First year of Trump-Pence brings bountiful blessings, religious conservatives say

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Maureen Groppe, USA
President Donald Trump delivers the keynote speech at the 2017 Value Voters Summit, hosted by the Family Research Council. Time
WASHINGTON — A year after President Trump moved into the White House, many of the Christian conservatives who helped put him there are counting their blessings.

Johnnie Moore, an informal spokesman for the group of evangelicals who advise President Trump, says the administration has “been a dream.”

The head of Focus on the Family estimates the administration has taken about 17 actions on the pro-life agenda alone — a tally that Jim Daly said adds up to the greatest gains by an administration since the Supreme Court legalized abortion.

And Paula White, the televangelist and spiritual adviser to Trump, calls the president’s first year of accomplishments “absolutely astounding.”

It’s not just leaders of the Christian conservative community who think Trump has been delivering on his promises to them — from judicial appointments to policy changes, and from personnel appointments to access to the White House. Those opposed to some of the moves agree the group’s list of wins is lengthy.

“It seems to me as though Trump really has worked hard to give the …evangelical pastors he’s been working closely with whatever they’ve been asking for,” said Maggie Garrett, legislative director for Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

The twice-divorced Trump who bragged about groping women and was one of the least religious, and arguably least religiously articulate men to ever run for the presidency, was an unlikely champion for the religious right.

But religious conservatives had high hopes for their agenda once Trump chose Christian conservative Mike Pence as his running mate and promised on the campaign trail that the “first priority of my administration will be to preserve and protect our religious liberty.”


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Trump got a good reason on Election Day to keep his word:  81% of white evangelicals voted for Trump. That’s a greater share than supported George W. Bush in 2004, John McCain in 2008 or Mitt Romney in 2012.

“God must have a sense of humor,” said Ralph Reed, chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition who considers himself a friend of Trump’s. “Because for Donald Trump to have emerged as one of the great advocates for the agenda of evangelicals and social conservatives is something that very few would have predicted even a few years ago in American politics.”

But the impressive list of victories includes:

Judicial appointments: In addition to appointing Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, Trump placed a first-year record of 12 justices on the U.S. Court of Appeals, as well as six district court judges. “His record on judicial nominees has been one of the most impressive, if not the most impressive, that we’ve had out of any president,” said Reed, who has worked closely with, or known, many presidents.

Anti-abortion actions: Trump’s steps included not just reinstating, but expanding, a policy first adopted by GOP presidents in 1984 to prohibit U.S. aid from supporting international groups that promote abortion. Vice President Pence was the highest-ranked administration figure to speak at the annual March for Life anti-abortion rally last year. Trump is addressing this year’s march by satellite Friday.  “It’s part of the DNA of this administration,” Daly said.

Elevating religious protections: After Trump signed an executive order to “protect religious liberty,” the Justice Department issued new guidance aimed at giving religious groups and individuals broad protections to express their beliefs when they come into conflict with government regulations, including when making hiring decisions. The Health and Human Services Department Thursday announced a new division aimed at protecting doctors and other medical professionals who don’t want to perform abortions, treat transgender patients or take part in other types of care that go against their beliefs. While opponents say the administration is allowing religion to be used as an excuse for discriminating, evangelical adviser Moore says Trump has demonstrated that “you don’t have to check your belief system at the door to have a cooperative and beneficial relationship with the federal government.”

Weighing in on Supreme Court case: The Justice Department sided with the Colorado baker who refused to design a wedding cake for a same-sex couple, a case pending before the Supreme Court. The administration didn’t have to get involved, noted Curt Smith, whose Indiana Family Institute filed a brief in support of the baker. “The Obama administration would have been on the other side,” Smith said. “George Bush, maybe on my side, maybe quiet.”

Recognizing Jerusalem as capital of Israel: Evangelicals’ support for Israel stems in part from passages in the Bible they say show God promised Israel to the Jewish people, and that God blesses those who bless the Jews. Some also believe that Jewish possession of Jerusalem is necessary for the prophesized second coming of Jesus. “I don’t think you can underestimate the way in which American evangelicals identify with Israel as part of their notions of Biblical prophecy,” said Julie Ingersoll, a religious studies professor at the University of North Florida.

Allowing federal money to pay to rebuild churches: The Federal Emergency Management Agency recently said houses of worship can receive federal dollars to rebuild after natural disasters. “The Constitution is pretty clear that the government doesn’t build houses of worship,” said Garrett of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. But after Hurricane Harvey hit Texas in September, Trump tweeted that churches should get FEMA funds “just like others.”

Directing aid to persecuted Christians through faith-based groups: Trump instructed the State Department to bypass the United Nations and use faith-based groups to help Iraqi Christians and other persecuted religious minorities. Pence announced the policy change in a speech to a group that advocates for greater protection of Christians in the Middle East, one of several times he has spoken about the need to help persecuted Christians.

