In the early months of 2017, Don Vander Boon took notice when the newly minted Trump administration proclaimed loudly and clearly that religious liberty within federal government operations would, once again, be respected. In eight years under the previous administration, a rash of White House executive orders, directives and bureaucratic rules were used to press the hobnail boot of the LGBTQ movement and the abortion lobby against people with sincere Biblical convictions.
Vander Boon knew it all too well.
Some 18 months earlier, on a Monday morning in August 2015, Vander Boon drove to his West Michigan Beef Company in Hudsonville, a business he began in 2003 to provide for his family, create jobs for area residents and “bring glory to God in all we do.”
Upon arriving, Vander Boon quickly learned he had visitors—two inspectors from the federal Department of Agriculture—waiting in his office with a grievance that had nothing to do with food safety. One of them held in his hand a pamphlet Vander Boon had quietly placed among the newspapers and magazines in his company’s break room a few days earlier.
The pamphlet explained—in a reasoned and kindly tone, Vander Boon says—what Biblical marriage is, and why gay marriage is counter to God’s design for human beings.
That summer, the Supreme Court had legalized gay marriage nationally, and the papers were full of celebratory articles about it. Vander Boon, a soft-spoken evangelical Christian with Midwestern sensibilities, thought his 45-plus employees deserved at least one other perspective.
What Vander Boon didn’t know was that the U.S. Department of Agriculture had issued a new policy about what constituted “harassment” following the Supreme Court ruling. The federal inspectors had flagged Vander Boon’s pamphlet.
“They made me agree right there that I would not be putting that pamphlet back out, or else they would be pulling their inspectors from our facility,” effectively causing the company to shut down, Vander Boon explained in an interview with Decision.
Following the federal officials’ demands, Vander Boon says he walked on eggshells at his business while appealing to the Agriculture Department. But beyond learning that his case had been passed on to the department’s civil rights division in September 2015, he was stiff-armed by the agency for the remainder of the Obama presidency. Eventually, he got legal representation from Alliance Defending Freedom, which asked President Trump to remedy the situation.
By late 2017, Vander Boon got relief through a Trump administration executive order on religious freedom and new federal agency rules. He could once again place religious literature in the break room of his business without fearing the federal government’s wrath.
Yet, he worries the relief might be short-lived.
“A new administration can change it. That’s the unfortunate fact,” Vander Boon says, adding that a liberal-progressive victory in November’s presidential election could bring even harsher penalties than before.
During Obama’s tenure, the Affordable Care Act sought to coerce corporations and nonprofits into providing abortion and contraception coverage, irrespective of religious belief. Then with the Supreme Court’s Obergefell gay marriage ruling, the pressure from the federal government on people of faith worsened.
The Trump presidency has brought a reprieve—the federal government is no longer aiming to penalize religious Americans for opposing the Left’s social agenda—but those executive actions lack permanence.
Eric Metaxas, best-selling author of “If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty” and an outspoken Christian and conservative, is concerned a victory for the Left in November would do irreparable harm. There was a time, he says, when the Democratic party wasn’t dominated by leftists.
“Very sadly for the country, that day has gone, at least for now. So if the Democrats of today win control of the White House and both houses of Congress, we are in for a radical deconstruction of America from which we can never recover.”
Wesley J. Smith, a lawyer, ethicist and senior fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism, says the disagreements among the parties that used to be over fiscal policy have morphed as the Left has adopted a secularist view of humanity, where avoiding suffering and embracing pleasure are the highest cultural values.
“Our differences are fundamental: Either an unborn baby has moral value or he or she doesn’t,” Smith says. “Either religious employers should have the right to pursue employment policies consistent with their faith missions, or they should be held to the same standards as secular employers to prevent ‘discrimination.’ Unlike, say, determining whether the optimal maximum tax bracket is 30% or 40%, where the parties can come together in the middle, our differences today are the consequence of mutually exclusive and incompatible fundamental moral values.”
THE FEDERAL COURTS
Where executive orders and federal directives are transient, the actions of federal courts can be generational. An example is the 1973 Roe v. Wade abortion decision. But the Trump administration has seen remarkable success in the judiciary. Through mid-December, more than 170 of the president’s federal judicial nominees, including two Supreme Court justices, had been confirmed. It is a hopeful sign that a federal bench too often viewed by conservatives as left-leaning and activist can regain its ability to function as arbiters of the Constitution.
