Donald Trump routinely lies to his evangelical supporters. This isn’t to say merely that he lies in general and that those falsehoods are heard by everyone including evangelicals, but rather that he lies specifically to Christians. Some of these lies are about himself, some are about the world we all live in. Some are about what Trump claims he’s done for Christians.
To be clear, conservative Christians have some real reasons to like Trump—the most important being the appointment of many conservative judges and the promotion of some pro-life policies.
But on other issues, Trump has been less helpful than Christians seem to think. For instance, when it comes to protecting religious freedom—which Trump often cites as one of his greatest achievements—he routinely lies to their faces.
Perhaps evangelicals know this and don’t mind. Then again, maybe they don’t quite realize the extent of Trump’s double-speak.
Lie #1: Trump repealed the Johnson amendment.
During the 2016 campaign, one of Trump’s main applause lines for evangelical audiences was his promise to repeal “the Johnson amendment.” This is the law that limits the ability of nonprofit organizations—including churches—from endorsing political candidates while still maintaining their tax-exempt status.
As president, Trump has repeatedly claimed that he fulfilled this promise. To take just one for instance, on May 2, 2019, he declared, “They took away your voice politically and these are the people I want to listen to politically but you weren’t allowed to speak. They would lose their tax-exempt status. That’s not happening anymore so we got rid of the Johnson amendment. That’s a big thing.”
This is not a thing that actually happened. What actually did happen, in the real world, is that Trump proposed repealing the Johnson amendment and the Republican controlled Congress failed to do it. When Trump had to decide what issues to emphasize during budget negotiations, he did not aggressively push the Johnson amendment repeal. The Johnson amendment is still on the books.
Trump did issue an executive order that encouraged the Treasury Department to go easy when enforcing the law, but in truth the law was rarely enforced to begin with. In other words, almost nothing has changed.
Set aside for a moment that Trump’s initial premise was incorrect: The Johnson Amendment is not a great—or even a minor—threat to religious liberty. And repealing it would create all sorts of bad outcomes for religious organizations because it would encourage churches to be used as tax exempts shells for campaign contributions.
But forget all of that. What’s clear is that Trump says he repealed it and he didn’t.
Lie #2: Trump has fought hard for religious freedom across the globe.
As a matter of rhetoric, Trump has a strong record in advancing religious freedom around the world. He has given numerous speeches championing religious liberty, hosted a Global Call to Protect Religious Freedom event, and two White House summits on the subject. He brought victims of global religious persecution to the White House. He appointed Sam Brownback as the ambassador for religious freedom in order to spread the word around the world. He pressured Turkey to release the imprisoned Christian pastor Andrew Brunson. So he tells his evangelical supporters, “I don’t think any president has taken it as seriously as me.”
But as a matter of policy, Trump has been little better than Barack Obama—and in some cases worse.
One of the most significant attacks on religious freedom in recent memory is happening right now in China, where the government has rounded up more than 1 million Muslims and put them in “re-education” camps. To fight the Uighur Muslims, the Chinese government has also destroyed at least two dozen Mosques and other religious sites.
Trump has done so little about this massive, ongoing assault that Republicans in Congress have joined with Democrats to force him to take action. What explains Trump’s caution? In the course of defending Trump for not mentioning the attack on the Uighurs during his pushes for international religious freedom, Sam Brownback explained: “I think he’s trying to get a trade deal, but is continuing to have these other issues move forward as well.”
So religious freedom takes second chair—at best—to trade. Which is exactly the dollars-and-cents view of religious freedom that Christians have long decried in both Democratic and Republican establishment.
Or consider Saudi Arabia. In 2018, Trump’s State Department said this about Saudi Arabia: “Freedom of religion is not provided under the law. The government does not allow the public practice of any non-Muslim religion. The law criminalizes ‘anyone who challenges, either directly or indirectly, the religion or justice of the King or Crown Prince.’”
Scores of protesters, most of whom are religious minorities, have been beheaded or sentenced to death in the kingdom, some of them minors. For instance, in 2012, the 15-year-old Abdullah al-Zaher was arrested for taking part in a protest. He was sentenced to death by beheading with the prosecution requesting that, after having his head cut off, he be crucified.He is still being held and may be executed at any time.
Last April, the Saudi government held a mass beheading of 37 Saudis as part of an action against the country’s Shi’a minority. The chair of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, Tenzin Dorjee,declared, “The Saudi government’s execution of minority Shi’a Muslims on the basis of their religious identity and peaceful activism is not only shocking, but also directly contradicts the government’s official narrative of working toward greater modernization and improving religious freedom conditions.”
Yet the administration continued to give Saudi Arabia a waiver from sanctions, just as past administrations have done.
And not just a waiver, but abject praise. Trump told Mohammad bin Salman, “You’ve done a really spectacular job.” The president justified softening his position by pointing to Saudi Arabia making a large arms purchase from the United States: “This is a record amount of money. It will create hundreds of thousands of jobs, tremendous economic development, and much additional wealth for the United States.” Once again: Religious freedom takes a backseat to money. Just as it has in other administrations.
And then there’s Russia. In 2017, Russia banned Jehovah’s Witnesses. This happened after years of the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian state growing closer under Vladimir Putin. Orthodox leaders attacked the Witnesses on the grounds that they insulted the Russian Orthodox Church. Dozens of Witnesses were indicted, and, according to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, there have been frequent incidents of “law enforcement officers interrupting religious services suddenly bursting into Kingdom Halls, wearing masks and brandishing their automatic weapons, when children, women, and elderly people were present.”
