President Donald Trump, who first became famous as a wheeler-dealer playboy, came to religion late in life.
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Yet during his second week in office, between the chaotic rollout of his Muslim immigration ban and his prayer for Arnold Schwarzenegger, he made — and tweeted out the photograph of — a very pious move.
After nominating Neil Gorsuch, a widely respected and highly credentialed appeals court judge, for the Supreme Court seat vacated by Justice Antonin Scalia’s death, Trump gathered in prayer, along with a semicircle of 11 others.
In the manner of these moments, almost everybody is holding hands. But Trump is not; nor are his sons. They stand next to him, but at some distance from him, and each other. The variety of postures reflects the tensions and contradictions inherent in Trump’s relationship with Christianity.
“Probably the only awkward person in the room was President Trump,” cracked Michael Cromartie, vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, an institute “dedicated to applying the Judeo-Christian moral tradition to critical issues of public policy.”
And responses to the tweet, which was retweed 15,000 times, demonstrate the anxiety such an image provokes in people who don’t worship that way. Jews and other religious groups are fretting that Trump might swing his administration too far to the right precisely because religion is so new to him.
“I sure hope this is not an indication that people who don’t pray that way — which includes Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, agnostics, atheists and, I imagine, many Christians — will need to expect civic occasions to feature this kind of religious practice,” said Rabbi Jack Moline, president of the Interfaith Alliance, a liberal group dedicated to the protection of both religion and democracy.
After all, this is a president who boasted while married about grabbing women “by the pussy.” At the annual National Prayer Breakfast, yes, he cracked a joke about praying for improved ratings for the “Apprentice,” the reality TV show that Trump starred in for 14 seasons, and that now stars Schwarzenegger.
To the Victors
Trump, who is on his third wife, owes his presidency in large part to truly strange bedfellows: politically disciplined white evangelicals. According to the Pew Research Center, there are 60,000,000 of them, which is about a quarter of American Christians. 80% of them voted for Trump.
Evangelical Christians belong to a branch of Protestantism that views the “re-birth” experience as central and adheres to conservative moral values on issues relating to family life. America’s largest concentrations of evangelical Christians are in the Rust Belt, but political analysts see clear differences between white evangelicals, who largely support Republican candidates, and African-American evangelicals, who tend to vote Democratic.
Now, Trump is rewarding that voting bloc in measures both symbolic — the Gorsuch prayer circle and accompanying tweet — and concrete — the Gorsuch nomination. It can be hard to make sense of the executive orders, appointments and tweets that have flowed from the White House in these early days, but Trump’s attentions to the evangelicals provide a through line. Evangelicals aren’t getting everything they want, all at once, but they are pleased.
“There is no question that the Trump administration is trending toward creating policy that would be consistent with evangelical values,” said Marci Hamilton, a scholar on church and state issues at the University of Pennsylvania. The issues Trump has been advancing since taking office, she added, “do not reflect the views of a majority of American people, and are certainly in line with those of evangelicals.”
Indeed, Trump has been signaling his intentions toward evangelicals for months.
“Other people can have their holidays but Christmas is Christmas,” he said in September at the Values Voters Summit.
And during the holiday season between his election and inauguration, he promised to “bring back ‘Merry Christmas.’” When he addressed supporters on his thank-you tour, he portrayed a “war on Christmas” launched by President Barack Obama in the name of political correctness, and vowed to bring back Christmas to White House greeting cards — and to the public square.
Now that Christmas and his inauguration are both over, he’s executing on those sentiments with all the tools that he has at this stage in his presidency: appointments, nominations and executive orders. The intended audience appreciates his efforts.
“The reality is Donald Trump would not have the title of ‘president’ if it were not for evangelical voters,” wrote David Brody, a moderator on the Christian Broadcast Network, on his blog after he received one of Trump’s first interviews in office. “And so far, he’s off to a promising start.”
Of course, some people of other faiths are as concerned about these developments as the evangelicals are exultant.
“It strikes me that the focus on the narrow band of American religion that was present in the inaugural address and the cast of characters who were part of the inaugural prayer service and inauguration ceremony is part of a purposeful endorsement of Evangelical-style Christianity the President is incorporating into his brand,” said Moline. “It feels like the establishment clause of the First Amendment is being demoted from a right to an historical artifact,” he added, referring to the clause that prohibits the establishment of a state religion.
Personnel Is Policy
Picking Mike Pence, who has called himself an “evangelical Catholic,” as his running mate was Trump’s first big gesture toward evangelicals. Trump dispatched Pence on January 27 to the March for Life in Washington: the first time in decades such a high-ranking administration official have participated in person in this major pro-life rally.
“Let’s not forget about many members of his Cabinet who are born-again believers,” Brody wrote, such as Scott Pruitt, Trump’s nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency and Ben Carson, his pick for the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Pruitt is on record opposing marriage right for LGBTQ people and transgender bathroom access; Carson adheres to the Biblical notion that planet Earth is 6,000 years old.
The Trump administration maintains that Betsy DeVos, sworn in on February 7 as the Education Secretary after Pence voted to break a tie in the Senate, believes in the separation of church and state, according to Mother Jones. But she also cherishes the principle of school choice — that federal money should pay for parochial education, if it rescues a child from a failing public school.
