Donald Trump Religious Liberty EO 01
Trump signs religious liberty executive order
01:47 - Source: CNN
Washington CNN  — 

It’s hard to imagine President Donald Trump, a very rich man, envying the Little Sisters of the Poor, an order of nuns who take oaths of chastity and poverty.

But the President joked Thursday during a White House ceremony that the sisters have something he deeply desires: smart attorneys.

“Do you mind if I use your lawyers?” Trump said with a grin, as a nun in a gray habit laughed. “I could use some good lawyers, too.”

The Little Sisters are represented by the Becket Fund, a nonprofit firm that focuses on religious liberty, who helped the nuns gain a key exemption from the Affordable Care Act.

That case – and religious freedom writ large – is what brought together the nuns, the President, and a few dozen religious leaders in the Rose Garden on Thursday. The stated purpose was Trump’s signing of an executive order, which he said would prevent the federal government from “bullying and even punishing Americans for following their religious beliefs.”

Both liberals and conservative agree, however, that Trump’s order accomplishes less than advertised. Robert George, a Princeton University professor and leading expert on religious liberty, called the executive order “meaningless” and “a betrayal.”

Still, this President makes news in bunches, not bites, and Thursday was no exception.

In addition to signing the executive order, Trump announced he would travel later this month to the Vatican, setting up his first face-to-face meeting with Pope Francis. He also said he will visit Saudi Arabia, a source of extremist Islamic ideology, where the President said he would “begin to construct a new foundation of cooperation” to combat terrorism.

The trip will pose a series of diplomatic challenges for Trump, for whom the world of faith remains unfamiliar turf. Among the religious leaders in the Rose Garden on Thursday, Trump seemed to enjoy himself – he joked that he prefers their company to Congress – but it was a bit like watching a lost tourist stumble into the Sistine Chapel.

Trump referred to two of the country’s most powerful Catholics as “my cardinals.” He mused that he’d be “out enjoying my life” instead of helping evangelicals if he had lost the election. And he accused HUD Secretary Ben Carson of flouting a law that only applies to non-profit organizations, which Trump should have known is not possible, since it was the focus of the executive order he signed just a few minutes later.

Pulpit politics

For weeks, rumors had swirled that the Trump administration was considering a sweeping executive order that would grant religious believers, schools and corporations extensive exemptions to federal laws they disagree with, from LGBT protections to reproductive rights.

The 3-page executive order Trump signed on Thursday wasn’t that – not even close, leaving many conservative Christians looking like the boy who wanted a BB gun for Christmas and instead got a pair of socks.

The Heritage Foundation’s Ryan Anderson, a proponent of strong legal protections for religious liberty, called the executive order “woefully inadequate.”

The ACLU, with whom social conservatives rarely agree, agreed, saying the executive order wasn’t even worth a lawsuit.

The order’s most controversial section directs the federal government not to take adverse action against any “individual, house or worship or other religious organization” that speaks about political issues from a moral perspective.

Why is that important? Since 1954, when Congress passed the Johnson Amendment, religious groups and other nonprofits have been prohibited from participating “directly or indirectly” in political campaigns at risk of losing their tax exemptions.

“Under this rule, if a pastor, priest or imam speaks about issues of public or political importance, they are threatened with the loss of their tax exempt status – a crippling financial punishment,” Trump said on Thursday. “Very, very unfair. But no longer.”

Trump had promised to “destroy” the Johnson Amendment after several of his key evangelical advisers, such as Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr., told him it threatens their free speech.

In fact, the Johnson Amendment is rarely enforced. Since 2008, thousands of pastors have played chicken with the IRS by endorsing political candidates as part of a “Pulpit Freedom” protest. The IRS has blinked, investigating only one church and choosing not to punish it. Only one church has been censured by the IRS, in 1995, for taking out a full-page ad against Bill Clinton.

In any case, Trump can’t dump the Johnson Amendment. Only Congress or the courts can amend or overturn it. And most Americans – including evangelicals – don’t want their pastors to endorse candidates for public office, according to multiple surveys.

Several evangelical groups, including the Alliance Defending Freedom, which organizes the “Pulpit Freedom” protests, said Trump’s religious freedom promises remain unfulfilled.

“Though we appreciate the spirit of today’s gesture,” said Michael Farris, the group’s CEO, “vague instructions to federal agencies simply leaves them wiggle room to ignore that gesture.”

The US Catholic Bishops, in their statement on Thursday, didn’t even mention the Johnson Amendment.

Instead, the bishops focused on brief language in Trump’s order promising regulatory relief for groups like the Little Sisters of the Poor, which want exemptions from the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate.

They called the executive order a good beginning.

The Pope vs. the populist

You know it’s a busy news day – the House also voted to repeal and replace Obamacare – when an announcement that two of the most powerful people on the planet would soon meet gets barely a blip of attention.

The President said Thursday that he will finally meet Pope Francis later this month, part of a trip that will also take him to the homeland of all three Abrahamic faiths: Israel and Saudi Arabia. (The Vatican visit will give Trump another kind of Abrahamic Trifecta.)

The Vatican later confirmed the meeting between the Pope and President, saying it is scheduled for May 24 at the Apostolic Palace.

Trump’s aim on the trip is to reach out across religions and countries to combat extremism, senior administration officials told CNN. But it’s unclear how he will be received in at least two of his stops.

Trump and Pope Francis famously feuded last year over the politician’s proposal to build a wall on the border between the United States and Mexico. Christians, the Pope said, build bridges, not walls. Popes shouldn’t mess with politics, Trump retorted.

Both sides backed down. A Vatican spokesman said the Pope wasn’t talking in particular about Trump. Trump said, “I don’t like fighting with the Pope. I like his personality; I like what he represents.”

In recent months, though, Francis has been issuing increasingly dire warnings about the dangers of populism, remarks that some say place the Pope at the vanguard of the global anti-Trump resistance.

Likewise, Trump’s denigration of Islam and his travel ban on six Muslim-majority nations would seem to make him persona non grata in Saudi Arabia, though the country was not included on the list.

The President and Saudi princes have bonded, however, over a shared suspicion of Iran, according to reports, and Trump “clarified” his views on Islam in a private meeting with Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the White House, a Saudi aide told Al-Jazeera.

In his announcement on Thursday, Trump said he hopes, while in Saudi Arabia, “to construct a new foundation of cooperation and support with our Muslim allies to combat extremism, terrorism and violence.”

But Saudi Arabia seems a strange place for Trump to begin his outreach to the Muslim world. For decades, the country has been the chief exporter of Salafism, a puritanical strain of Islam that has inspired ISIS and other extremists. In 2011, Trump called Saudi Arabia “the world’s biggest funder of terrorism.”

“Look, I’m not a big fan,” he told NBC last year.

By Thursday, Trump’s tone had changed. He praised Saudi Arabia’s role as the custodian of Islam’s two holiest sites, in Mecca and Medina, adding another odd detail to an already bizarre day.