(RNS) The Donald Trump Show briefly turned its attention to religion this week, inviting its recurring cast of faith-leader characters to the White House for the unveiling of a weak executive order on religious freedom.
Whether enthusiastically or reluctantly, most social conservatives supported the Trump-Pence ticket last year. Among the tortured justifications? Hillary Clinton and the Democrats would be hostile to their free exercise of religion but they could count on the libertine New York billionaire to protect and defend them.
Throughout the campaign, Trump was continually disinterested in and ignorant about actual religious liberty concerns. However, he seized on the Johnson Amendment, a 1954 IRS provision that prohibits tax-exempt religious nonprofits like churches from engaging in overt political activity.
In our new legal landscape that requires same-sex unions be recognized as marriages, many faith leaders who cling to old-fashioned beliefs are concerned about issues ranging from state-funded financial aid to accreditation of religious colleges to conscience protections for people who do not celebrate gay weddings.
Trump has repeatedly ignored these concerns, promising instead to make clergy powerful again with his aim to “totally destroy” the Johnson Amendment. That would only further politicize churches and allow Trump’s clergy disciples to endorse him from their pulpits.
Executive orders are increasingly fashionable ways for presidents to act unilaterally when they fail legislatively, offering symbolic gestures to important constituencies on areas of policy they are too disinterested or politically weak to push through Congress.
The political optics of executive orders are cheap and easy, making them especially appealing to a president like Trump who acts like he is producing a TV show about himself.
So Trump’s faith-leader fans were summoned to Washington on Wednesday (May 3) to dine at the president’s table and cheer his signing ceremony the next day.
As in the campaign, leaders with integrity and serious religious liberty advocates kept their distance. But a clownish cast of old-school religious-right figures and various other Trump disciples eagerly showed up to dutifully support the president’s executive action, completely unaware of how insignificant it turned out to be.
One particularly uncritical evangelical breathlessly tweeted that the evening was “magical.” Another political operative called the experience “amazing.” About that time, the White House distributed talking points about the forthcoming executive order.
Trump could not have done less on religious liberty if he tried.
By the time his bamboozled stooges assembled in the Rose Garden Thursday morning, Trump had manufactured headlines about executive action on religious liberty. The scene was taped. The show went on.
The breathtaking lack of substance on religious liberty hardly mattered.
The executive order was filled with platitudes and vague guidance to government agencies. It predictably purported to weaken the Johnson Amendment, something most religious people are not concerned about. And it did acknowledge some regulatory and administrative issues that remain culture-war dust-ups.
But significant concerns remain, and this episode suggests Trump and his staff have only an elementary grasp of the issues.
Thoughtful religious conservatives immediately seized on the emptiness of Trump’s words. National Review writer David French called the executive order “worse than useless.” The Heritage Foundation’s Ryan Anderson, who had told The New York Times it would be “a good first step,” acknowledged his disappointment, calling the order “weak.”
Princeton professor Robert George, an intellectual leader of social conservatism, put it this way: “No substantive protections for conscience. A betrayal. Ivanka and Jared won. We lost.”
This characterization is especially prescient. By mentioning the president’s daughter and son-in-law, George pointed out that the people inside the White House with the most influence on Trump are almost certainly not concerned about religious freedom concerns.
With corporations and governments largely determined to regard traditional views on marriage as bigoted, religious conservatives rightly wonder whether they have anyone in the White House who even understands them, let alone a champion.
The executive producer had another scene to shoot Thursday afternoon — a much more important one about Obamacare repeal. So he whisked his hoodwinked clergy friends off the set like the low-paid extras they are.
And the show went on.
(Jacob Lupfer is a contributing editor at RNS and a doctoral candidate in political science at Georgetown University)