And in 2001, when asked whether Christian schools should rely on philanthropy or push for taxpayer support, she said, according to Mother Jones, “There are not enough philanthropic dollars in America to fund what is currently the need in education... Our desire is to confront the culture in ways that will continue to advance God’s kingdom.”
Then there’s Gorsuch, who is Episcopalian. But days before he announced the nomination, Trump promised Brody during that early interview that “evangelicals, Christians will love my pick.”
Indeed, the Colorado judge has a record of favorable opinions toward individuals and groups seeking exemptions based on religious belief on issues relating to women’s rights, LGBTQ equality and religious display in the public square.
Jeff Sessions, should he be confirmed as attorney general, will also be in a position to advocate on behalf of the evangelical community. He is a Methodist, not strictly evangelical, but he identifies proudly with the Christian right.
A Sessions Department of Justice could use its power to advance causes dear to evangelical supporters even without declaring new policy or having the president issue executive orders. The Attorney General can, for example, decide what cases to pursue under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. During the Obama administration, the DOJ sued more on issues relating to rights of Muslims to build mosques than on cases involving Christian churches. Sessions could reverse that trend.
Trump “can’t do a whole lot unilaterally. He is in the middle of a web of checks and balances,” said Hamilton, “but his Attorney General Jeff Sessions will have the discretion to prioritize.”
One of Trump’s first executive orders reinstated what is known as the Mexico City policy — a rule prohibiting the United States from providing international aid to any group that promotes, allows or even informs patients about abortion options.
“He’s been shockingly, and perhaps even ironically, the most pro-life president in the history of the republic,” said Eric Metaxas, an evangelical talk-show host, of Trump to the Atlantic. “’Ironically’ because he is widely perceived as being anything but a social conservative. Somebody who has had three wives and who has been pro-choice most of his life is not the person you’d expect to advocate for the unborn.”
In yet another nod to Christian voters, Trump also made sure to carve into his travel ban executive order a special exemption that gives Christian refugees being persecuted in their countries priority when seeking resettlement in America.
Some Christian groups, including evangelicals, opposed this move, citing the Biblical teaching that every person is made God’s image, according to Politico.
“The Bible teaches us that each person—including each refugee, regardless of their country of origin, religious background, or any other qualifier—is made in the image of God, with inherent dignity and potential,” the groups wrote to the White House. “Their lives matter to God, and they matter to us.”
But prominent evangelical leaders, including Ralph Reed and Franklin Graham, praised the ban.
Reed called the order “an entirely prudent move.”
After the Honeymoon
Of course, a presidency is about much more than appointments and executive orders, two moves over which the executive has total control. Trump will not always be able to move on behalf of evangelicals as quickly.
For example, one of Trump’s most significant gestures toward evangelicals came during that same National Prayer Service on February 2, when he pledged to take immediate action on the provision barring tax-exempt churches from engaging in political speech.
“I will get rid of and totally destroy the Johnson Amendment and allow our representatives of faith to speak freely and without fear of retribution,” Trump said, referring to a 1954 amendment passed by the Senate which restricts the ability of charities, including houses of worship, to endorse candidates and participate in a political campaign, whether directly or indirectly.
And while Trump’s move would impact all houses of worship, including Jewish ones, it is a response to a demand raised by conservative Christian leaders while largely rejected by others. Evangelical Christian leaders drove the call to revoke the Johnson Amendment; Jerry Falwell, Jr. spearheaded it.
“This is an action that was meant to reward a very specific group of people—white evangelicals, who voted overwhelmingly for Trump,” said Robert Jones, head of the Public Religion Research Institute. Polling suggests that only 30% of Americans would like to see the Johnson Amendment repealed, but white evangelicals, whom Jones describes as “one of the most politically active groups in the country” would like the freedom to speak about politics in the pulpit.
But rolling back those restrictions would require legislation, and while Trump enjoys Republican majorities in both houses of Congress, passing a bill is never as easy as signing an order.
White evangelicals who supported Trump because they felt, “besieged,” according to Cromartie, during the Obama years, also need to understand the limits of their political power. “It’s always too much to expect that the Kingdom of God will come on Air Force 1,” said Cromartie. “Presidents can take symbolic actions but progress is made through society and culture.”
Indeed, sometimes even pushing executive orders through isn’t so easy, and evangelicals themselves learned this when Trump decided not to sign an order leaked to The Nation magazine that would empower groups and individuals to not comply with laws pertaining to LGBTQ equality and women’s health if they cite their religious faith.
But according to Politico, Trump’s daughter and son-in-law, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, pushed back against that order and even induced Trump to extend a 2014 execute order that prohibits LGBTQ discrimination by government agencies and federal contractors.
But the original draft order is still out there, and the idea of religious freedom as a right that can trump other rights — as when someone’s religious conviction that homosexuality is wrong could enable that person to discriminate against LGBTQ people — is increasingly powerful under the Trump administration. After all, Gorsuch’s stance on this aspect of religious freedom is one of the reasons Trump picked him, and knew evangelicals would approve.
“I think people should be able to practice their religion, express their religion, express areas of their faith without reprisal,” Spicer said. “And I think that pendulum sometimes swings the other way in the name of political correctness.”