The evangelical community’s response to Donald Trump’s recent executive order on religious liberty has been largely negative. As I wrote yesterday: “I don’t think Trump cares about religious liberty. But he is very good at saying the kinds of things that will keep conservative evangelicals on board the Trump train.”
First, Trump’s executive order does not repeal the Johnson Amendment. Despite what the POTUS says, the IRS still has the right to remove the tax-exempt status of a church that has a pastor who endorses or opposes a political candidate.
Second, the order does nothing to “exempt some religious organizations” from the Obamacare contraception mandate.
Third, it says nothing about the threats to religious organizations that uphold traditional views on marriage.
As veteran religion reporter Terry Mattingly informs us, the American Civil Liberties Union thought the order was so void of meaning that it felt there was no need to file a lawsuit against it. Here is a taste of the ACLU press release:
After careful review of the executive order covering the Johnson Amendment signed by President Trump today, the American Civil Liberties Union has determined not to file a lawsuit at this time.
American Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Anthony D. Romero issued the following statement:
“Today’s executive order signing was an elaborate photo-op with no discernible policy outcome. After careful review of the order’s text we have determined that the order does not meaningfully alter the ability of religious institutions or individuals to intervene in the political process. The order portends but does not yet do harm to the provision of reproductive health services.
“President Trump’s prior assertion that he wished to ‘totally destroy’ the Johnson Amendment with this order has proven to be a textbook case of ‘fake news.’
As I have been writing here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home, there are internal divisions in the Trump White House over religious liberty. Mike Pence is on the conservative evangelical side. Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner are on the other side. This executive order suggests that the Ivanka/Kushner camp has the upper hand.
Princeton University professor and defender of religious liberty Robert George agrees:
The religious liberty executive order is meaningless. No substantive protections for conscience. A betrayal. Ivanka and Jared won. We lost. https://t.co/Xn94KWTKPX
— Robert P. George (@McCormickProf) May 4, 2017
And then there are all of the court evangelicals–the men and women swayed by the power of the presidency.:
Robert Jeffress believes that “religious liberty is now protected, not assaulted.”
And there is more:
— Franklin Graham (@Franklin_Graham) May 4, 2017
Thankful for answered prayer & His goodness!! A landmark day when POTUS signed an Executive Order on Free Speech & Religious Liberty! pic.twitter.com/iBJvCGzJyM
— Paula White-Cain (@Paula_White) May 4, 2017
Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr. told Fox News Radio that the executive order “proves to me President Trump’s a man of his word.” (Did he read it?). He also suggests that he can now speak politically on behalf of Liberty University and doesn’t always have to preface his remarks by saying that he is only speaking as an “individual” and not as a representative of the institution he presides over.
There is a very good chance that Trump is duping the likes of Jeffress, White, and Falwell Jr. Trump needed evangelical support to win the election and he will need evangelical support in 2018 and 2020. This executive order keeps some evangelicals in the fold.
Some might say that the order is symbolic of Trump’s sensitivity to evangelical concerns about religious liberty. Maybe. But it seems more likely that the order is symbolic of Trump’s political savvy and the willingness of some evangelicals to fall for it as they continue to genuflect on the altar of political power.