Published on May 5, 2017
President Trump’s executive order on religious freedom is a disappointment.
It does very little to address the most pressing challenges to religious freedom that have arisen in recent years and suggests the White House misunderstands the problem.
In the wake of unprecedented challenges to religious freedom, and with important Obama-era policies still in the courts, the centerpiece of Trump’s religious freedom order is a weak solution to a problem that no one was particularly worried about: an Eisenhower-era law of debatable merit known as the Johnson Amendment.
Granted, Trump campaigned on a promise to “totally destroy” the Johnson Amendment, but his executive order doesn’t even do that. It merely instructs the IRS not to go out of its way to do something it already wasn’t doing, namely, use the law to crack down on religious institutions for speaking about “moral or political issues from a religious perspective.”
As for President Obama’s infamous contraception mandate—the rule that launched a thousand lawsuits including Hobby Lobby and Little Sisters of the Poor—Trump’s executive order does direct the relevant agencies to “consider amending” the rule. High-octane stuff that is not. And yet it’s the strongest part of the executive order, if only because it highlights the extremism of the Obama administration, which would rather see the Little Sisters of the Poor in court than expand on his miserly concessions to religious free exercise.
This bring us to the crux of the matter. If the administration focuses too narrowly on statutory and regulatory exemptions for religious practice, as important as these are, it risks giving away the game before it’s even begun. Why? Because such a reductive view sees the rights of religious freedom as the benevolent concession by the state to the idiosyncrasies of some of its citizens.
Such a decrepit view of freedom—one held by the Obama administration, parroted by the Clinton campaign, and widespread in American and corporate culture—reduces the right of free exercise to a private “freedom of worship.”
A proper defense of religious freedom requires pushing back against an unrestricted view of state authority that sees government as the author and dispenser of rights, rather than the guarantor of rights.
Pushing back will mean acknowledging the irreplaceable place of religion in a healthy society. Religious communities and organizations (like those Little Sisters of the Poor) provide innumerable social services—running hospitals, food banks, schools, shelters, etc.—and are a source of solidarity and shared responsibility in our all-too-fragmented society.
Religious organizations form countless little platoons of civil society, with their own rights and obligations, each working for the individual and common good in the ways appropriate to them, each enriching the social fabric and lives of Americans. When the free exercise is curtailed—when religious groups are pushed to the margin of public life—it doesn’t just hurt those organizations, it diminishes the whole of American life.
Religious organizations help shape the character of citizens and tending to the spiritual and moral education of Americans in a way that government cannot replicate, and upon which good government depends.
This view of religious freedom—as a defense of a positive and necessary good, rather than as a utilitarian concession to a portion of the population—is found in the best of political traditions. It’s the view that gave us the First Amendment, and it was the view George Washington articulated in his farewell address:
Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens.
Defending religious freedom in full will require more than executive orders or carveouts. It will require the action of Congress and more sound appointments to the federal courts. Defending religious freedom is the work of generations.
We will know our first freedom is winning, when it’s no longer treated as something Americans enjoy by government’s leave, but as the natural right so wisely and justly enshrined in the Bill of Rights.
Stephen P. White (@StephenWhite11)is a fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and author of Red, White, Blue, and Catholic (Liguori Publications, 2016).