The Russian government has also harassed Muslims, Pentecostals, evangelicals, Mormons, atheists, and Hare Krishnas.
There is no record of Trump pressing Putin about his violation of religious freedoms.
Lie #3: Everyone hates you.
When Trump wants to fire up his base, he doesn’t just encourage them to hate other people. He insists that they have to understand that everyone else despises them. That way, his supporters can be angrily defensive, while still feeling good about themselves.
Watch the pattern. In 2016, at a dinner held by the Catholic Church, Trump said this about Hillary Clinton: “Here she is, pretending not to hate Catholics.” Later he said Democrats “hate Jewish people.” And Muslims? “I think Islam hates us.”
But no one is more despised, according to Trump, than evangelicals. “Christianity is under tremendous siege,” he said during the 2016 presidential campaign. “The Christians are being treated horribly because we have nobody to represent the Christians.” Trump pledged that with his election, “the Christians” would at long last have a champion. “As long as I am your president no one is ever going to stop you from practicing your faith or from preaching what’s in your heart.”
As president Trump declared, “They are trying to silence and punish the speech of Christians and religious believers of all faiths. . . . They resent and disdain faithful Americans who hold fast to our nation’s historic values, and, if given the chance, they would use every instrument of government power, including the IRS, to try to shut you down.”
And then there’s the “war on Christmas.” At a gathering of religious conservatives, Trump said, “Do you remember they were trying to take ‘Christmas’ out of Christmas? Do you remember? They didn’t want to let you say ‘Merry Christmas.’” Thanks to Trump, “they” are now letting Christians “say” Merry Christmas.
What’s so pernicious about this you-versus-them posturing is that American Christians do face some genuine challenges concerning religious freedom. Christians are not crazy to worry that an extreme version of liberalism could eventually put civil or even criminal penalties on some Christian behavior—specifically the ability of Christian colleges to oppose same-sex marriage.
But this is not the same “them” trying to “shut down” Christianity. Christians face challenges in the culture, but if you go by the data, most Americans feel quite warm toward them. And the happy truth is that, so far, conservative Christians have had quite a bit of success fighting back against the infringements on religious freedom.
That’s not the perfect world that Christians might hope for, but we’re far from the worst-case scenario. Instead, what we’ve seen over the last 20 years, as society and the law have tried to navigate the world of conflicting rights, looks a lot like a series of imperfect, but workable, compromises.
Consider the Obamacare contraception mandate. The Obama administration issued a rule in 2012 stating that contraception needed to be covered by health insurance plans under the Affordable Care Act. These guidelines exempted houses of worship from the requirement, but did not extend that exemption to religiously-oriented nonprofits such as schools and hospitals.
This executive rule was a thumb in the eye of religious groups, which would have been forced to pay for health coverage for their employees that might conflict with their religious teachings. Religious believers were right to jump on this, and progressives were clueless, both morally and politically, when they dismissed these concerns as frivolous or bigoted.
But then something happened that neither side likes to fully acknowledge: the Obama administration capitulated and issued a more sensible, revised rule. Under the new proposal, religiously-oriented organizations could also opt out of the contraceptive requirement, and the insurer would pay for the service instead. Some religious groups declared victory. Others viewed it as an accounting gimmick and escalated their attack. The Little Sisters of the Poor sued to block the rule. And when he became president, Donald Trump issued an executive order reversing the Obama policy. He gave the Sisters the good news that he was thereby “ending the attacks on your religious liberty” and “your long ordeal.”
There are two ways to look at this episode. One is to see how balance and counterbalance took place via the regular legal and political processes and, over a relatively short period of time, created a status quo in which everyone’s rights were respected.
The other is to see an unending tribal war and use this vision as a means to stoke divisions between believers and non-believers.
If you want to understand which road Trump has chosen, consider how he has consistently stoked division when it comes to Islam.
He proposed banning Muslim immigrants and creating a registry for American Muslims. He routinely blurs the lines between Muslim terrorists and regular American Muslims. And he has surrounded himself with aides whose anti-Muslim comments would not be tolerated if aimed at other religious groups, even though the sum-total of these attacks is to create an echo of earlier historical attempts to demonize Catholics and Mormons.
If you think these efforts can’t undermine actual religious freedom, consider this: In 2016, half of Republicans were not willing to declare that Islam should be legal in America.
As I argued in Sacred Liberty, America’s model of religious freedom is truly exceptional. Trump’s attacks on other religions undermine this model, which is bad for the country, including evangelical Christians.
Lie #4: Trump is personally a devout Christian. This is an odd one. Very few conservative Christians seem to believe that Trump is personally religious or even moral. But these factors are not important ingredients in their support. Rather, they argue that Trump’s policies and actions advance a religious agenda despite his personal failings. Trump really doesn’t have to pretend to be religious.
But he does anyway. He has spoken passionately about his love for the Bible in ways that almost always reveal that he’s barely read it. My favorite example of Trump’s fake religiosity was when he was asked why his businesses had been audited by the Internal Revenue Service. He said, “Maybe because of the fact that I’m a strong Christian.”
After all, he reminded us, he has “a great relationship with God.”
Trump and other religious conservatives often talk about how liberal cultural elites hold evangelicals in contempt. This is sometimes true. But it’s hard to think of a greater sign of disrespect than lying to someone’s face and assuming the person won’t have the intelligence to figure it out.