Donald Trump and Mike Pence. / Gage Skidmore

Freedom for Me, Not Thee

A look at Trump’s appeal to “religious freedom”

Donald Trump and Mike Pence. / Gage Skidmore


Welcome to This American Carnage, your weekly slice of life from the country of Trump.

Donald Trump’s first hundred days in office may be a disaster for the country, but for that pocket of conservative Christians worried about the ease of religiously motivated discrimination, it’s proving to be a breath of fresh air.

Though uncertain, early indications suggest that the president will keep his slew of campaign promises to the Christian right. Buried amidst news about his dig at Arnold Schwarzenegger, at Thursday’s National Prayer Breakfast Trump reiterated his support for overturning the Johnson Amendment—a 1954 bill that limits religious organizations from overtly endorsing or opposing political candidates. The Amendment has been a thorn in right-wing religious leaders’ side for some time—indeed, some, like Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council,[*] have asserted that the law “is at odds with our own history.” Although a 2016 Pew Poll found that Americans were split on churches engaging in political speech, two-thirds of them agreed that religious institutions should not come out for or against candidates.

A draft executive order called “Establishing a Government-Wide Initiative to Respect Religious Freedom” was leaked to The Nation last week, offering further evidence that Trump will keep working to appease his right-wing Evangelical base. The four-page document provides a hearty appeal to the religious right, all but pledging the young administration’s commitment to their ideals.

The EO grapples with a number of issues, but at the forefront are exemptions for those organizations that have sought accommodation for their unwillingness to provide services for religious reasons. In particular, the EO grapples with the connection between the tax-exempt status of religious organizations—which it defines loosely as “any organization, including closely held for-profit corporations, operated for a religious purpose, even if its purpose is not exclusively religious”—and their ability to exercise opposition to anything from same-sex marriage to premarital sex when:

providing social services, education, or healthcare; earning a living, seeking a job, or employing others; receiving government grants or contracts; or otherwise participating in the marketplace, the public square, or interfacing with Federal, State or local governments.

Furthermore, the document continues, the IRS “shall not impose any tax or tax penalty, delay or deny tax-exempt status, or disallow tax deductions” to 501(c)(3)s for political speech “from a religious perspective.” While the administration has denied the proposal will be pushed through, it does dovetail nicely with an act introduced to Congress last week, “The Free Speech Fairness Act,” poking holes in these same restrictions.

In addition to effectively whitelisting certain forms of bigotry and exclusion, the order taps into two prominent bogeymen haunting Trump’s conservative base. There is, of course, the long-standing myth of conservative Christian oppression—the notion that somehow expressing views out of line with so-called “PC culture” makes right-wing Christians victims to systemic oppression. Second, given the administration’s ties—especially Bannon’s—to the Tea Party, the outright suspicion of the government’s ability to determine the tax status of religious organizations appears to have some connection to the controversy surrounding right-wing nonprofit groups supposedly being targeted by the IRS.

Whether anything will come of the EO is up in the air. Press Secretary Sean Spicer noted that there “are a lot of ideas being floated” and stressed that, at least for the time being, “there’s nothing to announce.” Either way, it’s a disturbing step in the wrong direction.

[*]  Correction: This article has been revised to identify Tony Perkins as head of the Family Research Council, not Focus on the Family.


Hannah Gais is The Baffler’s audience development associate and a curmudgeonly freelance writer. Her work has appeared in Pacific Standard, Commonweal, Outline, Al Jazeera America, U.S. News and World Report, First Things, and many more outlets that she’s too lazy to name. 

You can find her on Twitter @hannahgais.

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Further Reading

 April 4

Official oversight commissions tend to perform all of the trappings of democratic accountability while rarely resulting in lasting reform.