Trump puts faith in religious right

Trump: We're saying 'Merry Christmas' again
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Story highlights

  • Trump's moves on religion dovetail with other initiatives appealing to staunch conservatives
  • Much of Trump's evangelical support last year appeared to derive not from who he is but rather who he was not

Washington (CNN)In recent weeks, the Trump administration has plunged into fights long sought by the religious right, issuing a 25-page memo bolstering legal protections for people of faith, rolling back employers' requirement for birth-control coverage and reversing a policy that included LGBT employees under US anti-discrimination law.

"I pledged that, in a Trump administration, our nation's religious heritage would be cherished, protected, and defended like you have never seen before," President Donald Trump said on Friday at the Values Voter Summit in Washington. "That's what's happening. ... We are stopping cold the attacks on Judeo-Christian values."
Overall, the Trump administration has revved up the culture wars, appealing to religious conservatives and recalling elements of President Ronald Reagan's administration which emphasized positions against abortion rights and for school prayer, and, in one of his Justice Department's first moves, sought tax-exempt status for the fundamentalist Christian Bob Jones University in South Carolina, despite its racially discriminatory practices.
    As candidates, both Trump in 2016 and Reagan in 1980, won office with significant support from white religious conservatives.
    Trump, however, drew a greater percentage and now seems even more intent on catering to that constituency.
    "Bureaucrats think they can run your lives, overrule your values, meddle in your faith, and tell you how to live, what to say, and how to pray," he asserted on Friday, vowing to enhance religious interests.
    Trump's emphasis could shape his policy efforts in upcoming months. His administration is working to reverse a tax-code provision preventing churches from endorsing politicians, withdraw federal funding from Planned Parenthood, and engage in legal disputes against LGBT people claiming bias and in favor of Christian individuals or entities who say, for example, that they are being excluded from secular aid programs or have been penalized for declining to serve gay customers.
    In 2016, according to CNN polling, Trump won 61% of white Catholics, compared with Hillary Clinton's 37%. Trump won 80% of the white evangelical voters, compared to Clinton's 16%. In 1980, Reagan took 52% of white Catholics to Carter's 39%. Trends for evangelicals were not documented in 1980, yet Reagan was plainly helped to the White House by groups such the Moral Majority, founded by Baptist minister Jerry Falwell -- whose namesake son became an early and enthusiastic supporter of Trump in 2016.
    Much of Trump's evangelical support last year appeared to derive not from who he is but rather who he was not: Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton.
    That was the posture of Richard Land, president of Southern Evangelical Seminary in North Carolina. Trump was his "18th choice" among the Republican field (he favored Florida Sen. Marco Rubio), but Land found himself joining Trump's evangelical executive advisory board and then being "pleasantly surprised" by his actions on religion since his January inaugural.
    Like Trump, Land believes religious conservatives are under siege in America today. He praised the President for the move to exempt more employers, based on religious objections, from the contraceptive insurance-coverage requirement of the Affordable Care Act.
    "I think he likes us," Land said, referring to evangelical Christians. "I don't think he is just using us. ...  I don't think he was ever around evangelicals very much until he ran for president. ....  We're not exactly thick on the ground in Manhattan or Queens."
    Land said he is heartened by the presence of Vice President Mike Pence, a former Indiana governor and congressman long identified with the religious right.
    Attorney General Jeff Sessions, another forceful presence for conservative Christians in the administration, issued the 25-page October 6 memo designed to protect "religious observance and practice" in employment, contracting and other areas. It would enhance the ability of employers and others claiming a religious objection -- for example, to hire or serve a gay person -- to win exemptions from anti-discrimination law.
    "Trump's action and policies turn religious liberty on its head," said Daniel Mach, director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief. "Through his Muslim [travel] ban, the president has shown outright hostility toward an entire faith. At the same time, his administration has embraced the deeply troubling idea that religious freedom is a blank check to discriminate and to harm others." 
    Mach referred to the various travel restrictions dating to January that the Trump administration has applied to predominantly Muslim countries and the Trump position favoring a Colorado baker who declined to make a wedding cake for two gay men. That dispute is currently before the US Supreme Court.
    Some religious organizations contend Trump's initiatives would impinge on religious liberty rather than foster it. The Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty has criticized the travel ban for disfavoring Muslims and opposes lifting the so-called Johnson Amendment, which bars nonprofit organizations from endorsing or opposing candidates.
    Holly Hollman, the group's general counsel, said a change in the tax law could turn houses of worship into "partisan outposts."
    For many critics, Trump's initiatives run contrary to the religious liberty and are better seen as igniting the resurgent culture wars.
    Said Hollman, "He is appealing to something that is not so much religious, but is cultural."