Trump’s Executive Order a Baby Step in the Right Direction

We need Congress to pass laws that actually protect the free exercise of religion.

By John Zmirak Published on May 4, 2017

There’s a contrast between candidate Trump’s promises to religious believers, and President Trump’s new executive order. To see it, we need to step back from the headlines.

Of course the ACLU will condemn any measure that doesn’t require the Little Sisters of the Poor to serve as pole dancers in Vegas. Yes, it’s helpful that the President has instructed the IRS to go easy on conservative churches. It has always gone easy on liberal ones. Have you ever heard of a hyper-activist urban black church losing its tax exemption? Or holding back from pushing for candidates like Jesse Jackson or Barack Obama for fear of the Johnson Amendment? No, of course you haven’t. Now conservative churches will be cut the same slack. Which is good.

But to get what has really happened, and what hasn’t, let’s use a scenario out of every traveler’s nightmares.

So You’re in a Turkish Prison …

Let’s say you’re arrested unjustly in a country like Turkey or China. One of the cops is brutal. He knocks you around. He makes up false felony charges. But then an attorney appears, out of nowhere. He stops the cop from knocking out your teeth. Then the cop leaves the room. The lawyer whispers that for a suitable fee, he can spring you from jail. Even get you a black car to the airport.

You come up with the money. Not just all you have on you. You go “all in” and empty your bank account. But he winks and smiles covertly. You begin to get your hopes up.

And later that day, the lawyer returns and ensures … that you are moved to a more comfortable cell. He shrugs: “This is best I can do. You know: politics.”

Half a Loaf

That’s the story of Christian citizens and voters in 2017. We were subjected by the Obama administration and a lawless Supreme Court decision on marriage (Obergefell) to grave dangers to our free exercise of religion. The situation for orthodox Christians in America became positively menacing. So we did what citizens in a democracy are taught to: We rallied behind a candidate.

Evangelical Christian voters were to Trump what black voters were to Barack Obama: His most reliable base, and the core of his supporters. Without them, he wouldn’t have won the nomination, much less the presidency. These voters had the right to expect much more than this executive order.

Only Protecting Nuns and Pastors

Don’t take my word for it. One of the leading warriors in the First Amendment trenches is Gregory S. Baylor of the Alliance Defending Freedom. He scrutinized Trump’s ballyhooed executive order. Baylor noted:

During his campaign, President Trump stated that the first priority of his administration would be to preserve and protect religious liberty. … Religious voters took him at his word, giving the president a mandate to affirm and protect Americans’ first freedom.

But Baylor was disappointed with how little protection President Trump’s order actually offers. It seems that only pastors, and specifically religious institutions, actually benefit from this order. Not millions of ordinary Christian citizens. As Baylor notes, the order does nothing for

families like the Vander Boons in Michigan, who were threatened with the effective closure of their family-run business for simply expressing a religious point of view on marriage that differed from that of the federal government.

What About the Rest of Us?

Clergy and administrators of specifically religious institutions always had extra protections — until the Obama administration tried to strip them away, and was slapped down by the Supreme Court. Yes, it’s important that the Trump administration stop the Obama policy of trying to bankrupt nuns’ hospices over the abortion pill. But that’s hardly enough. As Baylor notes, Trump’s order is weak tea even for clergy. It promises to “provide regulatory relief for religious objectors to Obamacare’s burdensome preventive services mandate, a position supported by the Supreme Court decision in Hobby Lobby.”

But Baylor points out that a

pledge to ‘provide regulatory relief’ is disappointingly vague, especially given the long existence of an obvious means of solving the problem: crafting an exemption that protects all those who sincerely object on religious and moral grounds so that they can continue to serve their communities and the most vulnerable among them.

Christians and other believers deserve far more than this.

What Is America, an Absolute Monarchy?

But as Psalm 118 warns us, we shouldn’t “trust in princes.” Nor should major issues of American politics be resolved by executive order. It’s an outrage that President Obama tried to rule America like an emperor. We shouldn’t accept the idea that the president rules by decree, then merely try to replace an evil czar with a good one. No, we live in a republic governed by laws, whose laws are made by … legislators. Men like Senators Rand Paul and Ted Cruz.

And every one of the issues that President Trump failed to resolve by executive order can be settled by legislation. In fact, that’s how they should be settled. We can’t rely on the autocratic whim of the next president and his advisors. The whole idea of presidents wielding massive power (for good or ill) over the religious liberties of hundreds of millions of citizens…

It’s deeply un-American. What are we, Huguenots in Louis XV’s France? Should we desperately lobby the king’s latest favorite to prevent him from persecuting us? Slip notes to princesses and courtiers, hoping that they can turn the mighty will of an absolute monarch?

We are citizens of a republic. There are laws stalled in Congress like the First Amendment Defense Act and the Free Speech Fairness Act. We need bold leaders in the House and Senate to push them through — if need be, to dismantle the Senate’s legislative filibuster so they can pass with a simple majority. Then we’ll see if President Trump will sign them. I imagine he would. 

Such protections would be more durable, and much more robust, than some scribbled executive order. The process of fighting for them in the halls of Congress would be a healthy exercise in democratic activism. As Maggie Gallagher has pointed out, the poor track record of Christians in legislating in self-defense suggests that we need the workout desperately.

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