Amid the stream of outrage about President Donald Trump that dominates my Facebook feed, one friend desperately sought a silver lining: “Well, at least we don’t have the theocrat Pence as President.” It reminded me that I, like some of my LGBTQ friends, thought during the Republican primary that we would prefer Trump to someone like Ted Cruz, whose unshakeable religious-right ideology and matching policy agenda was clear.
We were wrong. My Facebook friend is wrong. Not only is Trump a reckless and divisive president who shows contempt for anyone who crosses him and who has energized a white nationalist movement that could wreak havoc on American political and social culture for a long time to come—he’s also the best thing that’s ever happened to the religious right.
To be fair, there was a logical foundation for believing that Trump would be less of a culture warrior than a president who is a conservative evangelical. Pence has a long anti-choice and anti-LGBTQ record. And there is a basis for the argument that Trump is so incompetent that a Mike Pence or a Ted Cruz might have been more successful dealing with Congress.
But it is hard to imagine the religious right doing any better under a President Pence or President Cruz than they are with President Trump. But because the president is the crass, amoral, prideful, and dishonest huckster Trump, rather than a faith-on-their-sleeve true believer like Pence or Cruz, the religious right has been able to have to wield an outsized influence on national policy while avoiding the kind of scrutiny that would come if they were working with one of their own in the White House.
During his campaign, Trump offered conservative evangelicals a deal: help him take the White House and he would make them more politically powerful than ever before. They took the deal, urged voters to overlook his glaring character flaws, and helped put him in office. Trump’s conservative Christian cheerleaders have told him repeatedly that he is on a divine mission and that God intervened in the election. Religious right leaders upheld their end of the deal and delivered an overwhelming majority of white evangelical votes to Trump. Now he’s upholding his end by giving them more than they might have expected even from a President Pence.
One of Trump’s biggest boosters is Lance Wallnau, among the “prophets” who has declared that Trump was anointed by God. In his pre-election book, God’s Chaos Candidate, he specifically argued that the religious right would get more out of Trump because other people wouldn’t be watching for it. “If you think about it,” he wrote,
no candidate other than Trump would even risk the political liability of promoting a faith-based solution to a problem, especially if they ran as an evangelical Christian. Can’t you see them jumping all over President Cruz or Huckabee if one of them started pushing ‘faith based’ initiatives? With Trump it’s a different story. No one thinks he’s a Christian so nobody suspects him of trying to push religion on people.
Trump’s payback to conservative evangelicals started with his nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. Religious right activists now envision hundreds of Gorsuch-like federal judges reversing Obama policies as a warm-up to rolling back Great Society and New Deal programs—not to mention LGBTQ equality and reproductive rights.
Trump made cabinet appointments that even Pence or Cruz might not have dared to propose: Jeff Sessions, the infamous civil rights violator took over at the Department of Justice; Betsy DeVos, one of the most outspoken advocates for privatizing public education, heads the Department of Education; Tom Price, an anti-reproductive-choice zealot, leads Health and Human Services; Scott Pruitt, a longtime EPA adversary runs the EPA. Ben Carson and Rick Perry also got tossed to the mix for good measure.
Trump and Pence have thrown open the doors to religious right leaders, who stream into the White House for listening and strategy sessions. It’s not just the figures you might expect, like the Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins. It includes Cindy Jacobs, a Trump-supporting “prophet” who says God is using the president to “turn the tables” on Satan; televangelist scammer and convicted felon Jim Bakker, who is back on TV supporting his “ministry” with the relentless hawking of buckets of dried food to get your family through the coming times of trouble; and Trump’s “spiritual adviser,” Paula White, the prosperity-gospel televangelist who preaches that those who bless her ministry with their hard-earned cash will in turn receive the blessings of God. Several members of Trump’s cabinet now gather for regular Bible study sessions with pastor Ralph Drollinger, who teaches that the prayers of non-Christians go unheard by God, social welfare programs are un-Christian, and Christians with government jobs are obligated to hire only other Christians.
When it comes to policy, the religious right is in the driver’s seat. Trump and DeVos propose to take billions from public schools while spending hundreds of millions on a school voucher plan, a longtime pet project of right-wing activists hoping to dismantle public education and give that money to church schools. Trump tweeted an announcement that transgender people would no longer be allowed to serve in the armed forces in any capacity, a policy change that was sought by and made to order for the religious right.
Jeff Sessions’s Justice Department intervened in a civil rights case to argue that laws protecting people against discrimination on the basis of sex do not forbid discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Trump dramatically expanded the scope of the anti-abortion “global gag rule” in a way that threatens the health and well-being of countless poor women around the globe. Moreover, in a sign of things to come, at a May Rose Garden ceremony, Trump took the first step toward dismantling legal restrictions that keep churches from using charitable donations to run political campaigns.
Religious right leaders have a hard time believing their good fortune. They talk about how often they’re at the White House. The Christian Broadcasting Network rivals Fox in its adulation of Trump. Trump’s silence during LGBTQ Pride month did not go unnoticed or unappreciated. On the rare issues on which Christian conservatives been disappointed—decisions not to immediately relocate the American Embassy to Jerusalem or pursue broad religious exemptions from laws protecting LGBTQ people from discrimination, the president has told them to be more patient.
Sometimes it’s hard to figure out who’s using religion more cynically, Trump or his right-wing religious boosters. Trump’s evangelical advisers have been sticking with him even as corporate CEOs started walking away after Trump gave political cover to white nationalists. As long as President Trump is giving them what they want, the religious right continues to explain away his dishonesty, cruelty, and recklessness, and even portrays his political opponents as enemies of God. “Values voters,” indeed.