortion.

While he considers the term “religious left,” too restrictive, the Rev. William J. Barber II, a North Carolina pastor and one of its most prominent voices, sees the movement burgeoning.

“There’s something happening,” Barber told Religion News Service last year. “We’re seeing the rise of a moral resistance.”

Here are the stories of four Americans who, motivated as much by their religious beliefs — or in one case, atheism — as their political beliefs, have joined that resistance.

Max Perry Mueller: Returning to church as activism

As Donald Trump has driven many protesters to the streets since he announced his candidacy for president in 2016, he also drove Max Perry Mueller back to church.

“Returning to church is part of my activism,” said Mueller, assistant professor of religious studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

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Max Perry Mueller. Image via RNS/Max Perry Mueller 

The historian wanted to connect with a church when he moved to Lincoln, Neb., in July 2016. He’d left the conservative evangelical Christian faith he had embraced in high school after growing uncomfortable with its ties to conservative politics and its condemnation of his LGBT friends, his friends of other faiths, and his spiritually-seeking mother.

He visited Unitarian and United Church of Christ churches — places where members’ politics and theology aligned with his, he said.

But it was Grace Chapel, a congregation in the conservative Presbyterian Church in America, where he and his 2-year-old daughter were baptized this past spring.

He wanted to be able to speak to his father and other white evangelicals who supported Trump from a place of shared beliefs. He wanted to share with them why he believes that much of national politics and Trump’s message “conflict with what I think are America’s biggest ideals and Christian ideals.”

He wanted to do his part to make a fractured America less fractured. “Being among white evangelicals … it’s an opportunity instead of further sorting ourselves both politically and religiously.”

Mueller said he’s had many conversations over the past year with both pastors and church members. Some support Trump, but many find fault with him too.

Mueller vigorously nodded on Sunday as a pastor denounced Trump’s alleged remarks disparaging people coming to the U.S. from Haiti and African countries, and he openly cried as a pastor called Trump’s travel ban un-American and un-Christian.

The church also has given him much, he said: A community, a connection to the divine, and a sense of peace.

“I’m really surprised how well this has fit for me and how much I have changed,” he said.

But he also recognizes that not everybody would feel comfortable attending a conservative church.

“I’m not a queer person. I’m not a racial minority. I’m not a woman,” Mueller said. What bothers him about other congregants’ politics might traumatize others, he said.

That’s part of the reason he felt an obligation to return. He said he wants to  “reoccupy that space” in white evangelicalism that feels as if it has been “usurped by Trumpist Republicans.”

He hopes that he — and other activists like him who may feel prompted to return to church — can help congregation members channel the fear and shock they may feel at the current state of politics into caring for people they may never have tried to serve.

“That is political work without it being at all partisan. That is the beginning of the rebuilding of our civic society.”

 — Emily McFarlan Miller

Jamila Khan: Activism as a way of sharing God’s love

Millennials have a reputation for being nonreligious, but Jamila Khan, an Arizona State University student, finds comfort in her faith and a strong impetus for political action in ways not so different from past generations.

As a Muslim, Khan got involved in her community starting in high school because so few other Muslims lived in her Arizona town.

“I really feel like activism is a form of sharing that love that God has given you,” she said. “Realizing that this world is made for all of us is something that’s transcending, and we have to inspire each other.”

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Jamila Khan. Photo via RNS/Jamila Khan  

Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign statements about minority groups spurred her to step up her commitment to social and political causes.

During the election, she interned for the Democratic Party and then worked as a fellow for Rise, an organization that “helps refugee students remain competitive in the classroom.” Now, her activism varies from helping immigrant families and teaching at her local mosque to participating in Black Lives Matter marches.

Anyone can become a target for Trump, she said, calling his vitriol toward people and minority groups “an attack on humanity.”

Khan has felt the effects of Trump’s actions personally. Her father is a first-generation Pakistani immigrant and her mother is a Baptist from Sudan. Some members of her extended family can’t travel or study in the U.S. because of the recent travel bans Trump has put in place.

She does see a positive side to Trump’s election, what she describes as a “pro-bono revolution” that is getting Americans to stand up for themselves and for others.

“I think that’s something the American people haven’t done for a long time,” she said.

One movement she strongly endorses is interfaith work. She’s an executive member of the ASU interfaith organization, SunDABT (Sun Devils Are Better Together), and she believes in promoting dialogue.

“Interfaith really teaches us to love one another and to be kind and tolerant,” she said. “And I feel like our political system needs to be something that is a representation of that, and the only way we do that is by having voices speak up.”

While she realizes her age, activism, and faith combined fit the definition of “religious left,” she doesn’t love the term. She believes this particular divide creates the very problem her work tries to fix.

— Madeleine Buckley

Alice Shairzay: Atheist called to defend liberty

Alice Shairzay, recently retired, travels frequently from her Alexandria, Va., home to Washington, D.C., usually to take in a Smithsonian or National Gallery of Art exhibit.

Her route takes her down Constitution Avenue, past the National Archives, where she never fails to look up and take in a quote engraved in stone at its entrance:

“Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty”

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Alice Shairzay. Image via RNS/Kimberly Winston  

Lately, that engraving sounds like a call to arms to Shairzay, a former elementary school teacher. Since the election of Donald Trump, she has entered, for the first time, the ranks of protesters and activists.

“I kind of feel like our liberties are under siege now. I am glad I am in a position to have the time to do a little part to protect those liberties,” she said.

