Religious Right Reinvigorated by Donald Trump

Date: 11-12-2016
Source: The Wall Street Journal

Encouraged by Trump’s cabinet picks, conservative Christians want many of Obama’s social policies reversed

Donald Trump’s election has reinvigorated evangelical Christians. Above, Mr. Trump with Jerry Falwell Jr. in January 2016.

CHARLESTON, S.C.—After nearly a decade, the Christian right is emerging from the political wilderness.

Donald Trump’s victory is giving new life to socially conservative causes that have suffered a string of defeats in recent years, potentially reigniting culture wars that many liberals had hoped were all but over.

Conservative Christians who had despaired of the country’s direction under President Barack Obama—and of developments such as the legalization of same-sex marriage—now expect to wield influence in an administration that they helped bring to power.

They are pressing for a ban on late-term abortions; expanded accommodation for religion in the workplace, at hospitals and elsewhere; and, above all, the appointment of conservative judges.

Already, social conservatives are taking up positions in Mr. Trump’s cabinet. Tom Price, a forceful voice for expanding religious liberty and a vehement opponent of the Obamacare contraception mandates, was tapped last week to become secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services. Ben Carson, a Christian who has frequently spoken out against gay and transgender rights, was chosen to be secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

“I hope we can restore our country to a God-fearing nation again,” Sindy Mills, 37, who voted for Mr. Trump, said outside of Charleston Baptist Church. She said America had turned away from God with “the same-sex marriage issue and abortion and taking God out of the schools.”

Despite these expectations, the religious right’s goals have shifted since the last time Republicans were in power—reflecting the difficulty of reversing social changes that occurred during the Obama years.

Few conservative Christians are calling for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, as they did during President George W. Bush’s tenure. Instead, their immediate goals are more incremental.

In interviews, social conservatives said they expect Mr. Trump to promptly rescind an Obama administration executive order that bans federal contractors from discriminating against gay, lesbian and transgender people. They also anticipate that health-care regulations that require Catholic hospitals to offer contraception will be reversed, something Vice President-elect Mike Pence, a staunch social conservative, promised during the campaign.

In the long term, many evangelicals are hoping that conservative judges will overturn rulings on social issues including gay marriage and Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 Supreme Court case that established a nationwide right to abortion access.

“There’s no question we are losing the culture war, but we haven’t lost it,” said Dr. Richard Land, president of the Southern Evangelical Seminary. “There’s been incalculable damage done by Mr. Obama, but much of it can be undone just by undoing his executive orders.”

Mr. Trump, who grew up in a Presbyterian church and has since attended a Reformed Church in America congregation, said in June: “Jesus to me is somebody I can think about for security and confidence.” He added, “I consider the Christian religion so important.”

Ultimately, more than 80% of white evangelical Christians voted for Mr. Trump, as did 52% of Catholics. Mr. Land said that evangelicals realize Mr. Trump isn’t “one of them,” but they have been encouraged by his defense of religious freedom and by appointments to the Trump administration, especially Mr. Pence.

Betsy DeVos, Mr. Trump’s choice for education secretary, said in the past that she wanted to work in education to “advance God’s kingdom,” according to a recording obtained by Politico.

Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of Liberty University and one of Mr. Trump’s earliest and most steadfast evangelical backers, said he was initially offered the secretary of education post. He turned it down, he said, citing family concerns but continues to counsel Mr. Trump by phone.

“He’s going to end up being for conservatives another Ronald Reagan,” said Mr. Falwell, whose father of the same name founded in the late 1970s Moral Majority, an organization that helped launch the modern religious right. “Probably better than Ronald Reagan in a lot of ways.”

Representatives for Mr. Trump didn’t respond to requests for comment.

An array of socially conservative organizations are hoping to capitalize on Mr. Trump’s victory.

God gave our country a break, said Alan Sears, chief executive officer of the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative legal organization that advocates for religious liberty, in a video posted on the group’s website. As he asked for donations, he said: “We can either move ahead and halt evil, or we can flounder and think that somebody else will take care of the problem for us.”

At the same time, Planned Parenthood Federation of America—which has become a national symbol for abortion access—saw an immediate spike in fundraising after the Nov. 8 election, including 50,000 donations made in the name of Mr. Pence.

Gay-rights organizations say they have fielded thousands of calls since Mr. Trump’s election from gays and lesbians afraid that the protections they won under President Obama could soon be erased.

Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBT-rights organization, decried the appointment of Mr. Carson, whose department could reverse Obama administration efforts to curtail discrimination against LGBT people in housing.

“Our folks are legitimately frightened,” Mr. Griffin said. “We are looking at ways to stop any and all rollbacks of our rights.”

Social conservatives acknowledge that some changes they are fighting for aren’t likely to happen soon.

Mr. Falwell said that progress on traditional issues evangelicals care about would “come down to the court.”

Mr. Trump said after the election he would seek justices who oppose abortion for Supreme Court openings, but he said he considered the court’s 2015 same-sex marriage ruling to be “settled” law.

on-the-riseBrian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage, which opposes same-sex marriage, said his group would push the new administration to establish legal exemptions for religious believers who don’t want to provide services to gay couples or transgender people.

Mr. Brown also hopes Mr. Trump will reverse the Obama administration’s expansion of transgender rights—including an order directing public schools to allow transgender students to use the bathrooms consistent with their gender identities.

“The notion that those of us who know the truth about marriage are going to go home is silly,” Mr. Brown said. “We’ll keep fighting.”

The religious right has been fighting—and mostly losing—such battles in state courts and in legislatures.

As governor of Indiana, Mr. Pence last year signed a religious-freedom law that would have allowed businesses to deny services to LGBT people on religious grounds, but quickly revised the law following a public outcry.

Mr. Price, meanwhile, co-sponsored a bill in Congress called the First Amendment Defense Act, which would allow business owners to refuse to hire or serve gay and transgender people if doing so conflicted with their religious beliefs.

Civil-liberties groups say such exemptions would effectively gut legal protections for LGBT people, and the bill stalled in Congress last year.

Social conservatives now hope to revive the bill, which Mr. Trump said during the campaign he would sign.

“America got a reprieve against what evil was overtaking us,” said Tim Trunkle, a 57-year-old Baptist from Charleston. “I don’t know if Donald Trump is a Christian, but I hope he’ll realize that there was a movement, a wave and maybe a lot of prayer that helped this election go the way it went.”

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