Politics Foreign Affairs Culture We're Hiring

Trump’s Phony Religious Liberty EO

Conservative white Evangelicals have their 'but for Wales?' moment
shutterstock_546595351 (1)

If you are a preacher eager to politicize your pulpit and make yourself useful to Washington power brokers, President Trump is on your side. Because when you think “defending religious liberty,” the first thing that comes to mind is making America safe for political fundraising and advocacy. Right?

The bull market for cynicism about Donald Trump continues:

President Trump on Thursday said he would direct the Internal Revenue Service to relax enforcement of rules barring tax-exempt churches from participating in politics as part of a much-anticipated executive order on religious liberties.

The order — which Trump formally unveiled in a Rose Garden ceremony with Christian leaders — also offers unspecified “regulatory relief” for religious objectors to an Obama administration mandate, already scaled back by the courts, that required contraception services as part of health plans, the officials said.

“For too long the federal government has used the state as a weapon against people of faith,” Trump said, later telling the religious leaders gathered for the event that “you’re now in a position to say what you want to say … No one should be censoring sermons or targeting pastors.”

But the sweep of the order — unveiled on a National Day of Prayer — was significantly narrower than a February draft, which had alarmed civil libertarians, gay rights and other liberal advocacy groups and prompted threats of lawsuits.

Among other things, that version included a controversial provision that could have allowed federal contractors to discriminate against LGBT employees or single mothers on the basis of faith.

The order released Thursday instead included a blanket statement that “it is the policy of the administration to protect and vigorously promote religious liberty.”

While Trump’s action was applauded by many in the Rose Garden, some religious groups criticized him for what they characterized as a vague directive that didn’t live up to his campaign rhetoric.

“We strongly encourage the president to see his campaign promise through to completion and to ensure that all Americans — no matter where they live or what their occupation is — enjoy the freedom to peacefully live and work consistent with their convictions without fear of government punishment,” said Gregory S. Baylor, senior counsel for the pro-faith group Alliance Defending Freedom.

Note well that ADF is also opposed to the Johnson Amendment. But ADF also knows that repealing it is very far from the most pressing religious liberty needs. More from the WaPo:

Until Trump elevated it during his campaign, the Johnson Amendment was rarely a top priority for advocates of religious liberty. In fact, some faith groups have said they strongly support the amendment that Trump is weakening. Requiring churches to stay out of politics, they say, is key to separating church and state.

The Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, a leading faith-based group focused on religious freedom, has said it supports the Johnson Amendment, because keeping politics and religion separate is best for religion.

I agree! I understand that the Johnson Amendment has rarely been enforced, but it’s still an important law to have in place, not so much (from my point of view) to protect that state, but rather to protect the church and its mission.

Emma Green at The Atlantic writes about why some prominent religious conservatives are hugely disappointed by the EO. Excerpt:

“Trump seems to have a fixation on the Johnson Amendment, but thatʼs not the concern of people who have been talking about religious liberty for the past several years,” [the Heritage Foundation’s Ryan T.] Anderson said.

Or take the “regulatory relief” for religious organizations that object to Obamacare’s contraceptive mandate. Lawyers from Becket, the religious-liberty law firm that led the most high-profile court challenge on behalf of a group of Catholic nuns called the Little Sisters of the Poor, were happy that the administration addressed the case: “We’re encouraged by the promise of protection for the Little Sisters coming from the White House,” wrote Mark Rienzi in an emailed statement. And yet, last spring, the Supreme Court already ordered the Obama administration to work with religious non-profits to find a resolution. The executive order “may very well simply be, ‘Yeah, you have to do it, because SCOTUS told you to do it,’ which doesn’t move the ball,” said Anderson.


Tim Schultz, the president of the First Amendment Partnership, which works with legislators at the state and national level on religious-liberty issues, said the conservative reaction to the order would be mixed, especially because it leaves out protections for those who object to same-sex marriage. “Many will be disappointed that this signals a lack of will by the administration to expend political capital in this context,” he wrote in an email on Thursday morning. “Others want to see this addressed with great political care … and they will see an opportunity in this omission.” On the Johnson Amendment guidance, he wrote that “there could well be unintended consequences that are bad for faith communities.” This might include the further politicization of houses of worship or the flow of lobbying dollars into religious organizations.

Yes, yes, yes. Here is the full text of the EO, via the White House website. It has nothing — zip, nada — to protect the religious liberty of people who dissent from LGBT rights dogmas, and regarding the contraception mandate, it directs Treasury, Labor, and HHS to “consider” — that’s a quote — issuing amended regulations that are more respectful of religious liberty.

Consider. There’s your brave defender, Little Sisters of the Poor.

