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Clergy Members Aren’t Being Persecuted for Their Politics

Across most of the country, parishioners oppose the idea of churches directly endorsing candidates. White evangelicals and black Protestants are least likely to object, but even among those groups, a majority want to see churches stay out of partisan politics. Clergy members are even more forcefully opposed, with as many as 90 percent rejecting calls for the “freedom” to endorse candidates.

So how did this nonissue become the subject of a Rose Garden signing ceremony? Mr. Trump reportedly seized on the notion after conversations last summer with conservative evangelical backers like Jerry Falwell Jr. and Tony Perkins. The concept of silenced pastors fit perfectly with his larger vendetta against “political correctness,” and the cause soon found its way into both the 2016 Republican platform and Mr. Trump’s acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention.

Yet even as Mr. Trump spoke in the Rose Garden on Thursday, the reaction in the conservative Christian world was one of disappointment. “Total weak sauce,” fumed David French at National Review. The evangelical pastor Skye Jethani tweeted, “A whole lot of nothing; a symbolic act to please his base without any real change in policy or law.” Robert George, a conservative Catholic intellectual, called the order “a betrayal.”

That’s because the executive order changes absolutely nothing. It’s divided into four points, three of which maintain the status quo regarding the Johnson Amendment and religious liberty generally. As for the issue that has most compelled religious conservatives — providing exemptions for individuals and institutions that claim conscience-based objections to laws like the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate — it merely says the government “shall consider issuing amended regulations.”

Mr. Trump’s toothless action is the inevitable consequence of years spent scaring white evangelicals with faux outrages. A problem with no victims requires nothing more than a solution with no substance. All Mr. Trump had to do was host some religious leaders in his garden, listen politely to some Christian contemporary music, repeat some religious-right talking points about how “free speech” doesn’t “end at the steps of a cathedral” and voilà! He becomes the savior of American Christianity.

It was fitting that the ceremony took place on the National Day of Prayer, which became another fake controversy during Mr. Obama’s presidency. Every year Fox News hosts would blast Mr. Obama for “canceling” the Day of Prayer. In fact, ever since Harry Truman designated the first National Day of Prayer, every president has acknowledged it as Mr. Obama did — by issuing a proclamation. Only George W. Bush broke with tradition by hosting an annual event that functioned as an opportunity to tend to his religious base.

More than 80 percent of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump in November, making them the most Republican demographic in the election. That could make them indispensable to the White House — or it could mean their support can be taken for granted.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for their own tax-exempt right to endorse candidates, for theirs is a seat in the Rose Garden.

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