Trump casts faith leaders as unpaid extras in his TV-show presidency

President Trump, flanked by evangelical leaders Paula White, right, and Jack Graham, in blue suit, speaks during the National Day of Prayer event at the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, D.C., on May 4, 2017. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Carlos Barria

(RNS) The Donald Trump Show briefly turned its attention to religion this week, inviting its recurring cast of faith-leader characters to the White House for the unveiling of a weak executive order on religious freedom.

Whether enthusiastically or reluctantly, most social conservatives supported the Trump-Pence ticket last year. Among the tortured justifications? Hillary Clinton and the Democrats would be hostile to their free exercise of religion but they could count on the libertine New York billionaire to protect and defend them.

Throughout the campaign, Trump was continually disinterested in and ignorant about actual religious liberty concerns. However, he seized on the Johnson Amendment, a 1954 IRS provision that prohibits tax-exempt religious nonprofits like churches from engaging in overt political activity.

In our new legal landscape that requires same-sex unions be recognized as marriages, many faith leaders who cling to old-fashioned beliefs are concerned about issues ranging from state-funded financial aid to accreditation of religious colleges to conscience protections for people who do not celebrate gay weddings.

Trump has repeatedly ignored these concerns, promising instead to make clergy powerful again with his aim to “totally destroy” the Johnson Amendment. That would only further politicize churches and allow Trump’s clergy disciples to endorse him from their pulpits.

Executive orders are increasingly fashionable ways for presidents to act unilaterally when they fail legislatively, offering symbolic gestures to important constituencies on areas of policy they are too disinterested or politically weak to push through Congress.

The political optics of executive orders are cheap and easy, making them especially appealing to a president like Trump who acts like he is producing a TV show about himself.

President Trump, surrounded by religious leaders, holds up a signed executive order during the National Day of Prayer event at the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington D.C., on May 4, 2017. Screenshot from Whitehouse.gov

So Trump’s faith-leader fans were summoned to Washington on Wednesday (May 3) to dine at the president’s table and cheer his signing ceremony the next day.

As in the campaign, leaders with integrity and serious religious liberty advocates kept their distance. But a clownish cast of old-school religious-right figures and various other Trump disciples eagerly showed up to dutifully support the president’s executive action, completely unaware of how insignificant it turned out to be.

One particularly uncritical evangelical breathlessly tweeted that the evening was “magical.” Another political operative called the experience “amazing.” About that time, the White House distributed talking points about the forthcoming executive order.

Trump could not have done less on religious liberty if he tried.

By the time his bamboozled stooges assembled in the Rose Garden Thursday morning, Trump had manufactured headlines about executive action on religious liberty. The scene was taped. The show went on.

The breathtaking lack of substance on religious liberty hardly mattered.

The executive order was filled with platitudes and vague guidance to government agencies. It predictably purported to weaken the Johnson Amendment, something most religious people are not concerned about. And it did acknowledge some regulatory and administrative issues that remain culture-war dust-ups.

But significant concerns remain, and this episode suggests Trump and his staff have only an elementary grasp of the issues.

Thoughtful religious conservatives immediately seized on the emptiness of Trump’s words. National Review writer David French called the executive order “worse than useless.” The Heritage Foundation’s Ryan Anderson, who had told The New York Times it would be “a good first step,” acknowledged his disappointment, calling the order “weak.”

Princeton professor Robert George, an intellectual leader of social conservatism, put it this way: “No substantive protections for conscience. A betrayal. Ivanka and Jared won. We lost.”

This characterization is especially prescient. By mentioning the president’s daughter and son-in-law, George pointed out that the people inside the White House with the most influence on Trump are almost certainly not concerned about religious freedom concerns.

With corporations and governments largely determined to regard traditional views on marriage as bigoted, religious conservatives rightly wonder whether they have anyone in the White House who even understands them, let alone a champion.

The executive producer had another scene to shoot Thursday afternoon — a much more important one about Obamacare repeal. So he whisked his hoodwinked clergy friends off the set like the low-paid extras they are.

And the show went on.

(Jacob Lupfer is a contributing editor at RNS and a doctoral candidate in political science at Georgetown University)

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Jacob Lupfer


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  • I agree with this description of Trump’s executive order on “religious liberty” . And I celebrate its doing practically nothing.

    I am one of those who thinks we need to keep discrimination against minorities out of the market places where goods and services are bought and sold, where job’s are performed regardless of the color of the skin or religious beliefs of the person doing the jobs, and the “public” that is served is all of the public.

    I don’t think employers should be empowered to coerce or require employees to live by religious beliefs they have not chosen for themselves, especially when the workforce is hired regardless of religion. I certainly do not think that any workplace that is supported by tax dollars for services rendered to the public (for example, hospitals, universities) should be allowed to discriminate against a minority in employment or in providing services. And that “coercion” includes coercing employees to forego contraceptives or sterilization or blood transfusions because the boss doesn’t agree with those medical procedures – not including a widely available medical procedure in health insurance is effectively coercing employees to do without, given the costs without health insurance.

    I think if a religious organization or employer wants to be able to enforce those kinds of limitations on employees, then they need to hire only those who share a particular belief. Employers are not “divine right kings” of old and employees are not serfs.

    I think the government should not license adoption agencies which will refuse to include LGBTQI couples as prospective parents.

    I think a person who takes a government job as a judge or police officer or clerk in a marriage licensing office must serve all the public regardless of religion, skin color, gender, , etc. or gender preference in their identity or sexual attractions.

    If it is okay to discriminate against one minority, it is okay to discriminate against any minority. I don’t believe Muslim Sharia should be acceptable in the U.S. if it impinges on the freedom and opportunity of others and i don’t believe a Christian version of should be acceptable, either.

