So what was that big show in the Rose Garden all about, the one with the smiling President Donald Trump serving up waves of Godtalk to a large assembly of religious leaders from various religious traditions?
This was supposed to be an important moment for those working to protect the First Amendment rights of believers whose commitment to ancient doctrines on marriage and sex have clashed with new laws, and court decisions, crafted to defend the Sexual Revolution, in all of its myriad forms.
However, even before the ceremony began, there were signs that a big dose of fake news was ahead. That was the subject of my Thursday morning post, "Big question in Rose Garden today: A victory, or Trump white flag, on religious liberty issues?"
By the time "Crossroads" host Todd Wilken and I talked, a few hours after that political rite (click here for the podcast), it was clear that most mainstream journalists had tuned into a crucial fact: The only people who were celebrating this executive order were people who are on the president's payroll or who may as well be (hello Jerry Falwell, Jr.). Their fundraising letters will come later.
But anyone who listened to the church-state voices that mattered knew what was going on.
On the religious and cultural right, Robert P. George of Princeton University issued a devastating tweet that said:
What about the left?
If that George blast wasn't enough to blow the fog away, this press release from the American Civil Liberties Union clarified matters nicely. Yes, there were voices elsewhere on the church-state left that released familiar statements of outrage. Their fundraising letters will come later.
But the ACLU said what needed to be said, in a release from Executive Director Anthony D. Romero noting that there was no need to file a lawsuit against this executive order. Why?
“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.’
“The directive to federal agencies to explore religious-based exceptions to healthcare does cue up a potential future battle, but as of now, the status quo has not changed.
“What President Trump did today was merely provide a faux sop to religious conservatives and kick the can down the road on religious exemptions on reproductive health care services. ..."
Ouch. You may want to put some ice on that.
So what happened? Basically, religious leaders were issued permission to risk their public credibility and perhaps (executives cannot overturn acts of Congress) future lawsuits in order to endorse political parties and candidates. They already, of course, had First Amendment rights to speak out on public issues linked to their teachings of their faith.
So a big win for politics. Zero change in laws affecting the free exercise of religious convictions.
This was captured nicely in the Washington Post story that ran with this headline: "Trump signs order seeking to allow churches to engage in more political activity."
Oh, bravo to whoever wrote that headline for including the word "seeking."
So Trump people could celebrate, for now. And what about those in the interfaith coalition seeking protection for traditional believers? The Post team included this blunt quote:
Gregory S. Baylor, senior counsel for the faith group Alliance Defending Freedom, was among the Christian conservatives to criticize the order, calling it “disappointingly vague” and questioning whether the IRS would follow through with Trump’s directive.
“We strongly encourage the president to see his campaign promise through to completion,” Baylor said.
Journalists, now would be the time to seek out Catholics, Mormons, Orthodox Jews and others for follow-up interviews, while probing reactions among Trump critics on the cultural right.
While preparing for that work consider reading this National Review think piece -- "Trump’s Executive Order on Religious Liberty Is Worse Than Useless" -- by the always concise David French. This executive order, he wrote:
... has three main components: 1) a promise to “protect and vigorously promote religious liberty,” 2) a directive to “ease restrictions on political activity by churches and charities,” and 3) an order to “federal agencies to exempt some religious organizations from Affordable Care Act requirements that provide employees with health coverage for contraception.” Those directives are respectively 1) meaningless, 2) dangerous, and 3) meaningless.
Let’s dispense first with the vague and sweeping promise to “protect and vigorously promote religious liberty.” That’s a nice sentiment, but it’s proven only by actions, and if the order itself is considered one of those actions, then it’s self-refuting. The order doesn’t do anything “vigorously,” and it doesn’t “protect” anything at all.
By the end of the day, this kind of critique was being including in the mix pretty much everywhere, as in this Emma Green essay at The Atlantic. At Religion News Service, columnist David Gibson obtained a great one-liner from an important academic source:
Douglas Laycock, a law professor at the University of Virginia School of Law and an expert on religious freedom issues who is respected across the political spectrum, was also unimpressed.
“This is pretty much nothing,” Laycock wrote in an email.
So what now? Where does this story go next? Might I suggest that reporters ask two questions: (1) Who engineered the White House retreat on the free exercise of religion? Did this white flag follow behind-the-scenes work by corporate leaders? Also, (2) who decided to put so much emphasis on the rarely evoked or enforced Johnson Amendment? Who decided that now was the time to that fight?
Who thought this was a pressing need? Over at LifeWay Research, survey numbers indicate that only 25 percent of evangelicals want to see their pastors offering pulpit endorsements for political candidates. And as cultural conservative Ross Douthat of The New York Times put it:
More than anything else, I hope that this strange episode helps political-beat reporters grasp what religion-beat professionals already know, which is that there 's quite a bit of diversity out there among conservative evangelicals when it comes to viewpoints about the actions of the Trump White House.
As your GetReligionistas have been saying since the start of the GOP primaries, there are many white evangelicals who voted for Trump, but didn't want to do so. Many were willing to risk voting for the Donald, hoping that he was sincere when he made all those campaign-trail promises about religious liberty and the First Amendment. However, many other religious conservatives voted for third-party candidates.
What do they think now? Some journalists appear to be listening, after this drama.
Will journalists keep paying attention to the church-state left and the wide variety of voices on the church-state right? Just do it. And consider these sobering words from evangelical activist John Stonestreet, in a BreakPoint radio commentary co-written with Robert Rivera:
Yesterday’s events suggest that, as I said after the election, the incoming administration has offered us a reprieve on religious freedom, but not a champion. Or as Chuck Colson often put it, salvation doesn’t arrive on Air Force One.
You can say that again.