It’s been a heady two weeks for right-wing Christian evangelicals. Never before has a president of the United States — not Reagan or either of the Bushes — delivered so much of their agenda in such short order as Donald Trump has just done. He capped off his string of early valentines to the religious right with the announcement of a Supreme Court nominee who is poised to revoke the rights of women, further tear down the “wall” between church and state and open wider the doors for big monied interests to buy the political system they want.
The right-wing press was breathless in its praise for 49-year-old Judge Neil Gorsuch, named by Trump on Tuesday night to ascend to the high court with the seat vacated by the death of Antonin Scalia, who was a ferocious opponent of reproductive rights, LGBTQ rights and significant remedial measures for ensuring civil liberties for African-Americans. Yet religious-minded conservatives may come to love their new man even more than the lionized Scalia: The New York Times places Gorsuch to Scalia’s right.
During the 2016 campaign, pundits were often incredulous at the sight of religious-right leaders at the side of the thrice-married, biblically ignorant, philandering, ethically challenged businessman-turned-politician — one whose blatant and coarsely stated misogyny, whose braggadocio about sexually harassing women, whose treatment of women as property and objects of derision, could not deter them from joining his quest. After the election, commentators puzzled over the 81 percent of white evangelical voters who cast their ballots for Trump, despite ample evidence of his questionable, decidedly unchristian business practices and cheating of workers and contractors. Not even the scandal of his Trump University grift kept them away from him.
The attraction is now apparent: power.
The biggest winners
In fairness, it must be said that in the opening days of his presidency, Trump served up a series of executive orders and memoranda designed to please various constituencies in his coalition. The white nationalists would be getting their wall. The oilmen would get their pipeline. The Islamophobes would get their Muslim ban. The Obama-haters would find satisfaction in an order to purge affordable health care from the books. But the religious right would get pretty much everything it wanted — all of the above and more.
For his opening gambit in the week following his inauguration, Trump not only reinstated restrictions on the kinds of health care global aid groups receiving U.S. funding are permitted to deliver to women around the world, he applied those restrictions to a far greater range of programs and organizations than the Bush version of the regulations known as the global gag rule or Mexico City policy — impacting 15 times the amount of aid dollars, by one estimate. At issue is aid to any organization that would dare to inform women that abortion is one option for ending a pregnancy. “In other words, NGOs that distribute bed nets for malaria, provide childhood vaccines, support early childhood nutrition and brain development, run HIV programs, fight ebola or Zika and much more, must now certify their compliance with the Global Gag Rule or risk losing U.S. funds,” wrote Mark Leon Goldberg at UN Dispatch. In other words, people (mostly women) will likely die because of this rule.
With Trump’s beefed-up version of the gag-rule policy first instituted by Ronald Reagan and its timing as one of his first orders of business, the president displayed his fealty to those among the religious right who turned out the vote for him, teeing up the measure for Vice President Mike Pence to bray about from the stage of the Jan. 23 March for Life rally, an annual exercise by Catholic organizations and schools marking the court’s Roe decision.
The vice president’s address at the rally was the first time one of the two elected leaders of the executive branch ever took that stage. Anna Thomas, a teacher from Tuckahoe, New York, told USA Today, “We still need as voters to hold Trump’s feet to the fire, but I feel like we’ve got an ally there [in Pence] and that feels like a first in my lifetime.” Pence’s hardline anti-choice credentials, both during his tenure in Congress and as governor of Indiana, make him a hero to the movement.
The day before the march, Cardinal Timothy Dolan appeared on the daily radio program of Breitbart News, dubbed the “platform for the alt-right” by former CEO Steve Bannon, the advocate of white nationalism who now serves as chief White House strategist. Dolan, who would the next day address the March for Life, was feeling pretty cheery about the Trump administration, breezily discussing politics on a website known for promoting Islamophobia, homophobia, misogyny and attacks on African-American civil rights leaders. Not to mention its reputation as an organizing tool of the Trump campaign.
Speaking of the reinstated gag rule to Breitbart Editor-in-Chief Alex Marlow, Dolan framed it as a boon to Catholic Relief Services, falsely claiming that the Obama administration had required the aid group to dispense “abortifacients.” (Defying scientific evidence, anti-choice advocates routinely and inaccurately describe such forms of contraception as IUDs and morning-after pills as forms of abortion.)
“Thanks be to God,” Dolan said, “now that straightjacket has been removed from the extraordinarily effective religious relief organizations in international aid. So this is lookin’ good, Alex, and we look for even better things to come. We want to keep our eye on the appointment of the Supreme Court justice, we want to keep our eye on the reform of the Affordable Care Act to make sure that the hideous parts of it that many people, like the bishops of the United States, have pointed to that need to be cleansed.” The bishops have long protested the ACA’s mandate that employer-based health care plans provide no-copay prescription contraception to subscribers, and now are poised to see a new Supreme Court justice who agrees with them.
Priority for Christians
In their quest to overturn Roe v. Wade, the Catholic bishops long ago allied with right-wing evangelical and fundamentalist Protestants, to whom Trump reached out to in a White House interview with David Brody of the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) on Jan. 25.