Franklin Graham has argued that the current administration provides “a brief window of opportunity” to set a different policy direction for the nation and a revived spiritual direction for the church. For the nation to flourish, both things are necessary, and Franklin has made the point that a president’s ability to nominate federal judges has lasting consequences for a public consensus on morality.
But no one in the field of progressive presidential candidates is friendly toward Biblical values, nor to the idea that human rights are granted by God, not the state, says Ken Blackwell, senior fellow for human rights and constitutional governance at the Family Research Council.
With a Democratic victory, Blackwell says not only would gains made in the courts be jeopardized as key religious liberty cases come up, but important gains in public policy would be imperiled, and we would see unprecedented pressure to squash religious liberty, the sanctity of human life and the free enterprise system.
“The clarity of the choices—whether we continue down this path of respect for human rights, respect for religious liberty and the right to life, economic expansion and the value of work; or on the other hand, the path of bigger, more intrusive and by definition more bureaucratic and ineffective government—it’s a startling contrast,” Blackwell says.
KEEPING THE REPUBLIC
Metaxas notes that Abraham Lincoln viewed America as a divine experiment, despite its failures, calling the nation “the almost chosen people” and “the last best hope of the world.”
“He understood better than anyone the outsized role that America has played and plays yet on the world stage. If we ‘keep the republic’ and preserve American self-government,” Metaxas says, “we make it possible for that flame of liberty to spread to other parts of the globe, where they look to us for leadership.”
But such global leadership isn’t possible without a recognition that American ideals are exceptional in human history.
Metaxas says if the country follows the path the Left is forging, “We will destroy the free market and the state will become all-powerful. Such a country effectively will not be Christian or even friendly to Christians, but will become anti-Christian. The forces of globalism and secularism will be given free rein as we have never seen, and the flame of liberty will flicker and sputter, and eventually go out. I pray that God and His people never let that happen.”
Vander Boon, the Michigan business owner, is praying that, too.
KEEPING ITS PROMISES
Here are some of the current administration’s achievements on issues important to religious conservatives:
- Jan. 23, 2017: Reinstated and expanded the Mexico City Policy, which prior to the Obama administration had prohibited federal tax dollars from going to abortion providers in foreign countries.
- Feb. 22, 2017: Reversed the transgender bathroom directive for public schools that was foisted on school districts nationwide by the Obama administration.
- April 7, 2017: Neil Gorsuch, a constitutionalist judge, was confirmed to the Supreme Court, replacing the late conservative stalwart Antonin Scalia.
- May 4, 2017: A presidential executive order on religious freedom acknowledged its constitutionally guaranteed place in American democracy and required the Justice Department to issue new guidance on protecting religious liberty.
- Oct. 6, 2017: Introduced conscience exemptions to the Obamacare Contraceptive-Abortifacient Mandate for organizations with religious objections to providing coverage for abortifacients and birth control. These were to go into effect Nov. 22 but are currently being held up after two federal courts declared them unconstitutional.
- May 14, 2018: The U.S. embassy opened in Jerusalem, coinciding with the 70th anniversary of the Israeli Declaration of Independence.
- July 24-26, 2018: The U.S. State Department held the first-ever Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, gathering hundreds of international political and religious leaders to Washington to explore ways to protect religious liberty and conscience rights. A second meeting was held in 2019.
- Oct. 6, 2018: A second constitutionalist judge, Brett Kavanaugh, was confirmed to the Supreme Court, replacing the retired Anthony Kennedy and giving the court a 5-4 conservative majority.
- Dec. 21, 2018: President Trump signed the bipartisan First Step Act, a sweeping criminal justice reform law supported by a broad array of groups, including evangelical ministries such as Prison Fellowship.
- May 21, 2019: HHS expanded the enforcement of federal conscience laws and established a new Conscience and Religious Freedom Division as part of HHS’s Office of Civil Rights.
- December 2019: By last month, the Senate had confirmed more than 170 Trump-nominated judges, the vast majority of whom were viewed favorably by religious conservatives.
- Sept. 23, 2019: President Trump became the first U.S. president to give a speech on the importance of religious freedom before the United Nations while announcing a U.S. policy initiative to promote global religious freedom.