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Opinion The religious right understood Trump perfectly. Now he’s delivering for them.

Trump promises to 'get rid of and totally destroy the Johnson Amendment' (Video: The Washington Post)

Today Donald Trump spoke at the National Prayer Breakfast, and while he somehow managed to restrain himself from bringing up his historic landslide victory in the election, he did find time to explain that his ratings on “The Apprentice” were better than those of Arnold Schwarzenegger, who took over hosting the show after he left. The attendees were left to reflect on the role of the Almighty in the ebb and flow of Nielsen numbers.

In other words, it was what you might have expected from Trump. But don’t think his most fervently devout supporters were upset. They know exactly who Donald Trump is, and they couldn’t be happier with him.

Over the last year, many observers, myself included, have marveled at the spectacular support Trump received from both religious right leaders and their evangelical flock. How could this man, with his libertine lifestyle and his laughably insincere declarations of faith, win them over when they had so many other genuinely religious primary candidates to choose from? And why did they stick with him so fervently in the general election, giving him a remarkable 81 percent of white evangelical votes, more than any other presidential candidate since that question has been asked in exit polls?

We’re getting our answer. Donald Trump is delivering for the religious right — more than they could have hoped for. In other words, when everyone questioned their judgment, they knew just what they were doing. And they turned out to be right.

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Many of them cited the Supreme Court as the key to their reasoning. Nothing was more important than keeping the Court in Republican hands, so that Roe v. Wade might be overturned and other rulings friendly to conservative Christians will continue to be handed down. And Trump has delivered on that score; the religious right is beside itself with glee over the nomination of Neil Gorsuch to fill the vacancy the GOP held open for a year.

But that’s hardly all. Trump signed an executive order not just reinstating the “global gag rule” as any Republican president would have done, but massively expanding it, so now foreign NGOs will be barred from receiving not just U.S. family planning aid but all public health aid if they so much as mention abortion (like telling a sex trafficking victim where she can go to get an abortion so she doesn’t have to bear her rapist’s baby).

Trump has promised to repeal the law that prevents churches and other tax-exempt charitable organizations from officially endorsing political candidates, which he did again at the prayer breakfast today: “I will get rid of and totally destroy the Johnson Amendment and allow our representatives of faith to speak freely and without fear of retribution.” And we recently learned that he’s appointing Jerry Falwell, Jr. to lead a task force on deregulating higher education, which just so happens to be a priority of Rev. Falwell’s, since his Liberty University is “essentially a medium-size nonprofit college that owns a huge for-profit [online] college.” Trump may have been pro-choice for much of his life, but he could wind up being the most anti-abortion-rights president in history.

And yesterday, Sarah Posner broke this remarkable story, that the administration may be planning to essentially legalize many types of discrimination so long as they’re being committed by conservative Christians:

The four-page draft order, a copy of which is currently circulating among federal staff and advocacy organizations, construes religious organizations so broadly that it covers “any organization, including closely held for-profit corporations,” and protects “religious freedom” in every walk of life: “when providing social services, education, or healthcare; earning a living, seeking a job, or employing others; receiving government grants or contracts; or otherwise participating in the marketplace, the public square, or interfacing with Federal, State or local governments.”
The draft order seeks to create wholesale exemptions for people and organizations who claim religious or moral objections to same-sex marriage, premarital sex, abortion, and trans identity, and it seeks to curtail women’s access to contraception and abortion through the Affordable Care Act.

That’s a list of things not that religious people object to, but that conservative Christians object to. They already got a huge victory in the Hobby Lobby case, which established the right of privately held corporations to exempt themselves from laws they dislike if they can cite a religious basis for their objection. And now the Trump administration is poised to essentially create a special class of citizenship for conservative Christians, one that would allow them to engage in a variety of kinds of discrimination that are otherwise illegal. As one law professor told Posner: “This executive order would appear to require agencies to provide extensive exemptions from a staggering number of federal laws — without regard to whether such laws substantially burden religious exercise.”

Trump has already informed Christians that because he was elected they are now free to say “Merry Christmas” again (at last!), and he’s going to do everything he can to remove their heavy yoke of oppression so they’ll be able once again to discriminate. We don’t know if this executive order will be signed or what its final form will look like, let alone whether it would withstand the inevitable legal challenge. But it’s clear where the administration wants to go.

So what did the religious right understand about Trump that many others missed? They weren’t fooled into thinking his faith was sincere. But I suspect they caught something else in his rhetoric: The willingness to state clearly that he was on the side not just of some abstract “religious freedom,” but for Christians specifically. For Trump, it’s all about Us and Them. Christians are Us, and everybody else (particularly Muslims) is Them. He has already made clear that when it comes to refugees he intends to give special preference to Christians (a step which, we should note, was condemned by a variety of mainstream Christian leaders).

Religious right voters were also surely attracted to Trump’s implicit call to turn back the clock to an earlier age when patriarchal arrangements in the family and the workplace were unquestioned. This might explain why they were so unconcerned when Trump was caught on tape bragging about his ability to sexually assault women with impunity (hey, boys will be boys, right?). And they may have understood that there will probably never be a time when a true believer like Mike Pence — long one of the most fervently anti-gay and anti-choice politicians in America — proposes something to Trump and he responds, “Gee, that seems to go a little far.” The substance and implications of the issues aren’t important to Trump, which made him the perfect candidate for the religious right. They didn’t need a person of sincere faith. They needed someone with tribal instincts and an appetite for smashing established norms.

Last January, Trump went to Liberty University and cited a passage from “Two Corinthians” (instead of “Second Corinthians”) to much mockery. Look at how phony and insincere he is!, people said. But the most important thing he said came right after he read the verse. “Is that the one?” he asked. “Is that the one you like? I think that’s the one you like.”

In his usual unadorned way, Trump was proclaiming his willingness to pander as shamelessly as necessary, and give the religious right whatever they wanted. They got the message. And now they’re getting their reward.