October 2016 Church & State | Featured

Staring out over a crowd of 3,000 far-right evangelical Christians in Washington, D.C., Sept. 9, Republican presidential candidate Donald J. Trump assumed an unusual mantle: defender of America’s “Christian heritage.”

“Our Christian heritage will be cherished, protected, defended like you’ve never seen before,” Trump told attendees of the annual Values Voter Summit (VVS). “Believe me. I believe it and you believe it and you know it.”

The real estate developer and former reality TV star went on to claim that officials like Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton “have really abandoned” evangelicals “to a large extent.” But if he wins, Trump pledged to defend the “religious liberty” of all Christians.  

The Values Voter Summit, now in its 11th year, has long been a bastion of the “family values” speak that has for decades propped up Religious Right groups. But there was something decidedly different about this year’s confab, which is hosted annually by the Family Research Council (FRC).

While it was still full of all the usual bad ideas, there was one new, clear takeaway: The Religious Right’s hypo­crisy reached new lows. How else to explain that a group of supposedly devout, fundamentalist Christ­ians have thrown their support behind a thrice-married reality television star who has bragged about bedding married women and never claimed to be a man of faith until he started running for president?

Movement leaders twisted themselves into knots to justify their support for Trump. Gary Bauer told a conservative Catholic TV network that all people are sinners who deserve forgiveness – a standard the far right is never willing to extend to liberal politicians. 

Given Trump’s history, he didn’t simply waltz into the Religious Right’s good graces on day one. In fact, at last year’s VVS, far-right favorite U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) won the presidential straw poll with 35 percent of the vote; Trump, meanwhile, earned just 5 percent. To win over the evangelical crowd, Trump has repeatedly called for allowing houses of worship to engage in partisan politics by endorsing or opposing candidates – a theme he hit hard at the VVS.

“The first thing we have to do is give our churches their voice back,” Trump told a standing-room-only crowd Friday afternoon. “It’s been taken away. The [law] has blocked our pastors and ministers and others from speaking their minds from their own pulpits. If they want to talk about Christianity, if they want to preach, if they want to talk about politics, they’re unable to do so. If they want to do it, they take a tremendous risk of losing their tax-exempt status.”

Trump’s comments were met with loud applause and hoots by Summit attendees, but in reality, the law doesn’t prevent clergy from discussing religious matters in their pulpits – or even political ones. Clergy are free to talk about issues and can even endorse or oppose candidates as private citizens. But they can’t use the resources of their churches to do so.

During the gathering, Trump also vowed to put ultra-conservative judges on the Supreme Court. He reminded attendees that he has put forth a list of 11 potential high court nominees, all vetted by the far-right Federalist Society, and said the next president might shape the high court for a generation.

Trump further pandered to far-right conservatives by pushing a broad “school choice” plan. He unveiled that scheme the day before the VVS and reiterated it during his speech, proposing to create a massive nationwide voucher program in which the federal government would set aside $20 billion in addition to $110 billion from the states. He said that would make available roughly $12,000 in taxpayer dollars per eligible student per year to attend any school – even if that school is religious in nature. Tax credits would be offered to home-schoolers.

“As your president, I will be the biggest cheerleader for school choice you’ve ever seen,” Trump vowed.

Trump wrapped up his nearly hour-long talk by quoting a passage from the biblical book of John. He promised to unite the nation and told the crowd, “Imagine what our country could accomplish if we were one people under one God saluting one flag.”

When the real estate mogul wasn’t on the stump for himself during the confab, surrogates were working on his behalf – though some displayed more enthusiasm than others. Among the most enthusiastic was Trump’s running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence. Pence is a longtime ally of the Religious Right, having been rated “True Blue” by FRC, which means he voted the way they wanted 100 percent of the time. Pence attempted to portray Trump as a man of faith – even though he provided scant evidence for his claims.

Calling Trump a “good man who will be a great president,” Pence told a story of an instance on the campaign trail when Trump supposedly asked Pence if he and his family could find some time to pray with him. They did pray together later, Pence said, a development that seemed surprising to the Indiana governor.

“I’ll tell you what, I think at the very core, at the very heart of this good man, is a faith. It’s a faith in God and a faith in the American people,” Pence said. 

Another strong Trump supporter was former U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.). But even she spent more time trashing Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton, than she did touting the reality television star’s credentials.

“Hillary Clinton should be in jail wearing orange,” said Bachmann, referring to Clinton’s problems involving the use of a private email server while she was U.S. secretary of state. “[A]nd more evidence has come out since that is so blatant that she should be brought up by the FBI and recommended for felony charges and actually in time doing jail,” she said, likely misspeaking.  

Others did not appear as firmly on board the Trump train – though they nonetheless offered him their backing. During his opening remarks, FRC President Tony Perkins – who had been such a strong Cruz supporter that he once suggested the United States would never have another presidential election if Cruz did not win the White House – failed to mention Trump by name.

“Let’s make America great again,” Perkins said, referring to the real estate mogul’s campaign slogan. That was the only nod he gave to Trump in his speech.

When not talking up Trump, several speakers focused on a favorite topic of the VVS – phony “religious liberty” claims. Kelly Shackelford, head of the Texas-based Religious Right legal group First Liberty Institute, told some tall tales about clients of his group who claimed their “religious freedom” was violated by government officials.

Shackelford told a highly edited version of the story of Lance Cpl. Monifa Sterling, a former U.S. Marine who was kicked out of the military with a bad-conduct discharge after being court-martialed.

Sterling claims she was tossed out of the Marines because she posted religious signs at her workstation. In fact, she was found guilty of repeatedly violating orders. According to her superiors, Sterling neglected to report for duty and failed to wear the required uniform. A federal appeals court recently rejected her case.

“You have to get approval from your superiors before you can exercise your religion,” groused Shackelford.

Shackelford also defended Aaron and Melissa Klein, former owners of Sweet Cakes by Melissa. The Oregon bakery got into trouble when the two refused to bake a cake for a same-sex couple’s wedding. They later posted the couple’s personal information online after the two filed a complaint against the company. The same-sex couple got so much hate mail they moved to a different state. The Kleins later lost their “religious freedom” case and were fined $135,000, which they have yet to pay.

A Saturday afternoon session featured three speakers who claimed their religious liberty had been violated – but that’s open to dispute. Among them was Joe Kennedy, a Washington state football coach at a public school who has been told to stop praying with students.

Several AU staffers attended the event to listen to the speeches and collect information. Among them was Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn, who could not help but notice the hypocrisy of evangelicals who are going all out for a candidate who does not seem to live by their professed morals.

“Donald Trump has made hay with right-wing evangelicals by posing as an anti-abortion, Bible-loving politician who will compel people to say ‘Merry Christmas’ and change the law to allow church-based partisan politicking – views he never said a word about until a few months ago,” Lynn said in a media statement. “This election season has exposed the leadership of the Religious Right for the hypocrites that they are. What tiny bit of moral authority the Religious Right had left disappeared when they tossed the moral values they supposedly treasure under the Trump campaign bus before jumping aboard.”