In his biggest religious liberty push since taking office, President Donald Trump officially laid out in an executive order some of the protections he has promised faithful supporters for months. The move came on the same day that evangelical leaders gathered in Washington for the annual National Day of Prayer.
One problem: This is not the executive order many evangelicals had been praying for.
Gone are the exemptions for religious groups faced with accommodating LGBT antidiscrimination regulations that conflict with their faith convictions. Instead, the order entitled “Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty” professes to extend political speech protections for pastors and religious organizations, aiming to let them talk about politics without penalty. It also requests “regulatory relief” for religious groups, including evangelical universities, caught in a court battle over the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate.
“I am signing today an executive order to defend the freedom of religion and speech in America, the freedoms that we wanted, the freedoms that you fought for so long,” the president said in a Rose Garden ceremony. “The federal government will never ever penalize any person for their protected religious beliefs.”
Trump spoke most about the implications for the Johnson Amendment—legislation that has regulated nonprofits’ political activity for six decades. “This financial threat against the faith community is over,” he said. “You’re now in a position to say what you want to say. … No one should be censoring sermons or targeting pastors.”
While the White House’s broad vision to “protect and vigorously promote religious liberty” holds promise for people of faith, it lacks some of the specific conscience safeguards that many conservative Christians wanted to see.
“Religious conservatives will take comfort from the generally positive attitude toward their religious liberty claims. But in its operative effects, this nowhere goes out on a limb for them,” said Thomas Berg, a professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law in Minneapolis. “The issues concerning LGBT/religious-liberty conflicts remain, and this gives little indication Trump will go out on a limb on those.”
Trump’s promise to repeal the Johnson Amendment excited some of his closest evangelical allies like Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr. and Family Research Council president Tony Perkins. Yet, according to surveys, the majority of evangelicals do not see this issue as a priority, or even on their agenda. Most have major concerns about bringing more politics into their churches.
Earlier this year, the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) reported in its monthly Evangelical Leaders Survey that 90 percent of its board of directors, including the leaders of major denominations and ministries, oppose using the pulpit for political endorsements. Other surveys show that nearly 3 in 4 evangelicals are also against it.
“When it comes to challenges to religious liberty, the Johnson Amendment is just about the least important issue I can think of,” said John Inazu, a professor at Washington University School of Law.
“More important than whether pastors can speak politics is whether everyone can live their convictions in [the] public square,” tweeted John Stonestreet, president of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview.