In 2015, a government inspector at a Michigan meatpacking factory found some offensive material in the lunch room: a “tract” – we don’t know if it was a book or a leaflet – in defence of the traditional definition of marriage. It had been put there by the factory owner, Donald Vander Boon.
The inspector did his duty: he reported it to his superiors, who threatened to shut down the factory unless the tract was removed. Mr Vander Boon made an official complaint. The dispute is ongoing.
This is the kind of thing that happens fairly frequently in modern Western democracies. But it was not supposed to happen under a Donald Trump presidency. “The first priority of my administration,” Trump promised in 2015, “will be to preserve and protect our religious liberty.”
Those words are now being quoted against Trump – by religious commentators and organisations which say his new executive order is worthless. The order, issued last week at the White House, promised three things: to “honour and enforce” protections on religious liberty; to allow churches to get involved in partisan politics; and to offer “regulatory relief” to religious healthcare providers.
One of those healthcare providers, the Little Sisters of the Poor, had to fight the colossus of the Obama administration, which tried to shut down their care homes unless they provided contraception. The Little Sisters were at the White House for last Thursday’s photo opportunity, along with Cardinal Donald Wuerl and a host of religious leaders. Visually, it looked encouraging.
But as soon as Christians began to scrutinise Trump’s order, many felt cheated. Princeton professor Robert George, a longstanding campaigner for religious liberty, tweeted: “The religious liberty executive order is meaningless. No substantive protections for conscience. A betrayal. Ivanka [Trump] and Jared [Kushner] won. We lost.” The journalist Michael Brendan Dougherty said: “This is table scraps. We’re done for.”
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