Religious Liberty: A Crystal-Clear Message?

It would be wonderful if President Trump’s executive orders wouldn’t battle one another. As seems to be the case with everything our new president does, we get great news along with not-so-great.

I won’t diminish the great news. The latest in his series of executive orders is a win for religious liberty. Neither do I believe it attempts to write a new law or extend presidential authority beyond proper constitutional limitations. This EO merely establishes what already is ensconced in the First Amendment to the Constitution and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Let’s rejoice over the following assertions in the EO (H/T to Erick Erickson’s wording on his Resurgent website):

  • It tells the entire federal government to respect federal statutes and Supreme Court decisions that make clear the free exercise of religion applies to all people, of all faiths, in all places, and at all times—that it is not merely the freedom to worship.
  • It notes that religious organizations include all organizations operated by religious principles, not just houses of worship or charities. And it follows the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in saying that religious exercise “includes all aspects of religious observance and practice,” not just those absolutely required by a faith.
  • It instructs all agencies of the federal government, “to the greatest extent practicable and permitted by law,” to reasonably accommodate the religion of federal employees, as required by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
  • It instructs the secretaries of health and human services, labor, and treasury to finally grant relief to the Little Sisters of the Poor and others who weren’t exempted from the Obamacare abortifacient and contraception mandate.
  • It instructs the secretary of health and human services to ensure that all citizens have the ability to purchase health care plans through Obamacare that do not cover abortion or subsidize plans that do.
  • It instructs the secretary of health and human services to ensure that the federal government does not discriminate against child-welfare providers, such as foster care and adoption services, based on the organization’s religious beliefs.
  • It adopts the Russell Amendment and instructs all agencies of the federal government to provide protections and exemptions consistent with the Civil Rights Act and Americans with Disabilities Act to all religious organizations that contract with the federal government or receive grants.

That’s a tremendous list of assurances. As I’ve said, I will give credit where it is due, and this deserves our entire approbation.

So then why did Trump, the day before, allow an Obama executive order to stand that prohibits “discrimination” against gays when giving out federal contracts? While that may sound good to many, what it did was discriminate instead against Christian organizations that seek to aid the poor via contracts with the federal government. Those organizations would have to deny their basic beliefs about sexual morality and marriage before they can have an equal place at the table.

How does allowing that Obama dictate to continue mesh with this new EO on religious liberty, in particular that last provision that supposedly protects religious organizations seeking a federal grant?

Of course, my argument is that Christians shouldn’t try to get federal money at all. Let’s not intertwine our faith with government authority. Let’s not become dependent on funding from government to accomplish what God has called us to do.

Yet, it would be nice if the new administration wouldn’t send out conflicting signals. The message needs to be crystal clear. This whole matter of liberty of conscience is kind of a mess right now in our society.

I’ve noted before that Trump doesn’t really grasp the problem most evangelicals have with the LGBT agenda. He has no real issue with that agenda. We need to continue to pray that his understanding of Christian morality will become sharper over time.

The Gorsuch Pick

President Trump’s choice of Neil Gorsuch for the Supreme Court fulfills one of his campaign promises. Gorsuch, from all accounts I’ve read, will be a superb replacement for Antonin Scalia.

Those who know him praise his keen mind and devotion to following the Constitution and not making up rights that don’t really exist.

His record as a judge is stellar on issues of religious liberty. His explanations for his opinions (often as dissents to the prevailing liberal majority in his district) point to a clear understanding of how our system ought to work.

He has offered judicial opinions in favor of Hobby Lobby and The Little Sisters of the Poor, the religious liberty of a prisoner, and against the American Atheists organization when it successfully sued for removal of cross-shaped roadside memorials in Utah.

In that case, specifically, he disagreed with his fellow justices who, he said, mistakenly viewed the memorials through the eyes of a so-called “reasonable observer” who was “biased” against religion, “full of foibles and misinformation,” “prone to mistake,” and burdened with “selective and feeble eyesight.”

In his career he clerked for two Supreme Court justices: Byron White and Anthony Kennedy. The latter was very impressed with him and, I’m sure, would welcome him on the Court. Perhaps that respect might sway Kennedy over to the right side on upcoming cases.

The Democrats in the Senate have already begun the smear campaign against him. As many have noted, the slogans and accusations were already prepared ahead of time to be used against whoever was nominated. All they were waiting for was to fill in the blank where the name goes. Let’s be clear: they would be making the same accusations no matter whom the nominee was going to be. It’s a template they follow regardless of the individual.

As long as all Republicans remain firm, there should be no problem putting Gorsuch on the Court, even if it means abolishing the Senate rule for a 60-vote supermajority to allow the actual vote for confirmation to go forward.

Prepare for more hysterics from the perpetually peeved and perturbed:

Give Trump credit for one more good decision, but stay alert. You never know what he might do after this.

Trump’s First Days

Donald Trump’s first days in office have been filled with controversies—some genuine and created by him, others phony and played up by the usual suspects. Continuing my pledge to be fair and balanced in my comments on how Trump is doing, let’s begin with the phony ones.

Because of his executive order that started the ball rolling on reversing Obamacare, we now hear hysterical rantings about how all the poor will lose their healthcare. Not so. A large portion of Obamacare enrollments, it seems, have swelled the number of people on Medicaid. Obamacare itself has done little to ensure everyone is covered. Its primary achievements have been astronomical deductibles and premium hikes for those forced into it.

If Republicans can unite on how to dismantle this foolishness, everyone will benefit, rich and poor alike.

Trump’s overturning of Obama’s unconstitutional executive orders is one of the most positive and rational things he is doing. May it continue.

The Left is also apoplectic over the immigration EO Trump signed over the weekend. There are things wrong with the way it was implemented, hitting green-card residents and others who were previously approved to be in the country. Particularly painful were the stories that highlighted Christian families being sent back as well as an Iraqi interpreter who has worked on behalf of America for a decade. That misstep has been officially corrected by new DHS head John Kelly, who has come out publicly stating it doesn’t apply to those kinds of people.

Neither did this new EO specifically target Muslims. It only kept in place the Obama policy toward seven of the fifty Muslim-majority nations, the ones most likely to harbor terrorists.

I have a hard time understanding criticism of a policy that simply requires vetting and caution before allowing certain people into the country. Open-borders advocates accuse anyone who is concerned about terrorists using immigration to infiltrate and attack us of being without compassion. I wonder how many of those advocates leave the doors of their homes unlocked at night, welcoming whoever wants to come in for whatever reason?

Yet Trump is being castigated as a racist/bigot/fill-in-the-blank-with-your-favorite cliché. Keep in mind this would have happened with any Republican taking over the presidency. Trump, though, with his penchant for stirring the pot unnecessarily, has lowered the point at which professional leftists boil over.

Another of Trump’s EOs that is excellent is the one that reinstated the so-called Mexico City Policy, which bars international non-governmental organizations that perform or promote abortions from receiving US government funding. I give him praise for that.

Lost in the flurry of hysteria over the immigration edict are others, both good and/or questionable.

I would think that all points along the political spectrum should agree with the ones that apply a five-year ban on lobbying by those currently serving in the administration and a lifetime ban on foreign government lobbying. Let’s applaud those.

The most questionable action, though, is Trump’s decision to shake up the personnel on the National Security Council. He removed the Director of National Intelligence and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from attending the meetings. Um . . . how are they not involved with national security?

The coup de grace was then to place Steve Bannon, his chief political strategist, on the NSC instead. Huh? I haven’t heard a good explanation for those moves yet.

Trump also says he will name his nominee for the Supreme Court this week, possibly even today. Rumors had it that Neil Gorsuch was the probable pick, a man who seems to be solid in all areas; some even say he would be better than Scalia in some ways.

Now there are new rumors that Thomas Hardiman may be the top choice. From what I’ve read, Hardiman, while considered conservative, has never been tested on hot-button issues like abortion. After so many evangelicals voted for Trump based on his promise to place someone on the Court who can be trusted on that issue, Hardiman could turn out to be a major disappointment. Trump’s sister, a pro-abortion judge, has spoken out in favor of Hardiman.

Potential problem here? Another David Souter or Anthony Kennedy? We don’t know. Gorsuch or Hardiman? We’ll find out very soon.

The one major positive, however, that all conservatives can point to as the new administration gets underway is this:

For that, I am grateful.

On Being a “Word” Guy

I’m a “word” guy, and becoming more so after writing two books in the past two years. I’m always looking for just the right way to say things, and I appreciate writers whose originality with words makes one rethink, or think more deeply, about life.

