In early 2016, few evangelical leaders were on Team Trump, as they had Ted Cruz and other conservative Christians to choose from in a crowded Republican presidential field. After Donald Trump embarrassed his GOP competition and became the party’s nominee, prominent evangelicals began changing their tune. Some, including a number of outspoken anti-LGBT activists, worked with the Trump campaign on a large evangelical advisory board. After Trump won the presidency with 81 percent of the white evangelical vote, most far-right Christian leaders who hadn’t endorsed him came around. Many were gleeful, and some even pronounced that God had stepped in and handed Trump the job.
That excitement has grown since the election as Trump prepared for and took office, nominating several ultra-conservative Christians for key posts and promptly following through on several of his campaign promises tailored to evangelical voters. Trump had already picked far-right evangelical Mike Pence for vice president. Then he nominated Betsy DeVos, who was raised in a Calvinist community in Michigan, for secretary of education and Seventh-Day Adventist Ben Carson for Housing and Urban Development secretary, and appointed several other conservative Christians to additional top positions in the administration.
Ronnie Floyd, an Arkansas megachurch pastor and former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, told The Washington Post that the Trump administration was full of “followers of Christ,” not just DeVos but Health and Human Services Sec. Tom Price, EPA head Scott Pruitt, Energy nominee Rick Perry, Agriculture nominee Sonny Perdue and Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
“The administration has been way over the top in giving them visibility and recognition that we can bring values,” said Floyd, who was part of Trump’s evangelical advisory team and gave a prayer at Trump’s prayer service during inauguration weekend.
Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of Liberty University who was the first major evangelical figure to endorse Trump, has said that hundreds of evangelicals are getting lower-level positions in the Trump administration.
On Jan. 31, Trump nominated the ultra-conservative judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. He’s the judge who wrote the 2014 Hobby Lobby decision, enabling businesses to refuse to pay for insurance coverage of contraception based on “religious objections.” Gorsuch, who is considered to the right of even the late Antonin Scalia, is seen by conservative Christians as someone they can count on to oppose abortion and expand their ability to legally discriminate against LGBT people via “religious freedom.”
“I thank God that if confirmed, this administration will have delivered on one of its most critical campaign promises — to appoint a judge in the mold of the late Justice Antonin Scalia,” said far-right Christian James Dobson, who served on Trump’s evangelical advisory board.
Also Jan. 31, Trump appointed Falwell to lead a higher education task force bent on “deregulating” education. Two days later, Trump attended the National Prayer Breakfast, where in a bizarre speech he pledged to repeal the Johnson Amendment, allowing churches to spend money on politics and potentially operate like super PACs.
Trump reinstated the “global gag rule” (or “Mexico City policy”), which prevents U.S.-funded foreign organizations from discussing abortion with their clients or advocating abortion law liberalization, but he made it harsher than under George W. Bush. This rule now pulls all public health funding from organizations, even to vital AIDS and HIV programs, that address abortion. And the president has promised to overturn Roe v. Wade and to sign a bill defunding Planned Parenthood.
In late January, the Trump administration circulated a “religious freedom” executive order that legalizes discrimination, allowing any government agency or any private business to deny services to LGBT people. Trump has since backed away from that order, but another may come in the near future.
On Feb. 22, Trump went ahead with anti-LGBT discrimination. With Attorney General Jeff Sessions leading the charge, the Trump administration rolled back Barack Obama-era protections requiring schools to allow transgender students to use the restroom that matches their gender identity. Education secretary Betsy DeVos reportedly opposed the move — which some doubt based on her religious beliefs and her parents’ funding of anti-LGBT hate groups — but Trump and Sessions strong-armed her into backing it. The next day, DeVos went on to call Obama’s transgender guidance “a huge example . . . of overreach.”
With all the good news for the Christian right coming so quickly, Falwell said evangelicals are “a happy group of people right now.”
Franklin Graham, who gave a prayer at Trump’s inauguration, spoke at a December “thank-you rally” for Trump in Mobile, Alabama, reiterating that God had showed up for Trump on election night. He was thrilled at Trump’s selection of Gorsuch, writing on Facebook, “Once again he has kept a campaign promise — how refreshing!” He concluded his post with this: “Now we need to pray that God will overrule the liberal socialists and progressives who will do everything in their power to block this nomination.”
Ralph Reed, founder and chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition and chair of Trump’s evangelical advisory board, was “prominently seated” at a ceremony honoring Gorsuch. In a Fox News op-ed, he praised DeVos for her strong support of public vouchers to send children to private religious schools. DeVos has said she wants to “advance God’s kingdom” through education.
Televangelist Pat Robertson, one of the most extreme right-wing evangelicals of note, came to Trump’s defense after his “pussy-grabbing” comments surfaced. Now Robertson says people who oppose Trump are revolting against God, and he muses that Obama and Democrats may have enacted a conspiracy to take down the shamed Michael Flynn, who didn’t last a month as national security adviser because he lied about having prior contact with Russia.
Tony Perkins, president of the anti-LGBT hate group Family Research Council, is sanguine about Trump upholding religious liberty, which in his case means legal discrimination of LGBT people by “religious” businesses with federal contracts. Perkins also praised Gorsuch’s nomination.
Far-right Christian organizations are also happy with Trump and his executive orders. The Alliance Defending Freedom, which the Southern Poverty Law Center recently classified as an anti-LGBT hate group, said of the gag rule, “The president has done the right and logical thing in reinstating a policy that never should have been rescinded.” ADF was founded by Dobson and several other Christian right leaders in 1994 and since then has opposed equal rights for LGBT people and even pushed to criminalize homosexuality abroad.
Christian leaders aren’t just thrilled with Trump’s actions and promises — they’re gratified by the surprising amount of access they have to the president. Falwell told The Washington Post that he, along with other members of Trump’s evangelical advisory board including televangelists James Robison and Paula White, have never had such easy access to a president. “I’m very shocked by how accessible he is to so many. He answers his cellphone any time of the day or night.”
Trump has also answered his cellphone for Robison. Dobson says he can call Pence on his cell.
Plenty of evangelical leaders oppose Trump, or at least, his refugee ban, but the most extreme members of the evangelical movement are quite pleased.
Few would have predicted Trump’s stellar relationship with far-right Christians. But now that he’s won them over, benefited from their political support and amassed a White House featuring many evangelical conservatives, LGBT protections, abortion rights and public school funding are on the line.