Seated in the opulent Blue Room six days before Tuesday night’s announcement of his selection of Gorsuch, Trump told Brody that he believed the CBN audience would be pleased. “I think evangelicals — Christians — will love my pick,” the president said. (At the March for Life, Pence promised the crowd of tens of thousands that Trump “will announce a Supreme Court nominee who will uphold the God-given liberties enshrined in our Constitution, in the tradition of the late and great Justice Antonin Scalia.”)
The day of the March for Life, Trump issued the executive order that brought protesters to airports and streets around the country: a halt to admitting travelers to the United States from seven Muslim-majority countries, including refugees from Syria, whose citizens are trapped in a war known for wide-scale crimes against humanity. While the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement opposing the order, certain right-wing evangelical groups, such as the Family Research Council, have featured anti-Muslim speakers at their conferences, and complained that Christians persecuted in Islamic countries were abetted by the Obama administration.
While some evangelical leaders have condemned Trump’s policy, the Atlantic’s Emma Green speculates that those are not the leaders the rank-and-file listen to and do not share their views. “Even if they think an open refugee policy is in line with the teachings of Christianity,” she writes, “lay Americans don’t necessarily feel the same way.”
Religious figures who have expressed support for the ban include Ralph Reed, who spearheaded voter-turnout efforts in the evangelical community for Trump, and Franklin Graham, son of the late preacher Billy Graham and leader of the charity Samaritan’s Purse, who delivered a prayer from the inaugural podium.
“It’s not a biblical command for the country to let everyone in who wants to come, that’s not a Bible issue,” Graham told the Huffington Post. In an interview with The Washington Post, Ralph Reed, chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition and the political strategist who spearheaded voter turnout efforts for Trump among right-wing evangelicals, called the executive order “an entirely prudent move.”
In a Jan. 20 interview with the Christian Times, FRC’s Tony Perkins, who was late aboard the Trump train, expressed doubts about Rex Tillerson, Trump’s pick to lead the State Department, for insufficient defense of the religious-right agenda.
“We know that Christians are suffering globally as a result of our State Department’s misplaced priorities. That cannot continue. It’s going to require a leader who is willing to be criticized, who is willing to be a change agent. I just don’t know that is him,” Perkins told reporter Jardine Malado.
Just days later, Trump said to CBN’s Brody that in the “extreme vetting” to be set in motion as a result of the order, persecuted Christians seeking asylum would be given priority over other persecuted people — a move whose constitutionality is highly questionable.
“We are going to help them,” Trump told Brody. “They’ve been horribly treated. Do you know if you were a Christian in Syria it was impossible, at least very tough to get into the United States? If you were a Muslim you could come in, but if you were a Christian, it was almost impossible and the reason that was so unfair — everybody was persecuted in all fairness — but they were chopping off the heads of everybody, but more so the Christians. And I thought it was very, very unfair.”
Trump’s assertion that Christians have a harder time winning asylum in the United States than do Muslims is rated by PolitiFact as false.
A "time of incredible promise"
At the March for Life, Vice President Pence wasn’t the only member of Trump’s administration to rally the troops. Presidential adviser Kellyanne Conway, a staple of the Sunday morning talk show circuit, was greeted with cheers when she introduced herself as “a mother, a wife, a Catholic and counselor to the president of the United States.” Evident in her rhetoric was a reframing of the anti-choice movement: “This is a time of incredible promise for the pro-life, pro-adoption movement.” Throughout the event, women facing unwanted pregnancies were exhorted to give birth for the benefit of couples seeking to adopt.
March for Life leader Jeanne Mancini served up this nugget: “Did you know that Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple, was adopted? Can you imagine how different our lives would be if we didn’t have our iPhones?”
She neglected to mention that under a refugee ban such as the one instituted by Trump, Steve Jobs would never have been born. His birth father is a Muslim from Syria who met Jobs’ birth mother in Wisconsin.
Nonetheless, CBN’s David Brody was jazzed by Trump’s first week, using his blog to tick off all of the policies and initiative the new president had set in motion as causes for celebration, writing in a Jan. 26 post:
"The reality is Donald Trump would not have the title of 'president' if it were not for evangelical voters. And so far, he’s off to a promising start. Just look at his first week alone:
— Reinstating the pro-life Mexico City policy
— Making good on a plethora of campaign promises
— Shaking up the press briefing room (where CBN and others are now a part of the healthy give and take)
— A record number of evangelical pastors praying in the name of Jesus at the inauguration
— Trump himself invoking God’s help for America
— And let’s not forget about many members of his Cabinet who are born-again believers. That’s just in one week."
Add to that list Trump’s promise last week that his administration would “totally destroy” a law banning political activity by churches and the announcement that Rev. Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of Liberty University and the son of late televangelist and Moral Majority co-founder Jerry Falwell, will be heading up a new education task force for the president. A Liberty University spokesman told USA Today on Wednesday that Falwell, an early Trump supporter, agreed to head up the task force after declining to be Trump’s nominee for education secretary. Trump instead chose Betsy DeVos, another member of the right-wing Christian community.
During the election campaign, it was often said that the Trump candidacy stood to destroy the religious right. If the last 10 days are any sign, quite the opposite is true. Under Trump, the religious right is back, big league and stronger than ever.