Trump delivers for religious right

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Washington, February 4, 2017 | comments
By Cristina Marcos
February 4, 2017

Religious conservatives’ gamble on President Trump is paying off.

The last several days have brought a slew of victories for evangelicals, many of whom set aside their reservations about Trump to back him during the presidential campaign.

From the nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court to Trump’s affirmation of support for allowing tax-exempt churches to engage in politics to the appointment of Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. to an education task force, evangelicals are seeing the new president quickly deliver on a number of fronts. 

“I never doubted his sincerity or his commitment. There were, obviously, those who did. Not just in the evangelical community or in the faith community, but more broadly,” said Ralph Reed, the chairman of the Faith & Freedom Coalition. 

“Certainly even for those doubters, this week has laid any of those concerns to rest.”

Trump, a thrice-married business mogul who once expressed support for abortion rights, hardly fit the mold of a conventional conservative candidate.

Some evangelicals were hesitant to fully embrace Trump, particularly after a leaked "Access Hollywood" video showed him bragging about using his celebrity to get away with touching women without their consent. He dismissed the tape as mere “locker room talk.”

Yet Trump won the voting bloc decisively in the election, with 80 percent of white evangelicals supporting him over Democrat Hillary Clinton, according to an exit poll conducted by NBC News. 

Trump is repaying their support in spades, with promises to repeal the Johnson amendment, which prevents tax-exempt religious organizations from engaging in political activity and his nomination of a conservative jurist to the Supreme Court. 

“I think if you really go back and you look at the campaign, it’s undeniable. He received an astonishing 81 percent of the evangelical vote in no small measure because of ironclad commitments he made that were explicit and unambiguous in areas of policy and personnel,” Reed said.

Religious conservatives in Congress are eager to capitalize on having an ally in the White House. On the same day Trump reaffirmed support for getting rid of the Johnson amendment, Rep. Jody Hice (R-Ga.) and House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) introduced legislation to do just that.

While Trump declared he’d “totally destroy” the law, Hice and Scalise’s bill would allow only political activity by tax-exempt religious organizations in limited circumstances, though they would still be banned from giving to campaigns.

Hice told The Hill he expects his bill to come up for a vote in the House sometime in the near future, though a specific timeline hasn’t been finalized. 

“We have great momentum,” Hice, a Southern Baptist pastor, said of Trump’s support. 

“I think that this is going to send a great, positive message to the evangelical community throughout the country that strongly supported him.”

It hasn’t been entirely smooth sailing, however. Trump this week announced he’d uphold an Obama-era executive order prohibiting federal contractors from discriminating against workers on the basis of sexual orientation. 

Former President Barack Obama’s 2014 order stirred fierce debate in the House last year when Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.) offered amendments to annual spending bills to ensure the order’s enforcement. Its adoption caused one spending bill to collapse on the floor, in large part because of Republicans who opposed the amendment.

Trump, the first GOP presidential candidate to mention the LGBTQ community at a party nominating convention, made a point of emphasizing his support for gay rights when announcing he’d keep Obama’s order in place.

“President Trump continues to be respectful and supportive of LGBTQ rights, just as he was throughout the election,” the White House said in a statement. 

Conservatives expressed disappointment in Trump’s move, though they are still hopeful he will sign an executive order to ban retaliation against religious groups and businesses opposed to gay marriage.

“Trump can and should protect all Americans from violence and oppression, but he should not go along with Obama’s policies of elevating ‘sexual orientation and gender identity’ to a protected class,” Heritage Foundation senior research fellow Ryan Anderson wrote.

But it’s Trump’s selection of Gorsuch for the Supreme Court that has generated the most excitement among religious conservatives. 

One of Gorsuch’s most notable rulings was siding with Hobby Lobby and the Little Sisters of the Poor in 2013, when they challenged a provision in the healthcare law requiring employers to include contraceptive coverage in their employees’ insurance plans. 

The Supreme Court eventually ruled in a 5-4 decision a year later that closely held for-profit corporations should be exempted for the contraceptive mandate if its owners have religious objections. 

“Things that he promised, he followed through on. The biggest one being this past week with the Supreme Court,” said Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.), another Southern Baptist pastor serving in Congress. 

“I mean, when you look at that from all rounds and all sides, especially from the professional conservative point of view, the court pick was the one that I think helped voters come through [for] Trump."

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