Saturday, President Donald J. Trump is set to deliver the commencement address at Liberty University, founded by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell and now the nation’s largest Christian university. It is fitting that the President — who, despite a record of adultery, crass boasts about sexual assault, indifference toward religion and more, received over 80% of the vote from white evangelical Christians — honors his most loyal supporters in this way.
Trump’s address evidences the prominence of the religious right movement in his administration, and the record to date shows that his loyalty goes far beyond the symbolism of a speech.
Some say Trump played, then betrayed, the hard right. The record shows otherwise.
Unlike most Republican politicians who seek evangelical votes in campaigns by condemning abortion, then back-burner that as a priority, Trump has never wavered in his support of so-called life issues. Last year, with a Supreme Court appointment in the balance, Trump said he had a litmus test on Roe v. Wade, and put forth a list of conservative jurists he would consider appointing.
As President, Trump has delivered a solid conservative jurist to the Supreme Court. That is a big victory for the religious right; its supporters have every reason now to consider their backing of candidate Trump to have been a very good decision for this reason alone. Given the advanced ages of several court members and the actuarial tables, it is likely that the President will be able to further swing the court, bringing the possibility of overturning Roe v. Wade in sight.
In his first days in office, President Trump by executive action reinstated the so-called Mexico City policy, derisively known as the “gag rule” — the ban on federal dollars for international family planning agencies that provide abortion-related counseling or services.
To any who considered that perfunctory, the President recently appointed a leading anti-abortion activist to be the director of the federal program that provides funding for family-planning services for poor citizens and those without health insurance. That is a potent statement with far-reaching ramifications.
Trump has further scored with social conservatives in his appointment of their fellow traveler, religious school champion Betsy DeVos, as secretary of education, and in his strong support for so-called school choice. The President has committed to supporting policies that promote education vouchers — a highly controversial idea but one that resonates with religious conservatives, many of whom would like to redirect their tax dollars toward parochial schools.
Defunding public schools through vouchers resonates strongly with religious conservatives, who long have had a strong antipathy toward what they perceive as an anti-religion and even anti-Christian ideology pervading public education.
Numerous other actions of this presidency excite the religious right. The odious travel ban, although bottled up in courts, featured a special dispensation for persecuted Christians. Vice President Mike Pence — his very selection itself an affirmation of Trump’s pro-life credibility — prominently participated in the annual March for Life procession. No other presidential administration has had such high-level direct participation in the march.
The capper came last week, when the President issued an executive order that enables religious leaders and houses of worship to engage in political advocacy on moral issues without fear of any adverse legal action.
All told, Trump’s actions so far validate the strong support that conservative evangelical voters gave to him last year — and suggest he could become one of the religious right’s best friends in Washington in decades.
Yes, it sure looks hypocritical for values voters to put their faith in a thrice-married, casino-owning worshipper of global capital. But ultimately what matters more to them than the personal character of one man is public policies that advance the social conservative agenda.
Rozell is dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and the author of numerous studies on the religious right in U.S. politics.