Last week, as former FBI director James Comey sat for a highly-publicized testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee, President Donald Trump was across the street delivering a speech to a group of over 1,000 evangelical Christians about his commitment to religious freedom.
The annual Faith and Freedom Coalition conference—headed by conservative activist Ralph Reed—convened for a weekend of lobbying and networking with Republican legislators. Although the coalition comprises Catholics, Orthodox Christians, and Orthodox Jews, the vast majority of its membership is evangelical Christian.
The Coalition—an anti-abortion, anti-same-sex marriage, pro-Zionist advocacy non-profit—seeks to “enact legislation that strengthens families, promotes time-honored values, [and] protects the dignity of life and marriage.” The organization reports that, from 2015 to 2016, it coordinated a “faith-based” campaign that made over 10 million phone calls, knocked on over 1.2 million doors, and distributed over 30 million voter guides in churches.
Trump acknowledged the demographics of the group at the outset of his speech, citing the fact that 81 percent of white evangelicals that voted for him in the general election.
“I want to know, who are the 19 percent?” Trump gibed about the minority of white evangelicals that did not vote for him. “Who are they? Where do they come from?”
In his speech, Trump thanked his audience for their support and promised them his reciprocal support. “You didn’t let me down, and I will never, ever let you down. You know that,” he said. “We will always support our evangelical community, and defend your right, and the right of all Americans, to follow and to live by the teachings of their faith.”
Saying that Americans of faith are “under siege,” Trump pointed to undocumented “gang members…drug dealers and criminals,” the Paris Climate Accord, and the Johnson Amendment as inhibitors of Americans’ freedom. He touted his commitment to addressing these concerns, saying opaquely, “Don’t worry, you’re going to see some real good ones coming about very soon. You’re going to see some great ones coming about very soon.”
Among Trump’s promises to the group were the protection of the unborn, the imminent replacement of the Affordable Care Act, and an end to the Johnson Amendment’s “interfere[ence] with…First Amendment rights.”
“Every day I am president we are going to make America first—not somebody else, not some other country. We are going to make America first,” Trump said to applause.
Trump, who has not been known for deep religious conviction, made several overt references to his own faith during his speech. Touting his “shared cause” with his audience, Trump quoted a Bible verse about seeking justice and defending the oppressed. Declaring that “liberty comes from our Creator,” Trump continued, “In America, we don’t worship government. We worship God. Right? We worship God.”
Audience members met the speech with mixed responses. Ohioan Rebecca Clutter told Salon that the speech “was amazing and awesome and it hit all the points.”
Republican Marylander Melanie Harris, on the other hand, told Religion News Service expressed her disappointment that the speech did not vary from what she could have “read in the paper.” “Everything he had to say was fantastic but it seemed very scripted,” Harris said.
For Trinity College professor of religion in public life Mark Silk, the fact that the speech coincided with the ex-FBI director’s testimony regarding potential collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian interference with the 2016 election has implications for Trump’s loyalty to white evangelical voters. Citing James Comey’s testimony that he “got the sense my job would be contingent upon how [Trump] felt I conducted myself and whether I demonstrated loyalty,” Silk wrote that Trump appears to prefer transactional working relationships.
“As good clients, evangelicals will support Trump’s agenda and overlook his faults,” Silk said. “And, in turn Trump will reward them for their loyalty—for as long as it’s in his…interest to do so.”
A Pew Research Center survey after Trump’s first 100 days in office found that the president maintained a 78 percent approval rating among white evangelical Protestants. The general public’s approval rating of Trump sat at 42 percent—the lowest of any president in modern history.
--by Caroline Matas
Image Source: Donald Trump. Photo by Gage Skidmore, Flickr Creative Commons.