Pledges of protection
After fulfilling major campaign promises regarding abortion and the Supreme Court, will President Trump stand up for religious liberty?
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WES MODDER became a lieutenant commander and a decorated military chaplain during his 21-year career with the U.S. Marines and U.S. Navy. He deployed multiple times to support the Navy SEALs on high-profile missions, and he earned rave reviews from superiors who praised him for his “charismatic leadership” and “sound judgment.”
That is, until 2014, when the Navy abruptly removed Modder from its promotion list, detached him from his unit, and brought him before a board of inquiry—imperiling his pension and benefits. The reason? Modder had offered Biblical views on sexuality during private counseling sessions, including with his male assistant, whom Modder did not know was married to another man. After a legal battle, Modder avoided being fired and was able to retire from the service last year with an honorable discharge.
“I’ll do everything the military requires of me, but the one thing you can’t touch is my ordination,” said Modder, now senior pastor of Chicago’s Stone Church. “The government is not invited into my conscience.”
Then-candidate Donald Trump heard Modder’s story on the first Monday in October, when Modder, Joe Kennedy—a high-school football coach suspended for engaging in midfield prayers—and others met privately with Trump in Washington, D.C. Modder told me Trump’s pledges to nominate a pro-life Supreme Court justice and protect religious liberty were key reasons he voted for Trump in November.
A few short months later, Trump is promptly fulfilling campaign promises as the nation’s 45th president. He has restored the pro-life Mexico City policy and nominated Judge Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court—drawing effusive praise from social conservatives. But Trump has sent mixed signals on religious liberty: Early indicators and reports of pushback within the administration suggest Trump is taking a less assertive approach to the issue. Among more than a dozen conservative Christian leaders interviewed, most expressed confidence that the president will fulfill his religious liberty promises in due time, yet some acknowledged creeping skepticism.
“I’m still optimistic, but all the way through the election, this was the one issue that was his weak point from a Christian conservative perspective,” said Mat Staver, chairman of Liberty Counsel, a Christian legal group. “I think he needs more information and more advisers to give him the lay of the land on this issue.”
RELIGIOUS LIBERTY controversies in recent years apparently helped bring out conservative Christians—and even some working-class Democrats—to the polls in November to cast votes against Hillary Clinton. Two oft-cited examples: the Obama administration’s attempts to force the Little Sisters of the Poor to provide abortifacient drugs in insurance plans and a $135,000 penalty Oregon authorities levied against Christian bakers who declined to participate in a same-sex wedding.
Trump was well-aware of these concerns and repeatedly discussed them in closed-door meetings with Christian leaders. Last September—one week before he met Modder—Trump convened more than 30 evangelical and Catholic influencers for what organizers described as a religious liberty listening session on the 25th floor of Trump Tower. From seats overlooking Central Park, participants sipped Trump brand water bottles in front of nameplates that read like a who’s who list of Trump skeptics: Ryan T. Anderson, Stanley Carlson-Thies, Maggie Gallagher, Jay Richards, John Stonestreet, Mark Tooley, and others.
During a Q&A period with Trump, participants repeatedly tried to secure religious liberty commitments beyond his public statements. Each time, Dallas Pastor Robert Jeffress, one of Trump’s top evangelical surrogates, would interject to say the Supreme Court was the most important issue and Trump was right not to distract his attention from it.
Such persistent evasiveness worried many, and those concerns became a reality on Jan. 31. Trump announced he would keep in place a 2014 Obama executive order prohibiting federal contractors from considering sexual orientation or gender identity in hiring or firing decisions. The order includes no religious exemption.
“There’s 17,000 faith-based groups that contract with the federal government,” said Kelly Shackelford, president of First Liberty Institute. “Under Obama, if you didn’t have the right beliefs, you were excluded from working with the government.”
The decision to keep the order unchanged stunned many evangelical leaders, but most blunted their criticism and pointed to a coming executive order on religious freedom. The following day, a White House source leaked a draft of the order to liberal and LGBT groups, sparking vehement opposition from the left and belated support from the right.
The draft order would prohibit federal agencies from taking “adverse action” against persons or organizations based on their religious beliefs. Among other things, the order defines freedom of religion as including all religious practice, not only the freedom to worship; grants relief to Little Sisters of the Poor and other groups that object to providing abortifacient drugs; and guarantees faith-based groups can’t lose their tax-exempt status or accreditation due to their views on marriage or sexuality.
Liberal groups decried the proposal as a license to discriminate, and it became increasingly clear some in the White House agree. Politico reported Trump’s daughter Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner, helped stop an effort to overturn Obama’s 2014 executive order for federal contractors. Observers believe Ivanka and Kushner are also trying to strip the religious liberty order down to language that would only eliminate the Johnson Amendment—a 1950s-era ban on political speech for churches and other 501(c)(3) nonprofits.
