Editorial: Trump’s executive order upends ‘religious liberty’

President Donald Trump signs his executive order "Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty." (Photo: WH.gov video screen capture)

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“Religious liberty” just became the most misused, upside-down, abused term in American speech.

knox newMarv Knox

President Trump’s executive order “Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty,” set back the cause of true religious liberty at least 63 years. Ultimately, it will further polarize our nation—ripping many Christian congregations apart and severing them from meaningful connection to their communities, while continuing to disenfranchise minority faiths from society at-large.

The president’s executive order commands the Internal Revenue Service to practice “maximum enforcement discretion” over the 1954 law that prevents congregations and other tax-exempt organizations from directly endorsing or opposing political candidates. In other words, it tells the IRS to stand down from doing anything when preachers politicize their pulpits with partisan campaigning.


See related article:

Trump’s religious liberty executive order draws fire from left and right


Similarly, it negates the responsibility for employers who object on religious grounds from providing certain health-care benefits, such as contraception, as mandated in the Affordable Care Act.

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The challenges of maintaining religious liberty in an increasingly pluralistic nation are vital and serious. Since we live in community, the tension between rights is tenuous, because rights run both ways. Religious liberty rights are similar to rights to safety. My right to throw a punch ends at the tip of your nose. And my right to practice my religious beliefs ends when it violates your religious practice and/or civil rights.

For 226 years, the First Amendment has sufficiently balanced religious liberty rights for all Americans. And now the president put his thumb on the scales in favor of his political base, which primarily is composed of white middle-class conservative Christians.

Remember this: “Religious liberty” that favors one group over another isn’t true liberty. And what goes around comes around.

The president’s “religious liberty” executive order is dangerous on at least three fronts:

• This really isn’t about religious liberty.

It’s about politics and privilege. It’s about leverage and clout. It’s about setting one set of citizens above others.

If the president truly advocated religious liberty, he would not target Muslims for legal and political actions. He would not propose keeping people of a particular faith, Muslims, from entering the country. He would understand, as did our Baptist forebear and true religious liberty champion, Roger Williams, that people of all creeds and no creed—including Muslims, or “Turks,” as Williams called them in the 17th century—are free and welcome here.

Even if you don’t support universal religious liberty in principle, you should be pragmatic. Today’s privilege can become tomorrow’s poison. The tide of demography is rising for the advantage of people of color and people of minority faiths. If you stack the deck to your advantage today, it can be re-stacked against you tomorrow.

(And, by the way, if we allow white Christian America to skew our policies and gerrymander our politics so that white Christians run America when they’re in the minority, then we will be no better than 20th century apartheid South Africa. If that happens, we will fall from our ideals. Shame.)

• If you like the partisanship of Washington, then you’ll love going to church.

Pastors who take Trump up on his invitation to politicize their pulpits will split their churches. Fortunately, most pastors love their congregations too much to do that. But those who do will wreak havoc. They will set congregant against congregant.

Politicization will do enormous harm to the churches, and Lord knows, doing church is hard enough already. Imagine the damage when civility held in place by Christian love and concern for peace is blown apart by partisan politics.

Eventually, this will lead to Republican congregations and Democratic congregations. Maybe church-shoppers will drive down the street and look for the color of steeples or doors.

• The outcome of the president’s order will be horrible for evangelism.

Christianity already has a hard time presenting the gospel lovingly and compellingly. If congregations become known for the candidates they back, they’ll not only be known for those candidates’ political positions, but also for those candidates’ activities.

The credibility of those churches’ pulpits will hinge upon the public reputations of the politicians they back. As a class, politicians aren’t known for making decisions based upon biblical ethics and faithful theology. And as a group, they face far-higher-than-average temptations to do all sorts of things that would bring shame upon the gospel.

So, tethering the authenticity of the pulpit to the reputations of politicians seems like a deal made far, far from heaven.

We can pray pastors and leaders of religious nonprofits will exercise their love for the faithful as well as the wisdom and courage of the prophets. We can pray they will ignore this executive order and keep their pulpits above the political fray.

Follow Marv on Twitter: @marvknox

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