Religious liberty executive order pays Trump′s dues to Evangelicals - sort of | Americas| North and South American news impacting on Europe | DW | 05.05.2017
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Religious liberty executive order pays Trump's dues to Evangelicals - sort of

President Trump's order on religious liberty gives a symbolic nod to the Evangelical community which supported him during the election. It has little practical relevance, but still might provide an interesting insight.

When a leaked draft of the executive order on religious liberty President Donald Trump eventually signed on Thursday surfaced several months ago, it got religious conservatives excited and rights groups concerned.

That's because the measure's early version reportedly contained several controversial provisions. Among them was language that could be interpreted to protect religious-based discrimination by businesses against LGBT Americans, allowing religious groups to explicitly support political candidates and broadening religious-based exemptions against healthcare plans that provide contraception.                  

All three points, as well as many other contentious issues, do not feature at all or are referenced in such vague terms in the executive order ultimately signed by the president that the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), a traditionally reliable watchdog when it comes to challenging potential digressions by the White House, voiced relief.

Scholars studying the Trump presidency concurred that the measure, signed by the president on National Prayer Day while flanked by religious leaders, had little immediate political consequences.   

Forgettable order

 "This is a pretty forgettable executive order," said Jason Reifler, an American political scientist at the University of Exeter in Britain.

It's no big shift, said Ivan Morgan, professor of United States studies at University College London (UCL). But, he added, it is an important symbolic gesture to the Evangelicals who had been staunch supporters of the president during his election campaign.

By signing his latest executive order, only days after marking his first 100 days in office, President Trump is signaling to conservative Christians not only that he is grateful for their backing, but also that he is prepared to fulfill his campaign promise to protect religious freedom.

That does not mean, however, that many on the right had not hoped for more aggressive rhetoric and are disappointed by the water-downed version of Trump's executive order. 

But since the Evangelical community had already shown its willingness to give particularly large passes to then-candidate Trump during the election campaign - despite several controversial incidents, including his taped remarks about grabbing women by the genitals - Reifler said the president has little to worry about in terms of support from the religious right even he did not deliver the desired goods. 

Trump's learning process

That's because after eight years of having no influence in the Obama White House, Evangelicals are simply happy that they have a president - and a vice president - willing to listen to them again, noted Morgan.

"They see in Trump, though he comes from New York, though he is a billionaire, that he is gradually identifying with their concerns," said Morgan, who believes that the executive order, perhaps for the very reason that it is largely symbolic, sends an important message about the Trump White House.

"I think the executive order has been framed in a way to ensure it does not fall foul of the courts," he said. "I'd say it demonstrates that Trump is beginning to learn that you can't storm the ramparts as president. You have to go at things in an incremental and often circuitous fashion."

Signing a mostly symbolic order allows Trump to tick off another campaign promise and style himself as a defender of religious freedom while avoiding the public relations and legal disaster of his more aggressive, but badly bungled earlier executive orders.

For UCL scholar Morgan it is a sign that something deemed unlikely by many observers may actually be happening. That at the start of his second 100 days, the learning process of Donald Trump may have begun.

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