Given the concerning National Prayer Breakfast comments, the EO draft on religious freedom, and the Muslim ban, here’s a bit of context which is probably common knowledge among historians and religion scholars but not widely reported elsewhere. As a political moniker, religious freedom is what Atwater called an abstraction: it has literally nothing to do with reinforcing freedom of religion.
“Religious freedom” mutated into a convenient code word during the 20th century. We stopped using Bible verses to justify slavery and abstracted out something more nebulous for the same function. Like similarly coded rhetoric—states’ rights, law and order, and small government at first, and later school choice and extreme vetting—it begins its new career as a politically-useful tool around race (school segregation, miscegenation laws, even zoning codes) and subsequently shifts to new themes as needed (the poor, oppressed Christian baker). By mid-century, Protestants from Southern California to the Bible Belt were already coalescing anti-communist, anti-black, and anti-union rhetoric under the banner of religious freedom: they effectively repackaged aggressive political, racial, and economic agendas to appear unquestionably innocuous. Those who are receptive to the whistle don't consciously experience it this way, and neither do they recognize it's more about resisting the 14th amendment rather than promoting the 1st. A PRRI survey found 10% of Americans believe businesses should be able to refuse service to African Americans *specifically* for religious reasons, and 16% said the same about LGBT persons (surely the number for anti-Islam views would be equally horrifying). The same survey found 80% of Republicans and 40% of Democrats believe religious freedom is being attacked. According to Pew, 47% believe a wedding cake baker should be allowed to deny service to same-sex couples for religious reasons. Rallying around religious freedom is a time-tested tactic that abstracts an issue so that old battles can be fought with less contested language.
Ever the more intuitive sloganeer of the two parties, the GOP perfected the art of abstraction during the Southern Strategy, the wildly successful effort to realign itself with racist southerners in the wake of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and Goldwater loss. The strategy also took advantage of religious freedom concerns, which had been in heightened circulation as a racial tool for decades; this goes back well before the Christian Right sold its soul to Reagan. As his chief of staff put it, Nixon needed a way to target African Americans without appearing to do so in order to draw southern whites away from the Democrats. And they needed those whites since, as Nixon’s strategist Kevin Phillips told the NYT in 1970, they never expected the party to get more than 1 in 5 African American votes ever again. But if they didn’t want to end like Goldwater, they needed to get abstract. In 1981, this is how Republican strategist Lee Atwater explained Southern Strategy’s abstraction—also a great explanation of the totally-not-a-Muslim-ban:
“You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘N*****, n*****, n*****.’ By 1968 you can’t say ’n*****’—that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I'm not saying that. But I'm saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me—because obviously sitting around saying, ‘We want to cut this,’ is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “N*****, n*****."
For more reading, I highly recommend Darren Dochuck’s From Bible Belt to Sunbelt and Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind.