After the week of terror that the United States just endured, including the mass shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh that left eleven people dead in the worst attack against Jewish Americans in history, the Trump administration and other conservative politicians have been criticized for fueling the white nationalist and anti-minority (including anti-Semitic) sentiments that inspired the Pittsburgh shooter and other assailants and for failing to adequately address violence, racism and bigotry in the aftermath of these attacks. In the midst of such criticism, senior White House advisor Kellyanne Conway once again hit the Fox News airwaves and blamed the attack in Pittsburgh on “anti-religiosity,” tying the motivations of alleged gunman Robert Bowers (who seems to have had a strong presence among online white supremacist communities) to a supposed hostility against religion that Conway claims is being perpetrated in America today.
Had Gregory Bush, the white supremacist shooter who killed two elderly black supermarket patrons in Kentucky, succeeded in his preceding attempt to enter a predominantly black church, Conway and other conservative voices would likely have further pushed the anti-religion narrative. This is exactly what happened in 2015 after the mass shooting in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, that left nine parishioners dead (Conway referenced this tragedy in her comments on Fox). The Charleston shooter, then-21 year old Dylann Roof, was clearly motivated by racial hatred, as evidenced by a racist manifesto posted online under his name and comments to a friend that he wanted to “start a race war.” His choice of a church for his attack was one of convenience; he thought parishioners would make easy targets. Additionally, attacking communities at places of worship has long been a tactic of domestic terrorists. Yet Fox News and other conservative voices attempted to use the setting of the shooting to shift the conversation toward ant-religious (especially anti-Christian) hatred.
Why has the pivot to anti-religious bias been a common theme after these attacks, even when the evidence (including the attackers own statements) clearly point to other motivations? This trend is motivated by several related political considerations;
- First, framing attacks as based on anti-religious in nature allows conservative politicians and commentators to avoid confronting white supremacy, whereas tackling the racist motivations of these attacks, which has been encouraged by rhetoric from influential parts of the Republican Party, risks alienating a significant source of the Party’s current base. (The focus on mental illness as an explanation for mass shootings serves a similar purpose, sidestepping debates on gun control that would anger the NRA).
- Furthermore, the ant-religious hostility frame allows Republicans to shift the blame back to Democrats and left-leaning individuals or organizations, such as the mainstream media or even late night comedians.
- This frame fits into a larger narrative that the Democrats and the Left are anti-religious, which really means anti-Christian (the Right’s anti-religious narrative often ignores right-wing attacks against religious minorities, such as Muslims and Sikhs). Related themes in conservative media, such as a “War on Christmas,” fits into this broader narrative of anti-Christian bias. The anti-Christian interpretation allows white conservatives to view themselves as the “true” persecuted minorities in the current political landscape.
- This framing, in turn, allows Republicans and the Right to promote conservative policies and restrictions on minority rights – such as laws to regulate abortion and contraception or limit LGBTQ rights – not as restrictions on the rights of women and minorities, but as protections of religious freedom.
- This strategy – restricting certain rights through appeals to other rights – is a politically clever and potentially effective course of action, as it taps into the long-held belief of religious liberty, which the United States has long held as one of its most fundamental values (although the actual history of religious freedom is a bit more varied). While the original U.S. Constitution explicitly endorsed racial discrimination (e.g., slavery) and largely ignored gender, religion was included in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights; religious groups can be thought of as the first protected class.
Interestingly, this tactic of appealing to religious liberty was previously used to oppose racial integration, giving birth to the Religious Right (which then moved on to abortion as its primary policy focus once segregation became a losing issue). Today, key conservative officials such as Vice President Mike Pence, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and newly appointed Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh are particularly adamant about asserting religious freedom in the face of competing rights, and the principle of religious liberty is appealing even to liberals who also support other types of rights. Using incidents of mass shootings and other forms of violence, even those demonstrably based on racial hatred and nationalist ideologies, to instead paint a picture of religion under siege is therefore not only a useful diversionary tactic, but one prong of a multi-part strategy aimed at promoting a particular conservative agenda for the United States.