November 2019 Church & State Magazine | Featured

During the Values Voter Summit in October, evangelical Christian leader Tony Perkins giddily touted the Christian nationalist infiltration of the Trump administration.

“Personnel is policy,” said Perkins, quoting the late conservative Christian political activist Paul Weyrich. “And that’s what makes the difference in this administration: We’re not on the outside looking in. We’re on the inside working out.”

That’s how Perkins, president of Summit sponsor the Family Research Council (FRC), introduced Alex Azar, the secretary of President Donald Trump’s U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) that has launched numerous attacks on women, LGBTQ people, religious minorities and others in the past three years. Perkins also applauded HHS officials Roger Severino (formerly of the conservative Christian legal group Becket) and Shannon Royce (formerly an FRC employee) who were in the audience and have helped shape the department’s agenda of misusing religious freedom to justify discrimination.

“We have Value Voters in the White House,” Perkins said, noting that he had just returned from a White House meeting with Trump’s Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney.

On night two of the Values Voter Summit, as he introduced Trump as the speaker of the event’s closing banquet, Perkins continued name-dropping allies in the administration: Vice President Mike Pence; Sam Brownback, U.S. ambassador for international religious freedom; and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. And of course there was Perkins himself, who parlayed membership on Trump’s Evangelical Advisory Board to an appointment as Trump’s commissioner on international religious freedom.

Perkins and the Values Voter Summit crowd spent the weekend celebrating the inroads they’ve made at redefining religious freedom as the right to impose their narrow set of religious views not just on fellow Americans, but on people around the world.

Attendees arriving at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington, D.C., were given a three-page FRC handout misleadingly titled “Trump Administration's Accomplishments on Life, Family, and Religious Liberty.” The document outlined how Trump and his appointees have “taken significant action on issues of concern to social conservatives,” including:

  • HHS policies like the Denial of Care Rule, which invites all health care workers to cite religious beliefs to deny care to any patient; the rules allowing employers and universities to cite religious beliefs to deny employees and students access to birth control; implementing domestic and global gag rules that prevent federally funded health officials from even providing information about abortion; and revising Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act to remove anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ people.
  • The Department of Labor’s proposed rule to allow federal contractors to fire or refuse to hire any employees who don’t pass a religious litmus test.
  • Other efforts to roll back the rights of LGBTQ people, including the transgender military ban and the Department of Education rescinding federal guidance that required schools to allow transgender students to use bathrooms that aligned with their gender identity.
  • Department of Justice (DOJ) intervention in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case before the U.S. Supreme Court to advocate for the right of businesses to cite religion as they slam the door shut on LGBTQ customers.
  • The DOJ’s support at the U.S. Supreme Court for the Bladensburg Cross, the 40-foot monument to “all” veterans that the court allowed to remain standing on public land in Maryland.
  • Trump’s more than 150 federal judicial appointments, including Supreme Court Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanagh who are seen as key to accomplishing religious extremists’ goals of gutting reproductive justice, LGBTQ equality and religious freedom.
  • The creation of DOJ’s Religious Liberty Task Force, which was empowered to enforce the department’s blueprint for all federal departments to use religion to discriminate, particularly against women and LGBTQ people.

While lengthy, the handout wasn’t complete. For instance, it omitted the waiver HHS granted in January to all taxpayer-funded, faith-based foster care agencies in South Carolina. The exemption allows agencies to deny children loving homes by rejecting prospective parents and volunteers who are the “wrong” religion – like Americans United client Aimee Maddonna, a mother of three who was turned away by an evangelical Christian agency because she is Catholic.

But Trump and Azar were sure to mention their support for discrimination in the foster care system – a policy the administration is rumored to be planning to extend nationwide.

“We are preserving our country’s vital tradition of faith-based adoption,” Trump said.

Azar said faith-based adoption agencies would face “unacceptable burdens” if they were required to follow the antidiscrimination rules that had been in place for taxpayer-funded service providers.

FRC’s handout of “accomplishments” also didn’t list the Trump administration’s most recent attack on the LGBTQ community: Three days before the Values Voter Summit began, the DOJ argued before the Supreme Court that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 doesn’t protect LGBTQ people from being fired.

Although the Supreme Court did not specifically take up the argument of whether employers have the right to fire LGBTQ people based on religious objections, it was part of the defense offered by an employer in one of the three cases. The owner of R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes in Michigan had cited his religious beliefs when he fired an employee of six years, Aimee Stephens, two weeks after she came out as transgender and began living as a woman.

Several Values Voter Summit speakers addressed Stephens’ case throughout a weekend that featured much fear-mongering about affirming the equal rights of transgender people.

“Understand what’s at stake here,” said U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas), who misgendered Stephens by using male pronouns to describe her. “If the plaintiffs win this case before the Supreme Court, that first part of the First Amendment will be gone. You will not have the freedom to believe what Moses and Jesus said about sexuality.”

In addition to Gohmert, U.S. Reps. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) and Roger Marshall (R-Kan.) were the other elected federal officials to speak at the summit.

Mark Green, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), was the other Trump administration official to speak. He primarily addressed how his agency’s work had the added benefit of advancing the far-right interpretation of religious freedom.

Coming on the heels of Trump’s attempt to disrupt the United Nations summit on climate change with a speech on international religious freedom in September, many Values Voter Summit speakers addressed religious persecution (especially the persecution of Christians) around the world.

But conspicuously absent was any mention of Trump’s controversial decision days before to pull U.S. troops out of Syria, leaving vulnerable the United States’ Kurdish allies and many Syrian Christians. It was a decision met with some of the harshest (albeit still tempered) criticism Trump has received to date from his evangelical base, with the likes of Perkins, Pat Robertson and Franklin Graham voicing concern.

The only person to address the situation in Syria during the summit was Graham’s son, Army veteran Edward Graham, whose request that people pray for the Kurds was met with applause.

“Lord, we pray for the president of the United States, for the vice president, and the decisions they make,” Graham said, head bowed. “Lord we pray for Pence, [who] we know is a strong believer and is committed to you. Lord, use him, just as you used Daniel and Joseph, to influence. They were No. 2’s. Use Vice President Pence to speak clarity.”

At a gala that closed out the summit, Trump justified his decision as part of his priority of ending U.S. military involvement in foreign battles and noted that he’d just authorized emergency stabilization money to help religious minorities in Syria, especially Christians.

“Fifty million dollars and that’s going to help Christians in Syria,” he said. “With one clear voice, the United States of America condemns the persecution of Christians. And we pledge our support to Christian communities everywhere suffering under the brutal heel of oppression and violence.”

Trump’s more than hour-long speech, televised nationally by C-SPAN, veered from animated as he railed against “extreme left-wing radicals” and “far-left socialists” to more sedate readings from a teleprompter as he listed the things he’d done to please the Values Voter Summit crowd.

He finished by echoing the summit’s worldview of the United States as a Christian nation.

“Now, powered by those same historic values that have always defined our nation, we will reach new heights, make new breakthroughs and we will strengthen the bonds of love and loyalty that unite us all as citizens, as neighbors, as patriots, as Christians, as people of faith,” he said. “As one people, one nation and one United States of America, we will stand as a light of liberty, a land of courage and a home for proud people of faith. Forever and always, Americans will believe in the cause of freedom, the power of prayer and the eternal glory of God. Thank you. God bless you. And God bless America.”

With that, Trump left the podium as the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” was piped through the speakers – perhaps a nod to the oft-voiced explanation for evangelical support of a president who doesn’t seem to live by their values but is delivering on their policy agenda nonetheless.