SALT LAKE CITY — President Donald Trump cites his defense of religious freedom as a reason why Christians should support him in the 2020 election. But some critics say his approach to faith-related policies has done more harm than good.
Yes, he’s stood up for religiously affiliated adoption agencies that, for religious reasons, don’t want to screen same-sex couples. However, in the process, he’s made it possible for some agencies to turn away people of faith who don’t share their beliefs.
Yes, he’s enabled most employers with a moral objection to birth control to exclude it from company health plans and supported the Catholic sisters who brought their contraception concerns to the Supreme Court. But his administration also rejected a Catholic diocese’s efforts to retain control of land along the U.S.-Mexico border since it would interfere with border wall plans.
And yes, he’s committed more government resources to preventing religious persecution around the world. Yet he’s made harmful remarks about religious minority groups within the United States.
It’s left room for both critics and supporters to stake positions on the president and religious liberty.
“Far from protecting religious freedom, he’s undermining it at every turn,” said Maggie Garrett, the vice president for public policy for Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
Garrett and other religious and political leaders hope to erode support for the president by highlighting his at-times inconsistent approach to religious freedom. But his religious supporters, especially in the evangelical Christian community, won’t be easy to convince.
“In the Trump administration, religious freedom isn’t just a priority. In many circumstances, it’s their top concern,” said Johnnie Moore, one of the president’s evangelical advisers, to the Deseret News last year.
Trump and religion
While running for office, Trump promised to advocate for people of faith, and most of his religious supporters believe he’s stayed true to his word. He’s appointed conservative judges, expanded legal protections for religiously affiliated organizations and repeatedly urged policymakers to pay attention to the needs of people of faith.
“The day I took office … the federal government’s war on religion came to a very abrupt end,” Trump said at the launch event for his reelection campaign’s “Evangelicals for Trump” coalition earlier this month, according to NPR.
These remarks allude to what many of Trump’s religious supporters see as his most important achievement: Undoing Obama-era policies that put pressure on people of faith who object to same-sex marriage. Unlike his predecessor, Trump has embraced religious exemptions to LGBTQ nondiscrimination laws.
“For the past 50 to 60 years, there’s been a wholesale crusade against Christian values in our country led by leftist courts,” said the Rev. Robert Jeffress, senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas, to the Deseret News in November. “Many Christians believe that needs to be reversed, and I think that’s why you see such overwhelming support for President Trump from evangelical Christians.”
It’s not an overstatement to say that support is “overwhelming.” More than three-quarters of white evangelical Protestants (77%) approve of the president’s job performance, and nearly one-third (31%) say there’s “almost nothing” he could do to lose their approval, according to Public Religion Research Institute.
Despite the data, critics of pro-Trump evangelicals haven’t given up hope to change their minds. But rather than argue about the value of the president’s religion-related policies, they typically focus instead on the character issues they believe should disqualify him for a second term.
For example, in a recent, high-profile editorial calling for Trump’s removal from office, Mark Galli, the former editor of Christianity Today, said the president’s “defense of religious liberty” doesn’t excuse the times he’s “betrayed his constitutional oath.”
“None of the president’s positives can balance the moral and political danger we face under a leader of such grossly immoral character,” he wrote.
Arguments like these typically fall flat among Trump’s most ardent religious supporters. The Rev. Jeffress and others say no one expected the president to be perfect.
“The whole basis of the Christian message is we’re all sinners,” the Rev. Jeffress recently told NPR.
Questioning Trump’s record
Rather than focus on the president’s perceived moral indiscretions, some religious and political leaders are trying to make a case against Trump using the same evidence that Moore and others cite in calling for his reelection. They agree he’s made religious freedom a priority, but say his policy approach will hurt people of faith in the long term.
“No religious liberty advocate should hail President Trump as a champion,” wrote Melissa Rogers, who served as executive director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships under President Barack Obama, in a Jan. 3 column for Religion News Service.
In the column and in an interview with the Deseret News this week, Rogers offered a variety of evidence to support this claim. She criticized the administration’s efforts to ban travelers from some Muslim-majority countries and interest in prioritizing Christian refugees. She argued that new protections for religious organizations haven’t been paired with protections for people who might be harmed as a result.
Overall, Trump has favored Christians over other people of faith and certain types of religious freedom claims over others, said Rogers, who is the author of “Faith in American Public Life.”
For example, he stood up for religious employers who don’t want to provide birth control in their health care plans, but not religious activists who cite their faith as the reason they provide water to migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border.
“My sense is that the Trump administration has … a pattern of hostility toward free exercise claims that cut against its policy priorities,” Rogers said.
The administration also seems to care more about the concerns of religious organizations than individual people of faith, Garrett said. When it granted a faith-based foster care agency a waiver to federal nondiscrimination law, it enabled the agency to continue to refuse to work with Christians and non-Christians who wouldn’t sign its belief statement.
“Trump is favoring the beliefs of institutions seeking money from the taxpayer over individuals in need,” Garrett said.
However, by supporting faith-based foster care agencies, the Trump administration helps everyday people, as Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission pointed out when the administration announced plans to allow religious organizations to receive some federal funding without following nondiscrimination rules.
“This new regulation from the Trump administration is a welcome signal that the child welfare system is about the welfare of children — not proxy culture wars,” he said.
At the very least, Trump’s religious freedom policies have increased polarization on important topics, making it harder to work on related legislation, Garrett said.
“When you talk about religious freedom now, so many people immediately assume what you’re proposing will be anti-woman or anti-LGBTQ,” she said.
When religious freedom is seen as a special privilege for one religious group, it puts everyone at risk, Rogers said.
“Governmental favoritism for any faith, including favoritism for the Christian faith, is not religious freedom. It’s not good for the faith that’s favored either,” she said.