That’s why I’m attracted to the wordsmithing of people like Whittaker Chambers and C. S. Lewis. It’s not just what they say—which is truth-hitting-you-where-it-helps/hurts-most—but the way they say it.

Most of us have a hard time coming up with anything approaching what Chambers or Lewis have written. That’s fine. They were unique, and each of us needs to find our own way of communicating. I’m not pretending to be the latest incarnation of either, but I gladly try to incorporate anything I can from them to spice up my own style.

Why am I thinking about this today? Well, first, I’m currently teaching classes on both Chambers and Lewis. As I go through their writings with students, I’m renewed in my appreciation for their contributions; I also love it when students get their first taste of that quality of writing. For some, it’s like an awakening.

And that’s the true reward of teaching.

I’m also alert to commentary on how we speak and write. Sometimes, the best commentary can come from unexpected places:

Avoiding clichés is a constant effort. Then there are words that become so ubiquitous that you almost wish they would disappear from our national vocabulary:

My goal: to use only the “best” words. You know, like President Trump. Should he be my new model?

Lord, deliver me from such thoughts.

An Honest Appraisal of the First Weekend

On Friday, I pledged to be an honest appraiser of the new president and his actions, praising good ones and offering a critique for others not so good. Over his first weekend in office, President Trump gave me the opportunity to do both today.

Let’s begin with praise.

First, just seeing a photo of the Oval Office without its previous occupant is a relief for many of us. Second, Trump’s action in this photo is the beginning of fulfilling a promise: dismantling Obamacare. He issued an executive order that lessens the stranglehold Obamacare put on the federal bureaucracy—an initial step that prepares the way for a full repeal by Congress.

To those who may say this is no different than Obama’s use of executive orders, I say that it’s a world of difference. Obama used them to impose his will unconstitutionally; Trump’s simply eased the burden Obama imposed. That’s called reining in the government, not extending its overreach.

What may be perhaps a small token of the attitude of this new administration is also welcome: the return of the bust of Winston Churchill to the Oval Office. One of Obama’s first slaps in the face to our allies was his jettisoning of that bust.

Welcome back, Mr. Churchill.

There is another bust present in the Oval Office, that of Martin Luther King. Some in the media reported that it had been removed. That turned out to be utterly false; it was merely blocked out in a photo due to the angle of the picture with someone standing in front of it. That’s an indication of what the typical media will try to do. Shall we call that one fake news? Sounds right to me.

If only Trump had allowed his Obamacare executive order to be the focus. Instead, he had his new press secretary, Sean Spicer, come out in a press conference and trump up (sorry, I’ll do my best not to overuse that phrase in the next four years) an accusation that the media was falsely reporting on the size of the crowd at the inauguration.

To be fair, the media does do that on a rather consistent basis. Every year, at the March for Life (which will occur again next weekend), the media either ignores the March completely or does its best to downplay the turnout. So, yes, I know that happens. For a comparison of the inauguration crowds, this picture was used as evidence:

One can always question the use of such pictures. At what point was the picture of the Trump crowd taken? Was it at the height of the ceremony or before? I don’t know.

But why make such a big deal about it and push it to the top of the news cycle within 24 hours of taking office? Was it a smaller crowd than at Obama’s inaugural? I have no problem believing that for a number of reasons: concern for security may have kept some people away, especially in light of the predictions of violence at the ceremony; conservatives not being as motivated to go to D.C, seeing it as an essentially liberal place; the fact that most conservatives have jobs on weekdays.

One commentator, I believe, captured the real problem here:

Trump, being a reality TV star, puts a lot of stock in popularity and TV ratings. . . .

It was a lot of attention paid to what is a non-issue.

Whether it was a million people or five people who showed for the inauguration, Trump is still president and there’s still a lot of serious work he needs to be addressing. This is a non-issue.

Spicer (and Trump later) alluded to the TV audience being larger. Well, here are the facts about that, according to the Nielsen ratings as reported by Bloomberg:

Trump’s nearly 31 million television audience came 7 million short of Obama’s 2009 inauguration, and had almost 11 million fewer viewers than when Reagan was sworn into office in 1981.

According to Bloomberg, Trump did attract a larger audience than former Presidents Bill Clinton, George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush.

Those are the facts with respect to the TV audience, and it would be dishonest for Trump or anyone else in his administration to say otherwise.