This is not nothing, but it’s next to nothing. The only thing of substance in this thing is that the president wants to free preachers up to raise money for him from the pulpit. He can’t actually do this except by Congress changing the law to repeal the Johnson Amendment. So he’s ordering the executive branch not to enforce it — this, even though it has been rarely enforced in the first place!

Religious conservatives, we’ve been had. Who can plausibly deny it now?

Nobody is going after Catholic hospitals, Southern Baptist florists, Christian colleges, and others over their preaching the GOP gospel from the pulpit. It costs Trump exactly nothing in terms of political capital to do what he’s done. On the points where it might have cost him, he whiffed. President Jared wins again.

Here’s Ryan T. Anderson, who is one of the top religious conservatives on the issue. He is not happy. Excerpt:

Today’s executive order is woefully inadequate. Trump campaigned promising Americans that he would protect their religious liberty rights and correct the violations that took place during the previous administration.

Trump’s election was about correcting problems of the last administration, including religious liberty violations and the hostility to people of faith in the United States. This order does not do that. It is a mere shadow of the original draft leaked in February.


All Americans should remain free to worship God, serve the poor, educate the next generation, and run a business, all in accordance with their religious beliefs—whatever those religious beliefs happen to be. We should all be subject to the same legal standard: Government can only substantially burden the free exercise of religion if it is acting to advance a compelling government interest pursued in the least restrictive way possible.

Media reports from Tuesday said that today’s executive order was going to provide meaningful protections: “one influential conservative who saw the text said it hasn’t been dialed back much—if at all—since the February leak. ‘The language is very, very strong,’ the source said.”

In reality, what Trump issued today is rather weak. All it includes is general language about the importance of religious liberty, saying the executive branch “will honor and enforce” existing laws and instructing the Department of Justice to “issue guidance” on existing law; directives to the Department of the Treasury to be lenient in the enforcement of the Johnson Amendment; and directives to the secretaries of the Treasury, Labor, and Health and Human Services (HHS) to “consider issuing amended regulations” to “address conscience-based objections” to the HHS contraception mandate.

It’s all for show. All of you pastors and religious leaders who dignified this with your presence last night at the White House dinner, and in the Rose Garden today, understand that you were all turned into political props by Trump.

Jerry Falwell Jr. told Sarah Pulliam Bailey of the WaPo that:

“I think evangelicals have found their dream president,” said Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University — where Trump will give a commencement address on May 13. “I’ve never seen a White House have such a close relationship with faith leaders than this one.”

If by “faith leaders,” you mean highly politicized conservative white Evangelicals, okay. But the cost that sucking at the Trump power tweet is going to exact to the spiritual and moral credibility of these ministries is going to be massive. Watch and see. Ladies and gentlemen, this may well be your “but for Wales?” moment. 

I cannot state it strongly enough to my fellow conservative Christians: I do not believe that either this Republican president or this Republican Party will stand up for us in a meaningful way, not when it might cost them. You can blame this on the gutlessness of the GOP, and I wouldn’t argue with you, but you should also recognize that this is a sign of the times. As political scientist Carson Holloway wrote last year in First Things:

The public principles religious conservatives hold most dear—the integrity of the family, respect for innocent human life, the flourishing of religious belief and its influence on the culture—are vital to the health of our society. Religious conservatives are therefore bound, out of love of neighbor and love of country, to promote these principles. And since we live in a democracy and have the freedom to be active in politics, we are bound to promote these principles by political action.

If we are to be involved in politics, we have to approach it with a proper realism. The things we care most deeply about, while essential to the health of our society, are not politically compelling to a majority of voters. No political party could win national elections in America by campaigning only on respect for life, for the integrity of the family, and for the positive role of religion in our culture.

If religious conservatives seek to promote these principles through political action, they will have to join in a larger political coalition, one that also emphasizes other issues and represents other interests. At least, such alliances are necessary if our political activism seeks to win elections—if it aims at putting together an actual governing coalition, and is not content merely to be a form of moral expression.

This is a rationale for realism and compromise — even compromise with the likes of Trump. After all, as feeble as today’s EO is, we would have seen active attacks on religious liberty by President Hillary Clinton. If Trump is doing no good for us, at least he’s not doing active harm. There’s something to be said for that. I’m not kidding.

But look, conservative Christians, let’s be honest with ourselves: our day is done. The things that define us politically — sanctity of life, freedom of religious conscience, protection of traditional marriage and the traditional family — are things that are no longer broadly popular with the American people. We cannot expect many political victories anymore. This is not to say that we should stop fighting for them, but let us be realistic about what we can expect, and let us prepare ourselves for living faithfully and sacrificially in a post-Christian nation. That’s not sexy, and it’s not going to get us invitations to political pantomimes in the Rose Garden. But it has the virtue of being real.

Finally, this:

UPDATE: Says it all, really:



Want to join the conversation?

Subscribe for as little as $5/mo to start commenting on Rod’s blog.

Join Now