In June, Shairzay came to the capital to participate in the Secular Coalition for America’s annual “Lobby Day,” a round of morning training and afternoon activism that culminates in a march to the Capitol and dozens of meetings with U.S. representatives and senators.

Shairzay’s group of about eight activist-lobbyists met with Rep. Don Beyer, D-Va., who crammed them all into his memento-lined office, and a staffer for Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., who was away. Shairzay and the others outlined issues important to them as secular Americans — no repeal of the Johnson Amendment, no taxpayer money for religious schools and health insurance for all.

This is Shairzay’s first foray into secular activism. She was raised by atheist parents but always had an interest in religion. Until two years ago, she identified as an agnostic — unsure about the existence of God. But after reading one of the world’s main sacred texts — she won’t say which one for fear of upsetting friends and relatives — she made the move to atheist: There is no God.

“It just sort of cascaded,” she said. “I read Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and once it cracked, it just collapsed. It just took me a long time. I guess I am slow learner.”

Larry Decker, director of the Secular Coalition — an umbrella organization of 18 atheist, humanist, and secular groups — said his organization has seen an influx of first-time activists like Shairzay since Trump’s election.

“There is so much concern that the rhetoric from his campaign is being brought into his public policy,” Decker said. “The president has taken every single possible opportunity to underscore his ties to the religious right and tell them he will get their wish list done.”

Trump’s closeness to conservative Christians is among the concerns that brought Shairzay out for Lobby Day. She lived in Saudi Arabia for 10 years and taught English there some of that time. The experience, she said, gave her a new appreciation for the First Amendment, and now, a fear of its possible erosion by Trump.

“I consider him a direct threat to our Constitution,” she said. “I fear he will not complete his term and he will be replaced by this theocrat (Vice President Mike Pence, an evangelical Christian) and I feel we need to buttress the wall between church and state before he gets in there.”

So she’s become an activist. Since January 2017, she has been on the march — the March for Science, the Tax March and the March for Truth. And she handed out cookies to employees of the Environmental Protection Agency at the “EPA Appreciation Pop Up Rally.”

Shairzay left her final Lobby Day appointment in Kaine’s office newly invigorated.

“It was perfect,” she said. “It was a very comfortable way to be introduced to lobbying. I started the day thinking ‘I may not be able to do this,’ but now I feel like I can do this, too.”

—  Kimberly Winston

Andrew Miller: A quest for justice formed by his Jewish faith

It didn’t take Donald Trump to make Andrew Miller an activist.

The 2015 death of a black man in Baltimore police custody did that. And a white supremacist’s deadly rampage at a black South Carolina church two months later only strengthened his resolve to abide by an ancient rabbi’s oft-cited charge to relieve the world’s suffering: “You are not obligated to complete the work, neither are you free to desist from it.”

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Professor Andrew Miller. Image via RNS/Andrew Miller 

Miller joined the fight against inequality in the city where Freddie Gray’s life and death were widely viewed as emblematic of the country’s discounting of black lives.

But now, with Trump in the White House, the environmental science professor said his activism has taken on even greater urgency.

“All of a sudden we have a national government that’s basically going in the wrong direction on almost every issue of conscience that I can think of,” said Miller, 62, who served a president of his Conservative synagogue, the Chizuk Amuno Congregation, during the 2016 election.

Miller and fellow congregants gathered on the National Mall for the Women’s March on Washington the day after Trump’s inauguration, holding signs that declared their support for human rights as part of their Jewish faith.

“Jews March for Justice,” one placard proclaimed.

Miller’s activism, whether on fair housing or police accountability, flows from his religion. He works with a social action committee in his synagogue, where many lean center or left on the political spectrum.

He has also stepped up his activism through Jews United for Justice, which aims to influence policy on behalf of the poor and disenfranchised in Greater Baltimore and Greater Washington, D.C., and whose motto is “Think Jewishly. Act Locally.”

“I actually believe that Judaism compels us to do these things. It’s as simple as that,” said Miller, who pointed to the Book of Isaiah, which Jews read during the Yom Kippur fast.

The prophet mocks ritualistic, only-for-show fasts and encourages people to abstain for the sake of lifting up others: “Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter — when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?” (Isaiah 58:7).

“That’s what it’s all about,” said Miller. “Are you helping to make sure justice is being done?”

In addition to Hebrew Bible, Miller points to recent Jewish history — the Holocaust in particular — to explain his rejection of Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric.

If we look back with horror at the world’s indifference to the millions of Jews facing certain death in Hitler’s concentration camps, “why is it that we think it’s OK that people can’t get out of Syria?” he asked.

So Miller stays up late nights with his mailing lists, asking like-minded Jews and others not only to march and protest, but to join him in lobbying state legislators on bills he believes can help tear down barriers to health care, housing and education that condemn so many in his state to poverty.

This local, unglamorous action is what he believes his Judaism requires of him.

“The Women’s March was lots of fun,” Miller said. “But the Women’s March did not change anything by itself.”

Via Religion News Service 

Emily McFarlan Miller writes for the Religion News Service.

Lauren Markoe covered government and features as a daily newspaper reporter for 15 years before joining the Religion News Service staff as a national correspondent in 2011.

Kimberly Winston is a freelance religion reporter based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She covers atheism and freethought for Religion News Service.

Madeleine Buckley writes for Religion News Service.

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