    Surprise, surprise. I am a Christian. But I believe in conversion rather than coercion.

  • I liked your posts. But there are several points about which we disagree.
    1. Churches and religious bodies have great latitude choosing clergy. They have an absolute right to establish qualifications including those of their particular brand of political correctness, on candidates for clerical positions, and they are certainly entitled to do this. However, in their other enterprises – day care facilities, schools, etc., they are or should be subject to employment civil rights laws. Certain “go-arounds” to these should not be permitted. For example, I once considered applying to a religious-based adoption agency for a social work position. I ultimately decided to not apply because in their recruitment specs they mentioned most of their facilities operate in-house Bible studies. I am a Christian albeit an unorthodox one, and I found the prospect of that intimidating. They made it clear that employee participation was strictly optional, but the fact they engage in this non-work related function, it is ripe for exploitation by unscrupulous managers. Non-participants would seem to have a target on their backs. No thanks, I said. Just much as.there needs to be a wall between church and state, so also should there be a wall between businesses, nonprofit or not, and religious activities. Now, is Latter Day Saints social Services Agencies justified in requiring staff to be Mormon? I am charitable enough to have no problem with that, because that is what their clients seek and expect. But clerical staff, janitors, etc.: not so .much. Now, if they have two equally qualified applicants for Janitor and one is Mormon and the other not, I would have no problem with them hiring the Mormon. The devil’s in the details.
    2. business enterprises like Hobby Lobby, Chick-fil-a, Pizza Ranch, etc., are not religious organizations, and as such not entitled to discriminate on a religious basis.
    3. Muslim Sharia is merely their form of pastoral counseling to their members. The Jews have similar religious courts. Likewise the Catholics have an entity which provides church marriage annulments. These are all voluntary organizations and as such possess no civil authority whatsoever. These groups have a right to insist these bodies’ decision makers meet their religious qualifications. Sharia bodies pose no threats to non-Muslims, non-Jews and non-Catholics.

  • “Hillary Clinton and the Democrats would be hostile to their free exercise of religion but they could count on the libertine New York billionaire to protect and defend them.”

    Per Wiktionary ( https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/libertine ):
    libertine (plural libertines)
    1 One who is freethinking in religious matters.
    2 Someone (especially a man) who takes no notice of moral laws, especially those involving sexual propriety; someone loose in morals; a pleasure-seeker.

    Strange bedfellows indeed.

  • Thank you for such a thoughtful response. I agree with much of what you say. There are limits to to the secular imposing itself on the religious, too. But not when it comes to organizations like hospitals, universities (unless they hire only people of their own faith and teach only students of their own faith).

    I am appalled at what is coming out of some state legislators trying to protect “religious liberty” of adoption agencies. they are more concerned with the people doing the job than the job that needs to be done – finding good homes for children. And, I grew up in one of the states of the Old South during the 1950 and 1960 – I know how preference can be given to those who promote a particular belief and how easily those who don’t toe the line can be shut out.

    I am fine with religious groups having their own religious laws or courts as long as what they do only applies to their own members and is legal in this country. What I fear is the drift of that into the public square and some requirement that a person who does not accept that particular religion is somehow answerable to those laws. Think of an adoption agency working with people of different religions but requiring that those who want to adopt adhere to some particular religious practice or requirement – it doesn’t even have to be something specified but only either inferred, or never even talked about but a “quality” looked for, like a belief in Biblical inerrancy, for example.

    There is also something of an enigma about all this. I do believe that people of faith have a foundation of (usually) good moral behavior and we all benefit from that existing in our society. I just don’t want one to predominate or be able to force their belief on others or coerce others to live by religious beliefs not freely chosen.

    You helped put some frame around what I said – gave it some thoughtful limits. I think all this needs a lot of public discussion.

  • Thanks, very thoughtful. They are bigots acting as bigots. their particular religious affiliation is irrelevant.People who claim to be “Christian” and refuse to serve LGBT customers, are not representative of Christians. Most Christian florists, bakers, et al, would never engage in such despicable behavior.

  • Cardinals Wuerl and DiNardo, who met with Trump before he signed the order, as well as the Little Sisters of the Poor both on the dais and in the audience, hailed Trump for “beginning the process of alleviating the serious burden of the HHS [contraception] mandate” under Obamacare. DiNardo, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops welcomed Trump’s executive order about religious liberty and “stressed that in recent years, people of faith have experienced pressing restrictions on religious freedom from both the federal government and state governments THAT RECEIVE FEDERAL FUNDING.”

  • This article reminds me if Revelation 17 (according to Jehovah’s Witnesses’ interpretation) about the harlot, representing religious leaders, consorting with the wild beast – the worldly governments. In the end the beast turns on the harlot and devours her. Will this be the fate of the Evangelicals and conservative Christians who have “consorted” with Trump’s government? ?

  • Yes, in fact one of those Christian florists served LGBT customers for years, employed LGBT employees for years, and even supported legalized gay marriage in principle. No bigotry or despicable behavior from her at all.

    Of course, she was duly repaid for her efforts, wasn’t she?

  • It’s not exactly true that religious courts have no civil authority whatsoever, as they also can act as arbitration bodies when such is called for in a contract, or if parties to a dispute agree to it.

  • What you say is true – if the parties agree to it. I’ve seen contracts recently which bind the parties to arbitration by a third party which I suspect is in the pocket of whoever is offering the contract. But even if this is so, the right wing hue and cry over Sharia is nothing but bullshit entirely.

  • so says the backstory put out by Mat Staver and her handlers. I don’t believe it. She reaped what she sowed.