As the Trump administration continues to rack up outrage upon outrage, it’s easy to lose sight of the long-term implications of his presidency. A lot of attention has been paid to Trump’s debt to conservative evangelicals, such as Jerry Falwell Jr., especially those leaders who stood by him at the low points in his campaign.
But it’s worth noting that if the religious right is riding high now under Trump, had he lost, the group would have been in complete disarray. There was a bitter split among leaders about Trump’s fitness for the presidency. Moreover, throughout the campaign, there was clear signs that conservative evangelical leaders were divided not just about Trump but about their role in politics and in particular the merits of replaying the culture wars. If Trump had lost, there would have been a struggle over direction comparable to the debate that progressives are now facing.
Of course (and to our great misfortune), Trump didn’t lose. Instead of struggling with their waning influence, the religious right is poised to wield unprecedented power in government and policy. While Trump couldn’t tell the difference between a communion wafer and a Triscuit, he does recognize loyalty and rewards it.
Here are six ways that Trump has made a downpayment to the religious right for their support…
1. Neil Gorsuch
The choice of Gorsuch as Trump’s Supreme Court nominee has evangelical leaders doing cartwheels, even if they grumbled when the story that he congratulated a friend on his same sex wedding. The idea of stealing a seat from Obama and ensuring that the Court still tilted to the right was the reason why many evangelicals stood by Trump. If the Senate approves his nomination, Gorsuch, 51, will be the gift that keeps on giving for decades to come.
2. Cabinet choices
There’s no unifying thread among Trump’s Cabinet members, but a large subgroup have close ties to the religious right. Betty DeVos has given buckets of money to antigay causes. Rick Perry ran a 2012 presidential campaign steeped in homophobia. Ben Carson launched his political career by trashing gays. Jeff Sessions is reflexively homophobic. And that’s just a few members of the Cabinet. There are plenty more, to say nothing of the country’s first religious right Vice President Mike Pence.
3. His other appointees
Trump is filling his administration with hard-core members of the religious right. His choice to head the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, John Gore, was the attorney defending North Carolina’s repulsive HB2 law. Falwell Jr. will lead Trump’s education task force. Mike Huckabee’s daughter, Sarah Huckabee-Sanders, is a deputy communications offer. Huckabee-Sanders ran a group attacking Liz Cheney for supporting marriage equality during her 2012 Congressional campaign, even though she was against it. The administration has been slow to populate open positions, but given the track record so far, we’re in no hurry.
4. Making white Christian nationalism a core principle
A rigorous political theorist, Trump is not. But there is a guiding principle emerging in the administration, thanks to the power that former Breitbart head Steve Bannon has amassed as Trump’s number one advisor. Bannon views the world through the ludicrous lens of white Christianity locked in a war with radical Islam. A lot of attention has been paid to his focus on Islam, thanks to the Muslim travel ban. But the Christianity part is equally scary, particularly in a nation where being secular means you are far more likely to be pro-gay. The religious right knows just what it means, though. That’s why Trump made a point of stressing that Christians will be given favored status under the travel ban.
5. Repealing the Johnson Amendment
Right now, thanks to a law that Lyndon Johnson introduced when he was a Senator, nonprofits can’t engage in political activity. Trump wants to “totally destroy” the measure, which would allow churches to spend money they collect on political campaigns. No wonder that far-right groups like Alliance Defending Freedom are gung-ho for its repeal. If you think it’s bad now, imagine how much worse it will be when pastors can start throwing money around as well. Of course it will open the doors for liberal pastors to do the same, marking the start of the religious fundraising wars at a time when denominations should surely be focusing on helping the needy.
6. Access for Christian media
Where did Trump turn to talk about his Muslim ban? Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network. The White House has decided that the mainstream media is, in Bannon’s words, “the opposition party.” (Which is true, in the sense that the media is opposed to lies.) That means that friendly outlets are going to be Trump’s preferred vehicle. Jerry Falwell Jr. is boasting that Trump is paying attention to the Christian media, who in turn can boost Trump on their programs and social media accounts.