As an aside, I remarked to my wife while watching some of the inaugural parade, that the stands set up for viewers, at least at one place along the parade route, were conspiculously empty. I was surprised by that. Was I seeing the only empty portion of the stands or was that indicative of the entire route? Again, I don’t know.

But what does crowd size really matter? Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

What matters is whether President Trump does his job, and does it well. Let’s focus on that, shall we, and leave ego about crowd size behind us.

A Sober Assessment Going Forward

On this Inauguration Day, I want to address the following: the political spectacle Democrats are unleashing; a sober assessment of our new president; and the attitude I hope conservatives in general, and Christians in particular, should have as we embark on the next four years.

First, the Democrats. A new political cartoon this morning seems to encapsulate the mindset of the entire liberal/progressive political spectrum ever since the election:

As a number of commentators have noted, Democrats protesting the inauguration of a Republican president is nothing new. Many have done so at each inauguration dating from Richard Nixon’s in 1969. It has become a rite of passage for some into the ranks of the perpetually peeved. Rep. John Lewis has been in the news by calling Trump an illegitimate president and saying he will now absent himself from the inauguration for the first time in his life. He seems to have forgotten that he did it before, when George Bush was inaugurated. He considered him illegitimate, too.

Maybe it’s become more of a reflex than a thoughtful decision: “It’s a Republican; I have to stay away.”

The number of Democrat congressmen and congresswomen declining to attend may be greater this time simply because Trump is so controversial, but having them stay away from the Capitol may not be the worst idea they have had. If only they would do it more often the nation might be in better shape.

The Democrat reaction to Trump has given a whole new meaning to the festivities surrounding this day:

As for Donald Trump himself, let me offer, as I said at the outset, a sober assessment.

Most of you reading this know that throughout the primaries I was an adamant opponent of Trump’s nomination. In the general election, I couldn’t bring myself to vote for him and turned to a third party for the first time in my life. The best results from that election, for me, were that we were spared another Clinton presidency and that Republicans not only maintained control of Congress but also increased their strength in state legislatures and governorships.

Despite my opposition to Trump, I am not like those Democrats. I recognize the legitimacy of his election because I understand how the electoral college system works. It was only the overwhelming California vote for Hillary that allowed her to win the popular vote. The rest of the country voted against her.

Therefore, as a loyal American citizen, I will do my best to support our new president. My attitude for the next four years will be to praise Trump when he does things that are constitutional and positive for the nation and to point out when he goes astray.

What have I seen since his election that gives me some hope? I can offer the following:

  • Most of his choices for people to man the administration have been very good—not all, but most. I give him credit for picking some who have principles that will help pull the nation back from the abyss if he allows them to follow their principles.
  • He has made it clear he will attempt to strengthen the military, ramp up the battle against radical Islamic terrorism, and stand with Israel when the rest of the world seems inclined to isolate and abandon that one country in the Middle East that is our ally.
  • He continues to promise to overturn Obama’s unconstitutional executive orders, to rid the nation of the Obamacare catastrophe, and to nominate a Supreme Court justice who will help return the Court’s decisions back to constitutionalism.

All well and good, if he follows through on those promises.

On the negative side are his affinity for Putin and Russia, his apparent disdain for NATO, his confusing comments on healthcare (everyone will be covered by the government, he says—how does that overturn Obamacare?), his bullying tactics at times, and—this is the one that continues to bother me most—his personal character.

Simply put, I don’t trust Donald Trump. His personal history reveals a man who is a constant braggart, totally self-absorbed, and unable in the core of his being to stop insulting his detractors. I’m afraid we have gone from the Selfie President to the Tweeter-in-Chief, and that’s not necessarily an improvement.

People keep saying Trump will “grow” into the office and not act so juvenile once the full responsibilities of the presidency hit him. Based on what I’ve seen thus far, I’m not convinced. Donald Trump is Donald Trump; he’s unlikely to change. What could this mean for us if something really gets under his skin?

Can he handle criticism properly or will everything become personal? It’s a valid question. And while many of his most ardent admirers love the way he uses Twitter to get his “message” out, I find it rather demeaning to what may be left of the dignity of the presidency. Let’s at least not change the seal that goes with the office:

Last of all, an appeal to conservatives overall and Christians in particular. Keep in mind that Trump has no real ideological foundation for grasping Christian conservative principles. That, along with his character, was why I could not support his nomination.