“No question there are some competing interests in his administration,” said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council. Perkins, who has a two-decadelong friendly relationship with Vice President Mike Pence, expressed faith in White House chief of staff Reince Priebus to help balance those competing interests—as he did when he was chairman of the Republican National Committee.
THE DAY AFTER the leak, Trump didn’t mention the draft order but made broad promises to defend religious freedom during his remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast. The only details he offered described freedom of worship: “I will totally destroy the Johnson Amendment and allow our representatives of faith to speak freely.”
Hours later, Republican lawmakers unveiled House and Senate versions of the Free Speech Fairness Act, legislation that would repeal the Johnson Amendment.
Trump has pledged to sign the First Amendment Defense Act, a bill prohibiting punitive government action based on marriage views, if it reaches his desk. But he’s made no public promise to take executive action on the matter.
“If you pay attention to what Trump does when he talks about religious liberty, it always comes down to saying Merry Christmas or the Johnson Amendment, which is irrelevant to the threats traditional believers now face in law, much less culture,” said Maggie Gallagher, a senior fellow at the American Principles Project.
A key transgender case headed to the Supreme Court should provide clarity in the coming weeks. The high court has scheduled March 28 oral arguments in Gloucester County School Board v. G.G., a challenge to the Obama-era requirement that all public schools allow students to use the locker room and restroom facilities matching their perceived gender identity. Last year Trump told The Washington Post he would rescind the Department of Education directive.
“The president could reverse those guidelines today,” said Gallagher, who co-founded the National Organization for Marriage. “If he hasn’t done so, or his education secretary hasn’t done so, by March 28, we will have a pretty clear signal he’s going to embrace and affirm the whole legal regime that Obama created, which inserts LGBT into every federal law banning sex discrimination.”
“The president could reverse those guidelines today” —Maggie Gallagher
Most Christian leaders who spoke with WORLD maintain a positive outlook. They point out it’s still early in Trump’s presidency, he’s fulfilling his promises so far, and it would make little political sense to break a key pledge to a core constituency in order to placate a voter bloc that largely did not support him.
“The evangelical vote was critical to his success,” said Perkins, who noted Johnson Amendment repeal would enable pastors to criticize Trump. “He’s not going to empower them and then turn away from them.”
Modder hopes Trump vindicates that optimism. The retired military officer said troops in combat need God-fearing chaplains who aren’t constantly looking over their shoulders. The potential religious liberty executive order would provide such protection: “Religious liberty works both ways—it’s not just for conservatives. … I believe President Trump is going to do the right thing.”
Former Secretary of State John Kerry touted LGBT rights as an established “cornerstone” of U.S. foreign policy in a January exit memo. On Feb. 13 Foreign Policy reported the State Department had retained Randy Berry, President Obama’s special envoy for gay rights. But since Berry is a career foreign service officer, not a political appointee, it remained unclear to what extent the Trump administration would continue Obama-era policies.
Berry, who is openly gay, has insisted his role was limited to campaigning against violence toward LGBT persons, not advocating for same-sex marriage. Critics dispute that description of his work, saying the elevation of LGBT rights offended some U.S. allies and often came at the expense of traditional human rights.
In a Jan. 31 letter, almost 300 Caribbean pastors urged President Trump to re-evaluate America’s LGBT advocacy. They drew a parallel with Obama’s transgender directive that threatened loss of federal funding for U.S. public schools: “Please understand this same kind of coercion is being used against our countries to force us to fall in line with the entire same-sex agenda.” —J.C.
In 1984 President Ronald Reagan first instituted the Mexico City policy, an executive action banning federal funding for international nongovernmental organizations that perform or promote abortion. The ban helped curb the liberalization of abortion laws around the world.
The initial Mexico City policy affected only certain funding streams—primarily U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) money, amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars. In 2003 former President George W. Bush expanded the policy to include some State Department programs but resisted calls to apply it to all global health funding, including HIV/AIDS programs.
On Jan. 23, only four days after taking office, Trump issued a sweeping presidential memorandum that reinstated the Mexico City policy and expanded it to “global health assistance furnished by all departments or agencies.”
“Now it will apply to billions,” said a visibly energized Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., who had long advocated for the expansion. “The abortion industry is aided by the PEPFAR program, by global health—all these other spigots of funds—and I’d rather it be going to faith-based groups and secular groups that respect the sanctity of human life.”
Trump also directed the secretary of state to take all necessary actions, to the extent lawfully permitted, to ensure taxpayer dollars do not fund organizations that aid coercive abortion or sterilization programs, such as the United Nations Population Fund.
The following week, Trump fulfilled another key campaign promise when he nominated 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Neil Gorsuch, 49, to replace late Justice Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court. Gorsuch, aside from pristine legal credentials, co-wrote a life-affirming book against assisted suicide and ruled in favor of Hobby Lobby in a key religious liberty case. —J.C.
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