Much ado was made on Oct. 13 when President Donald Trump became the first sitting president to address the Values Voter Summit, the annual gathering of the Religious Right sponsored by the Family Research Council.
It was a repeat appearance for Trump, who spoke at the confab about a month before he was elected president in November 2016. His encore this year received an enthusiastic welcome in the crowded Washington, D.C., hotel ballroom that was brimming with far-right fundamentalist Christians – a bloc that overwhelmingly voted for Trump last year.
“It’s great to be back here with so many friends at the 2017 Values Voter Summit, and we know what that means. We know what that means,” Trump said in a speech that was also live-streamed over the internet and broadcast live on C-SPAN. “America is a nation of believers, and together we are strengthened and sustained by the power of prayer.”
Trump touted the fulfillment of campaign promises: “I pledged that, in a Trump administration, our nation’s religious heritage would be cherished, protected and defended like you have never seen before. That’s what’s happening. That’s what’s happening. You see it every day.”
He added, “I appointed and confirmed a Supreme Court justice in the mold of the late, great Justice Antonin Scalia, the newest member of the Supreme Court, Justice Neil Gorsuch.”
This announcement was greeted by one of the several standing ovations Trump received and praise from other summit speakers, including Republican U.S. Reps. Mark Meadows of North Carolina and Steve Scalise of Louisiana. Meadows said this about campaigning for Trump last year: “We said it would be worth it for just one thing: If we could get a conservative on the Supreme Court like Neil Gorsuch, it would have been worth it, and indeed we have done that.”
Trump also claimed premature victory in fulfilling another campaign promise: repealing the Johnson Amendment, the federal law that protects the integrity of American elections and of nonprofits – including houses of worship – by ensuring nonprofits don’t endorse or oppose political candidates.
“[I] followed through on one of my most important campaign promises to so many of you – to prevent the horrendous Johnson Amendment from interfering with your First Amendment rights,” Trump said to more applause. “Thank you. We will not allow government workers to censor sermons or target our pastors or our ministers or rabbis. These are the people we want to hear from, and they’re not going to be silenced any longer.”
Trump claimed this was one of the accomplishments of his “religious freedom” executive order he issued on the National Day of Prayer. However, his own Department of Justice (DOJ), in an August court filing, conceded that this executive order did not change current law.
“The Order does not exempt religious organization(s) from the restrictions on political campaign activity applicable to all tax-exempt organizations,” DOJ attorneys wrote in response to a lawsuit filed by the Freedom From Religion Foundation. “Rather, the Order directs the Government not to take adverse action against religious organizations that it would not take against other organizations in the enforcement of these restrictions.”
In other words, the Internal Revenue Service must continue to enforce the Johnson Amendment equally for houses of worship and other nonprofits covered by the tax provision – something the IRS already does.
U.S. Reps. Mike Johnson (R-La.) and Mark Walker (R-N.C.) told the Values Voter crowd they supported weakening or repealing the Johnson Amendment.
“We need to unshackle the voice of the church again,” said Johnson, who claimed the law silences and censors houses of worship. He said changing the law “could be a game changer.” Walker agreed: “The voices on the left were never shackled; now it’s time to unshackle the voices on the right.”
Scalise hyped a bill he sponsored, the Free Speech Fairness Act, which would weaken the Johnson Amendment by allowing nonprofits to participate in partisan politics as long as the campaigning occurred during organizations’ regular activities and was of insignificant cost. “People of religious faith cannot continue to be intimidated by the IRS to suppress their political views,” he said. Among his bill’s co-sponsors are VVS speakers Johnson, Meadows and Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-Mo.).
While Trump’s National Day of Prayer executive order may not have accomplished much at the time it was issued, it did portend additional attacks on religious freedom – and Trump followed through in the weeks leading up to the Values Voter Summit. (See “Double Trouble,” page 5 of this issue.)
“[B]ased on this executive action, the Department of Justice issued a new guidance to all federal agencies to ensure that no religious group is ever targeted under my administration. It won’t happen,” Trump told the crowd.
On AU’s “Wall of Separation” blog, AU Legislative Director Maggie Garrett explained that the DOJ guidance issued by Attorney General Jeff Sessions could “allow taxpayer-funded organizations, corporations, and individuals to use religion as a trump card to almost any law” – particularly non-discrimination laws that protect women, LGBTQ people, religious minorities and others.
Trump also spoke of the new birth control regulations his administration issued the same day as the DOJ guidance – rules that would allow employers and universities to cite their religious beliefs as justification for denying women access to low-cost birth control in their health insurance plans.
“We have also taken action to protect the conscience rights of groups like the Little Sisters of the Poor,” Trump said, referring to one of the religious organizations that objected to the Affordable Care Act’s birth control coverage provision. “What they went through – they were going through hell. And then all of the sudden they won. They said, how did that happen? We want to really point out that the Little Sisters of the Poor and other people of faith, they live by a beautiful calling, and we will not let bureaucrats take away that calling or take away their rights.”
Trump’s implication that his directive “won” the battle for the groups challenging the provision is misleading. The Little Sisters of the Poor’s attorney from the Religious Right legal group the Becket Fund told The Washington Times they would forge ahead with their existing lawsuit challenging the original birth control provision. And new lawsuits are being filed to challenge Trump’s birth control rules; at Church & State’s press time, Americans United was preparing to file one of those cases.
Steve Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist and chairman of ultraconservative Breitbart News, credited the Values Voter crowd and like-minded Religious Right activists with pressuring the administration to enact the DOJ guidance and birth control regulations. He said the September victory of former Alabama Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore (also a VVS speaker) in securing the GOP nomination for Sessions’ vacated U.S. Senate seat was the catalyst for pushing through several policies because it forced the GOP establishment to reconcile with the rising tide of the Religious Right.
“Let’s look at what happened since Alabama,” Bannon said, listing several presidential actions in the previous month. “The religious liberty EO that was gutted back in May – surprise, surprise, surprise – the 25-page memo from Attorney General Sessions, the whole Little Sisters of the Poor thing, everything turned around. …Those are not random events, folks. That’s victory begets victory. We owe that to Judge Moore and the good men and women of Alabama.
“Every day is like Christmas Day now,” Bannon added. (The reference was to Trump’s speech a day earlier, during which the president said, “We are stopping cold the attacks on Judeo-Christian values. And something I’ve said so much during the last two years, but I’ll say it again as we approach the end of the year. You know, we’re getting near that beautiful Christmas season that people don’t talk about anymore. They don’t use the word Christmas because it’s not politically correct. …Well, guess what? We’re saying, ‘Merry Christmas,’ again.”)
Trump, Bannon, Moore and other speakers who peddled in extreme rhetoric were met with wild applause from the crowd. They especially swooned over this Trump line (which he has used before): “And above all else, we know this: In America, we don’t worship government – we worship God. Inspired by that conviction, we are returning moral clarity to our view of the world and the many grave challenges we face.”
At the beginning of Trump’s speech, he jokingly questioned whether Family Research Council President Tony Perkins would ask him to return in 2018: “I’ll ask Tony and all our people that do such a great job in putting this event together – can I take next year off or not? Or do I have to be back? I don’t know.”
Given his reception at the Values Voter Summit and his promise to continue granting the wishes of his Religious Right base, it seems unlikely either Trump or the VVS crowd would pass up a chance for a Trump “three-peat” next year.