Among the religious leaders flanking President Trump as he signed an executive order ostensibly to enhance protection of “religious liberty” were evangelical activists who, during last year’s presidential campaign, attached near messianic expectations to the man they fervently supported despite his well documented moral shortcomings. Ryan T. Anderson, notably and thankfully, was not one of them. While the old guard of the evangelical establishment is offering effusive praise for today’s action by the president, Anderson, a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, is not impressed.
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.
Advanced publicity of the order was quite misleading, and the final product turned out to be only a shadow of what was reportedly being contemplated during the early days of the new administration.
The earlier version ensured that the government would not discriminate against beliefs that are under assault, and protected religious organizations’ right to maintain their mission and identity in their staffing decisions and programming, while not losing the ability to partner with the government.
The previous draft of the executive order also provided specific protections to undo some of the worst of liberal overreach.
It would have finally and fully protected Americans from having to violate their consciences under the Obamacare abortifacient and contraception mandate. It would have protected the ability of all Americans to buy health care that doesn’t cover or subsidize abortion.
And it would have protected all Americans who believe that marriage is the union of husband and wife from federal government penalties or coercion.
These protections would take nothing away from anyone. They simply would ensure that the public square remains open to all religious voices, even when those voices diverge from the government’s view on contested questions. They would protect diversity, pluralism, and tolerance.
None of this should be objectionable—which makes you wonder why liberals objected, except to continue the denunciation of “deplorables” that offended Americans of good will last year.
Despite this disappointment, Anderson remains hopeful that President Trump and Congress will eventually deliver on a full-throated defense of one of our nation’s foundational freedoms.
There is still time for Trump to make good on his promises. He can still issue an executive order based on that February draft, and then Congress can act to make those provisions permanent.
Congress could start by passing the Russell Amendment, the Conscience Protection Act, and the First Amendment Defense Act. Trump promised to sign into law both the Conscience Protection Act and the First Amendment Defense Act.
Trump promised while on the campaign trail that he would robustly defend religious freedom from pressing threats. Today, he didn’t make good on that promise. But he still can, and should.
Good suggestions, but real progress toward restoring genuine religious liberty will not be made unless new leaders are allowed to emerge within American evangelicalism. The president can hardly be blamed when he is receiving poor counsel from a group of people disconnected from their constituency. The old guard evangelical leaders, remnants of the once influential “religious right,” have become far too compromised by the trappings of political power and are woefully out of touch with the real needs of the people they claim to represent. They will settle for whatever bone the president throws them. Meanwhile, the people in the pews will continue their struggle to practice their faith in the workplace and the public square with no apparent acknowledgement that their constitutionally protected freedoms will be upheld.
If today’s executive order is the best those who fancy themselves “leaders” of the evangelical community can get from this president, maybe it is time these old warhorses took their cue from Prince Philip and retired from public life.