Religious right notches gains under Trump
BY JONATHAN EASLEY – 10/10/17 06:00 AM EDT 2,135
President Trump’s administration is delivering for social conservatives, who are thrilled by the gains they’ve seen on their core issues of abortion and religious freedom.
Through court appointments, administrative staffing, executive orders and agency guidance, Trump’s presidency has been a triumph for the religious right.
“He was a wild card, for sure, but we feel completely vindicated,” said Penny Nance, the president of Concerned Women for America. “Trump has been courageous in ways other Republicans, including George W. Bush, have never been. Who knew that a billionaire playboy from Manhattan would be the most pro-life president in history?”
Many social and religious conservatives view the last week as a watershed moment.
On Friday, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced it would roll back an ObamaCare requirement that employers include birth-control coverage in their health insurance plans. The move exempts companies that might object to providing birth control on moral or religious grounds.
On the same day, the Justice Department issued a 20-page, government-wide memo detailing the ways the administration would protect those who “act or abstain from action in accordance with one’s religious beliefs.”
Also last week, the House passed a bill that would ban abortions after 20 weeks. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who played golf with Trump on Monday, has introduced companion legislation in the Senate. Trump has said he will sign the bill if Congress sends it to his desk.
“It has been a banner year for pro-lifers,” said Jeanee Mancini, the president of March for Life.
During the campaign, Trump made big promises to social conservatives about how he’d govern.
Many on the right were criticized for embracing Trump, who is not fluent in the language of evangelicals and was long celebrated in the New York tabloids for his decadent lifestyle.
But Trump followed through on his promises to social conservatives from the start.
One of Trump’s first actions as president was to reinstate the “Mexico City policy,” which blocks foreign aid for international organizations that provide or “promote” abortions.
Then, for the first time ever, White House officials attended the March For Life Rally in Washington, D.C. There, Vice President Pence vowed the administration “will not rest until we restore a culture of life in America.”
Trump in late January nominated Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, an anti-abortion justice known in conservative circles as a fierce defender of religious liberty. Conservatives are equally thrilled with the judges Trump has nominated for lower-level courts.
And in April the president signed a Congressional Review Act resolution that nullified an Obama-era regulation prohibiting states from defunding Planned Parenthood.
A White House official told The Hill that building on those policies will be “an absolute priority” for the administration going forward.
Social conservatives are ecstatic that their support Trump — who Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Penn.) once described as an “imperfect vessel” for the religious right — is paying off in such a big way.
“The best part of Trump’s record so far is what he’s done on abortion and religious freedom,” said Jay Richards, a Catholic University professor. “Lots of people voted for Trump not because they recognized him as a social conservative, but because they believed that he’d fulfill the pledges he made during the campaign. So far, he’s acting to fulfill those promises and seems immune from the usual social pressures that have led politicians to buckle in the past.”
There are still a handful of promises that Trump made during the campaign that have not been fulfilled.
In a signed letter to anti-abortion groups, Trump made four promises. Only one — the nomination of an anti-abortion Supreme Court justice — has been met.
The rest of the promises will require action from the Republican-led Congress.
Trump has said he will sign legislation ending late-term abortions, which appears unlikely to pass the Senate. The president has also said he will reallocate money that goes to Planned Parenthood to other women’s health groups. That measure was in the GOP’s ObamaCare repeal-and-replace bill that failed in the Senate.
Finally, Trump has pledged to enshrine into law the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits taxpayer money from being used for abortions.
“I place all of the blame on Congress,” Richards said of Trump’s unfulfilled promises.
Still, several conservatives interviewed by The Hill said the administration has been slow to correct what they view as injustices in the religious liberty arena. They want the Federal Emergency Management Agency to distribute federal cash to religious groups impacted by natural disasters, and say the administration should extend protections to military officials that are open about their Christian values.
“We’re hopeful that this is just the beginning of what we’ll see from the Trump administration,” said Kelly Shackelford, president and CEO of the First Liberty Institute. “There have been some great things in the last eight months and given what we’ve seen, we think this is just the beginning.”
Conservatives will also be watching closely to see whom Trump nominates to replace Tom Price at HHS. They’re hopeful the next HHS secretary will apply the Weldon Amendment, the so-called “conscience clause” protecting entities that decline to give abortions because of religious objections.
But for now, social conservatives are basking in their political influence.
Nance, the president of Concerned Women for America, said she’d lost count how many times she’d been invited to the White House this year.
Social conservatives interviewed by The Hill rattled off a dozen names within the administration they say have kept them in the loop and helped prioritize their issues, including Kellyanne Conway, a senior adviser to Trump, Andrew Bremberg, Trump’s Domestic Policy Council director, Paul Teller, a special assistant to the president for legislative affairs, and Rick Dearborn, the deputy chief of staff for legislative affairs, among many others.
“It goes directly to Trump for appointing these people,” said Frank Cannon, the president of the American Principles Project.
“He has put them in key positions across the board, from the domestic policy council to the legislative shop to the vice president’s office. This administration is pro-life from the White House to the agencies. Trump deserves the credit. He made promises to pro-life movement and has done everything he can so far to keep those promises.”