Donald Trump's "religious liberty" executive order, which both weaponizes and politicizes religion, is not just bad policy. It's bad politics. Majorities of every religious group, including Catholics and white evangelicals, oppose the substantive elements within it.
The “religious liberty” executive order Donald Trump just signed into law allows businesses to use religion as an excuse to deny birth control coverage to their employees. The order also directs the IRS not to enforce the Johnson Amendment, which prevents tax-exempt churches and nonprofits from endorsing political candidates.
Set aside the fact that the types of contraception to which some employers want to deny women access are the most effective forms of birth control. Set aside the fact that these long-acting birth control methods are in no way akin to abortion, and that affordable access to them reduces the need for abortion because of their effectiveness in preventing unintended pregnancies.
Set aside the fact that pastors and other clergy are already free to speak out on political issues. Set aside the fact that it is extremely rare for the IRS to pursue churches or non-profits for violating the Johnson Amendment. And set aside the fact this order risks turning our houses of worship and nonprofits into “vehicles to spend millions of dollars – given in secret and subsidized by a tax deduction – on politics,” as Citizens for Responsible Ethics in Washington warned.
There’s no question it’s terrible policy. But it’s also bad politics.
Two-thirds of Americans, including majorities of all major religious groups, believe that businesses should be required to provide employees with insurance that covers contraception with no co-pays. And seven in ten Americans, including all major religious groups, think tax-exempt churches and houses of worship should not be allowed to endorse candidates. In fact, only a third of white evangelicals and a quarter of Catholics think they should be allowed to do so.
(Notably, more than 70 percent of voters, including two-thirds of Trump voters, want to keep current law prohibiting nonprofits from engaging in partisan political activity, too, according to a poll by Independent Sector, which has been actively opposing this move along with a broad coalition of the nation’s nonprofits, organized by the National Council of Nonprofits.)
Make no mistake, the vast majority of white evangelicals voted for Trump in the 2016 election and continue to support him. But if he continues to take his cues from the graying elders of the religious right, he will indeed find himself bending over backwards to appeal to an ever-narrowing sliver of a rapidly declining part of America.
While the number of self-identified evangelicals in America has remained relatively steady in recent years, that is because of increasing numbers of non-white Americans who identify that way, but vote differently than white evangelicals. As Robert P. Jones, of Public Religion Research explains, white evangelicals are in decline:
But over the last decade, we have seen marked decline among white evangelical Protestants, the more conservative part of the white Protestant family. White evangelical Protestants comprised 22 percent of the population in 1988 and still commanded 21 percent of the population in 2008, but their share of the religious market had slipped to 18 percent .. .and our latest 2015 numbers show an additional one-percentage-point slip to 17 percent.
These indicators of white evangelical decline at the national level are corroborated, for example, by internal membership reports during the same period from the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest evangelical Protestant denomination in the country. It has now posted nine straight years of declining growth rates.
Trump loves to say that he “loves the evangelicals” and that they love him. Like this executive order, it’s a blatant political pander.
But the pay off may not be what Republicans think — at least not for long.