Quite a few readers castigated those, like me, who considered themselves NeverTrump. Please know that we took that stance as a matter of principle. Even if you disagreed with the position, I hope you will grant us that, at least.

What I’m concerned about now is another group that perhaps can be labeled AlwaysTrump. These are people who will defend Trump no matter what, who will find a rationalization for everything he does, regardless of how unconstitutional or offensive his decisions/actions may be.

Here’s my appeal: don’t allow yourselves to be AlwaysTrump; never surrender your reasoning powers and your conscience; stand instead for principle; keep your integrity.

I will do my best to be an honest commentator as the Trump administration goes forward. I will not dump on Trump as a reflex action (I’m not a Democrat). I will give him credit where it is due. If he follows through on his promises, I will say so. I truly hope he surprises me in new ways over the next four years, and my fervent prayer is that God will use him (whether or not he acknowledges that’s what’s happening) and those he has chosen to serve with him to help restore our spiritual and moral foundation.

When I do critique his actions, though, I also hope that my readers will realize I am doing so not out of personal pique but as a sober assessment of what he has done.

If you are seeking a commentator who will criticize everything Trump does, no matter what it is, I’m not that person.

If you are seeking a commentator who will praise everything Trump does, no matter what it is, I’m not that person.

But if you want honest commentary, commentary with integrity based on a devotion to the Biblical worldview and to constitutional government, then I invite you to come back often to this blog. My pledge is that I will be that kind of commentator.

Fake News Is Not New News

Everyone is now decrying “fake news.” As if it’s a new phenomenon. I’m a historian; I can testify that fake news is nothing new.

Three decades ago, while working on my doctorate, I was immersed in fake news—from the 1790s. Newspapers of the era were sponsored by either Federalists or the Democrat-Republicans. The “news” in some of those papers was sometimes pure speculation, often made up just to undermine the political opposition. My subject of study was Noah Webster, who was editor of a New York City newspaper at the time. He stood out as one of the few who refused to succumb to the fake news temptation.

Read all the commentary on Abraham Lincoln during his presidency, then tell me that fake news has only popped up in the last campaign. I recall scurrilous stories about Ronald Reagan when he took office. He supposedly hated minorities; he sought to throw old people out in the streets; Nancy was taking taxpayer money to buy china for the White House (that’s “china” as in plates, not the country).

I hate to be the one to break this “news”—human beings lie, cheat, and slander other human beings all the time. It’s something called sin.

The latest example, apparently, is the report of a dossier about Russia that purports to show Donald Trump is pretty much owned by the Russians. Beyond that, there were hints of sexual improprieties. Those were only hints until a liberal organization called Buzzfeed decided to open the sewer.

Is everything in this dossier untrue? We don’t know. Is anything true? We don’t know. Why? Nothing has been substantiated. It was unethical in the extreme for Buzzfeed to feed the controversy without proof of the allegations.

Unfortunately for Trump, he has not done himself any favors by seeming to be almost buddy-buddy with Putin. He has made a number of statements that show admiration for the Russian dictator. He is the one who has created that impression, so if it’s not really how he feels, he needs to correct that impression as soon as possible:

Maybe Putin can do his part to help:

There also has been pushback against Trump in the arts. Some performance artists have decided to use the liberty this country provides to decline to perform at Trump’s inauguration (it’s a good thing they aren’t Christian bakers or photographers, for whom that liberty doesn’t exist). Well, who needs them? I’m sure Trump’s people can find substitutes:

Meryl Streep, at the Golden Globes, where Hollywood pats itself on the back each year, gave a short speech that, while not mentioning Trump by name, made it clear that she had contempt for him. Hollywood wants to think it is somehow the conscience of the nation.

Streep didn’t say anything unusual; these award ceremonies are always politically liberal. It’s just expected. Yet because Trump is going to be the president with the thinnest skin since Andrew Jackson, he couldn’t help himself—he had to immediately tweet that Streep is an “overrated” actress.

Now, while I disagree with everything Streep said, there is no way she is an overrated actress. When I know Streep is in a film, I know at least one thing about that film: the character she portrays will be handled wonderfully. She is an excellent actress.

Trump continues to hit back at anyone who insults him. Streep is only the latest in a long line of individuals and/or organizations to be called overrated, losers, etc. What if even the pope were to give him advice he doesn’t like, advice he considered insulting?

Let’s pray it doesn’t come to that.