An earlier draft of a religious liberty order, leaked in January, focused on balancing religious convictions with LGBT protections. By directing the attorney general to ensure that all federal agencies comply with religious liberty protections, the new order represents a promising move for evangelicals, said Johnnie Moore, an evangelical adviser and consultant.
“This is the single most important religious liberty action taken by the White House in a very long time,” said Moore, who spent hours with Trump and his fellow faith advisers the night the order was drafted. Under the order, “conservative people of faith will feel very, very free that they won’t have to set their conscience aside and be fearful of the law.”
For Trump supporters waiting for the Johnson Amendment to be repealed, it’s a well-timed victory. His executive order coincides with a congressional committee meeting on the amendment as well as his participation in the National Day of Prayer.
A strong majority of white evangelicals are pleased with Trump’s performance as president so far, and dozens of evangelical leaders, including advisers Robert Jeffress and Paula White, gathered at the White House for a dinner with Trump and vice president Mike Pence Wednesday night. The ceremony at the White House featured a welcome by White; prayer by Jack Graham, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, and Rabbi Marvin Hier; and music by singer Steven Curtis Chapman. (Both Pence and White quoted 2 Chronicles 7:14, which was the most-tweeted verse of Trump’s election.)
Trump pledged to “totally destroy” the Johnson Amendment when he spoke at another annual prayer gathering, the National Prayer Breakfast, in February. And during the campaign, he framed the move as a significant part of his religious liberty agenda, saying:
… My greatest contribution to Christianity—and other religions—is to allow you, when you talk religious liberty, to go and speak openly, and if you like somebody or want somebody to represent you, you should have the right to do it.
But today’s victory may be mostly symbolic.
Legal experts question the impact of Trump’s order, which falls short of the promised repeal. It doesn’t specifically allow for pastor endorsements, as the president implied. The order requests that the Treasury Department not deny any “tax deduction, exemption, credit, or benefit” to groups and leaders for speaking about “moral or political issues from a religious perspective.”
The IRS rarely investigates such regulations in the first place—even blatant ones like the hundreds of pastors who preach politics on Pulpit Freedom Sunday, organized annually by the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a religious liberty advocacy group.
“It says only that [religous organizations] should not be found guilty of implied endorsements on facts where secular organizations would not be,” said church-state expert Douglas Laycock. “I have heard no stories of that happening. But the IRS does jawbone churches in a way that it does not appear to jawbone secular non-profits. Maybe that’s what it’s supposed to be about.”
Besides churchgoers’ hesitancy over pulpit politicking, several prominent evangelical leaders, including the general superintendent of the Assemblies of God and the president of the Christian and Missionary Alliance, told the NAE they worry that speaking about candidates during a sermon or service would distract from their primary message of preaching the gospel.