Donald Trump and his wife Melania on their way into a church © Alex Brandon
Evangelical pastors put hand on Trump's shoulder and pray for him. Protestant right also lends hand to its policies. The president fulfilled many wishes of the fundamentalists.
Republican presidents have always steered clear of the fringes of the evangelical spectrum. Not so Donald Trump, who made history this Friday when he became the first occupant of the Oval Office to appear at the Value Voters Summit in Washington.
Trump was already the star guest at the meeting last year as a candidate. But this time he brings with him the gravitas of the office and a sack full of promises kept. From restrictions on abortions to appointing a pro-life judge to the Constitutional Court to eliminating protections for transgender people. This is exactly the agenda of the Family Research Council (FRC), a religious right think tank that hosts the Value Voters Summit.
Trump: defend "national religious heritage"
"I promised that a Trump administration would value, protect and defend our national religious heritage as only before," Trump said at the summit. He had a plan for this. "We are clearly ahead of that".The president emphasized what he had done against abortion, contraception and for religious freedom and the special position of churches in tax law. He recalled the appointment of an anti-abortionist as a judge to the Constitutional Court and other nominations for vacancies in the federal courts. "We have stopped the attacks on Judeo-Christian values," Trump said. "We say Merry Christmas again".
Trump's appearance at Value Voter Summit was controversial. Civil rights organization Southern Poverty Law Center classifies summit host Family Research Council as inflammatory. Background is its radical positions on homosexual, bisexual and transsexual people (LGBT). According to its own statements, the "Value Voter Summit" advocates Christian values such as traditional marriage, religious freedom and the protection of life.
Change at the intersection of politics and religion
The civil rights group Southern Poverty Law Center, on the other hand, can discern little that is moral about the FRC's values voters. Instead, she categorizes the fundamentalist FRC as a "hate group" – because of its radical positions on the LGBT community, or lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
Trump counts Family Research Council President Tony Perkins among his closest circle of advisers. Like a number of other leaders of the Christian right, even Bible-thumping Protestant George W. Bush held at arm's length. Trump, on the other hand, ties them up with a permanent circle of advisers organized for him by TV preacher Paula White.
Historian of religion Randall Balmer recognizes this as part of the shift that is taking place in the U.S. at the intersection of politics and religion. Evangelicals have more influence on the White House than ever before, says the distinguished professor of Barnard College at the elite Columbia University in New York.
Politics to the evangelical taste
Trump is making policy to the liking of his evangelical supporters, whom he has assembled in a "Presidential Evangelical Advisory Board". Just recently he restricted the use of the pill on a medical certificate. "Who would have thought that a billionaire playboy from Manhattan, of all places, would go down in history as a pro-life president?" enthuses Penny Nance, chair of the influential Concerned Women for America.
Like Nance, many spokespeople for the Christian right rave about "their" president, who conversely singles them out as "my people".
Yet fundi leaders were initially not at all sure that the less-than-virtuous Trump would actually work to implement evangelical political and social goals as president.
While reneging on deals with others, Trump delivered on his part of the pact with right-wing protesters. He knows how important they are for him. Four out of five evangelicals voted for him in the elections. In his first six months in office alone, the president assembled his "Evangelical Advisory Board" a dozen times. Not counting regular conference calls.
Direct access yields results. Two weeks after meeting with evangelicals, Trump announced in a tweet that he would deny transgender people access to the military. This is exactly what religious leaders had demanded when they visited the White House.
Little influence of other religions
There is only a little disappointment about the slow progress of the promised move of the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. But measured against her exclusive access to the Oval Office, that's peanuts. Especially since other churches outside the evangelical world – let alone other religions – have very little influence on Trump.
Televangelist Rodney Howard-Browne posted a picture from the Oval Office in July showing right-wing pastors placing their hands on Trump's shoulder and praying for him. The footage spread like wildfire among devout fans. "It made me cry when I saw this," reads one of the many touched feedbacks. Pastor Howard-Browne is also still under the impression of the meaningful gesture. "Who would have ever thought that we would see such a spiritual revival again."