Doubling the tax credit for children: The tax changes Trump signed into law doubled the child tax credit from $1,000 to $2,000 per child. While other changes mitigate the effects, especially for larger families, Reed calls it a “huge victory.” “We have shifted the center of gravity in Republican fiscal orthodoxy from being something that is purely supply-side and pro-growth – even though I support all that – to a tax code that is pro-child, pro-life and pro-family,” he said.

Trump, however, has not been successful in every effort.

After the Health and Human Services Department made it easier for employers to bypass an Obamacare requirement that their health insurance coverage for workers include birth control, federal judges blocked implementation while opponents try to stop the change in court.

“We’ll continue to fight the administration’s unconstitutional actions at every turn,” said Daniel Mach, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief.

Trump in December paused his efforts to bar transgender troops from serving openly in the military after courts said the military had to begin accepting transgender recruits this year, pending further legal review.

Efforts to pass legislation to bar federal funding to Planned Parenthood didn’t succeed. Congress also hasn’t sent Trump a bill to ban late-term abortions. And language to repeal the Johnson Amendment, allowing churches and other nonprofits to engage in political activity, was stripped out of the tax bill to comply with Senate procedural rules. But Trump directed the IRS to be lenient in its enforcement of the prohibition, and legislative efforts to end it continue.

In all, Moore argues the Trump administration has done more for evangelicals than any recent administration, including Ronald Reagan’s.

“The general perception is that President Trump has granted more access. He has given greater priority to issues of concern to the community,” said Moore, who estimated he made about 30 trips to Washington last year from California where he is a lay evangelical leader and head of a public relations firm. “Probably the only people the president has spoken to more frequently than Congress and the world’s leaders are Christian leaders in this country.”

While Pence avoids taking credit for the administration’s accomplishments, social conservatives say he appears to have had the influence they had hoped for on issues such as abortion, support for Israel and other policies.

“it seems like a lot of the issues that please social conservatives about the president seems to have Vice President Pence’s fingerprints on them,” said Micah Clark, executive director of the socially conservative American Family Association of Indiana.

Garrett, of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, agrees with Moore that the Trump-Pence moves go beyond what past GOP administrations have done — but not in a good way. For example, she said, while the Bush administration allowed government contractors to factor religious views into their hiring practices, the Trump administration appears to also want to let contractors opt out of providing certain services or serving certain people based on their religious views.

“They’re more extreme,” she said. “They’re flipping religious freedom on its head and using it as a sword instead of a shield.”

And some have argued Christian conservatives — particularly religious leaders who have publicly praised Trump — could pay a steep price for the policy changes they’ve been getting.

“I think their reputation took a huge hit,” said Richard Flory, senior director of research and evaluation at the University of Southern California’s Center for Religion and Civic Culture. After years of framing their opposition to politicians — such as the Clintons — in moral terms, religious leaders ignored things they might not like about Trump’s character, he said.

“Essentially, they were being political over religious,” he said. “That’s the message I think most people are seeing now.”

Focus on the Family’s Daly said he has no problem distinguishing between the “Two Trumps.”

There’s the “more bombastic, tweeting Trump” that everyone agrees is “sometimes entertaining, sometimes cringeworthy,” he said.  And then there’s the “executive President Trump.”

“From where we’re sitting, that’s what we’re mostly interested in, the policies being pursued, those things that are being accomplished,” Daly said. “When we look at the record, we’re seeing some very good things.”

But religious leaders close to Trump were especially criticized for not condemning Trump’s response to the neo-Nazi groups involved in a rally in Charlottesville, Va., that turned violent last year — an incident that prompted many members of Trump’s business advisory groups to resign in protest.

Trump was also not spurned by his religious advisers after endorsing Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, despite allegations that he had romantically pursued and sexually assaulted girls in their teens when he was in his 30s.

If opponents had wanted to come up with two people to discredit the GOP and white evangelical Christianity, “you could hardly create two more perfect men than Donald Trump and Roy More,” Peter Wehner, senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center who served in the Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations wrote in an opinion piece last month entitled: “Why I can no longer call myself an evangelical Republican.”

Reed, however, rejects the criticism that religious leaders haven’t spoken out when Trump has done or said something objectionable.

“I’ve been in those meetings. I’ve been on those conference calls. And I know that our views have been shared openly, honestly and without reservation with the president, first as candidate, and now as president,” Reed said.

But he doesn’t believe it’s necessary to make any criticisms public, “out of respect for the right of the president to receive advice in confidence.”

Issues that Reed and others will continue to work on with the administration include more judicial appointments and another attempt at defunding Planned Parenthood. There are also some issues that could get broader, bipartisan support such as addressing young immigrants brought to the United States illegally as children, criminal justice reform, and efforts to fight human trafficking and substance abuse.

“If we thought we did some things last year,” White recently said in an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network, “boy, wait until this year.”