January 19, 2018Culture

Overreach Is the Part of Obama’s Legacy That Trump Should Undo. And He Is.

HHS Announces New Conscience and Religious Freedom Division
Overreach Is the Part of Obama’s Legacy That Trump Should Undo. And He Is.

Today, the Trump administration rolled back some Obama administration rules and changed how the government would approach religious and conscience objections.

The Washinton Post reported:

The document released describes an approach to conscience and religious protections that is significantly broader than current regulations. The number of entities that would be covered by the new rule is massive — as many as 745,000 hospitals, dentists offices, pharmacies, ambulance services and others — and the steps any entity must take to show it is in compliance is increased.

The Obama Overreach

The Obama administration, as many of us know, was seen as less-than-accommodating to individuals and groups with deeply-held religious convictions when those conflicted with new politics and laws. Instead of expanding opportunities for conscience-based objections, the Obama administration approach was one that stifled thoughtful conversation and prevented compromise. And, most importantly, they did not make appropriate accommodations for religious beliefs—picking unnecessary fights with groups like the Little Sisters of the Poor.

Rather than seeking to find reasonable accommodation for sincerely held religious belief, the Obama administration consistently overreached with unhelpful mandates and more.

In response, a host of religious leaders—from Rick Warren to President Obama’s own former staffer Michael Wear—composed a letter in 2014 asking President Obama to rethink his practices. They affirmed the need to protect human dignity and advocate for just policies. They agreed that ridding our nation of discrimination was, in fact, a noble endeavor. Nevertheless, they asked that “an extension of protection for one group should not come at the expense of faith communities whose religious identity and beliefs motivate them to serve those in need.”

Now, several years later, the Trump administration has a much different approach to issues of religious liberty. And today, with the announcement of more conscience protection efforts, they continue to take steps to swing the pendulum back to the center—but we have to stop it swinging back and forth from administration to administration.

An Important Week

Under President Trump, we’re seeing a rollback on certain Obama-era policies and practices that penalized institutions and individuals for their religious consciences. I have, at times, felt it necessary to respond to things President Trump has said and done simply because, as I Christian, I felt I must.

Earlier today, however, I tweeted:

Thankful for @RealDonaldTrump’s speaking at the #MarchForLife, his clear words at the March, and for the judicial appointments he is making. It’s not a secret that I will speak up when I disagree, but I also speak up when I agree.

Today was another important day for religious liberty—and for those of us who seek to live out our daily lives in alignment with our religious beliefs.

What This Conscience Regulation Means

According to the memo sent out from the Department of Health and Human Services this morning:

In the regulation of health care, the United States has a long history of providing conscience-based protections for individuals and entities with objections to certain activities based on religious belief and moral convictions. Multiple such statutory protections apply to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS, or the Department) and the programs or activities it funds or administers. The Department proposes to revise regulations previously promulgated to ensure that persons or entities are not subjected to certain practices or policies that violate conscience, coerce, or discriminate, in violation of such Federal laws.

So yesterday, the creation of a new conscience and religious freedom division at the Department of Health and Human Services was announced. And this morning, the White House made two additional announcements, both pertaining to their desire to offer protection to certain religious individuals and institutions.

The Health and Human Services Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services have stipulated that states will now be given the autonomy to determine their own program standards. In other words, going forward, their hands will no longer be tied from taking action against family-planning providers that are wrongfully using HHS funding to provide abortion services.

This past weekend, I spoke at the March for Life rally in Chicago and was surrounded by Catholic friends who love life and run some of the best hospitals in Chicago. Such hospitals should not be forced to provide abortions against their conscience and religious convictions.

The second update was a new proposed approach to enforce 25 already existing statutory conscience protections. The goal is ultimately to protect Americans involved in HHS programs from being coerced to participate in activities that potentially violate their conscience.

As I see it, these are positive shifts, not only for faith-filled communities but the nation at large. I believe this because I generally view religion and the free expression of religious practice as a good thing.

Increasing Tensions?

Many Americans, unfortunately, might disagree.

For some, the recent clashes between bakers and LGBT couples, patients and Christian clinics, prospective parents and adoption agencies, begs the question: What’s the big deal? Why not just bake the cake or provide the procedure?

Many progressive Americans see expressions of faith and allegiance to a particular moral code as a counterproductive nuisance. Their wish would be for bakers and healthcare providers to put their religious convictions aside for the ‘greater good’ of secular society.

Yet, this misunderstands what it means to faithfully follow a religious faith. As a Christian, I can personally attest to the ways my faith influences everything I do. Following Jesus means learning to think as he thinks, say things he would say, and love as he has loved me.

I long to see everything in my life through a faith-filled lens because, ultimately, the world doesn’t need more of me and my thoughts on justice—it needs more of God’s.

We Have to Share this Space

Christians aren’t going to cast aside their faith convictions. Asking them to do so isn’t practical, productive, or respectful of the kind of free, pluralistic society our founders fought to build.

At the same time, we must all recognize that abortion and same-sex marriage, two issues mentioned today in much of the reporting today, are the laws of the land. They are legal, regardless of our own personal convictions and perspectives. This reminds us that we—religious and non-religious individuals alike—need to come to the table and find areas of agreement.

We have to share this space and we have to find an approach that is fair to all.

As I’ve written before, “In a democracy comprised of significant religious, political, and cultural diversity, there will always be tension when rights seemingly come into conflict.” No doubt many will say that this new conscience protection regulation will be seen by many as discrimination. Some may take advantage of what this new regulation means, which will be unfortunate and will require our response.

Let’s be clear: as Christians, we are called to treat all people equally, for all are made in the image of God.


Religious liberty is the first liberty for a reason, but it is not the only liberty.

We can and must acknowledge that all people are worthy of dignity and respect; if these rules were to create unjust conditions for people to receive care or services, we’d need to speak out—again.

Yet, people should not be forced to participate in actions that violate their conscience. These are deep values for our nation and ones that, unfortunately, we seem to have gotten away from in recent years. What Trump’s administration is doing, in returning to the rules of just a few years ago, is moving us back from an unhealthy pendulum swing.

But, the actions this week are part of an important change.

Furthermore, I believe the Supreme Court will soon rule forthe baker in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case, reminding America that religious liberty does matter, including at work.

But we are a divided country and we are going to have to live together. Despite the screaming headlines you may read, this is mainly a return to the rules of just a few years ago—this is not a return to 1810, but primarily a return to 2010.

But it’s also a greater acknowledgment of where religious liberty fits. That’s important.

And, now, more than ever, we must use our freedom of religion as another means to treat all people equally, for all are made in the image of God.

As such, I’m thankful.

But I’m also aware that this issue is not over and we need to find a way to accommodate the sincerely-held religious beliefs of what is now a minority, while also recognizing that our society is a pluralistic milieu where we all must live together.

Ed Stetzer holds the Billy Graham Distinguished Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College, is executive director of the Billy Graham Center, and publishes church leadership resources through Mission Group.

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