Ask an evangelical why he voted for President Trump and chances are high he will say it was because of the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court, after all, was responsible for issuing cases such as Roe v. Wade on abortion and Obergefell v. Hodges upholding gay marriage.
On Tuesday, many of those evangelicals who want a justice who they see as likely to help overturn Roe got their wish when Trump nominated Colorado federal appeals court judge Neil Gorsuch for the Supreme Court, an appointment seen as a huge win for social conservatives.
If Gorsuch is confirmed, though, what will evangelicals expect next from the president?
On Thursday, Trump is expected to address the National Prayer Breakfast, a tradition for presidents since President Dwight Eisenhower and an interreligious event that especially attracts evangelicals across the country. Trump could use the event to reiterate some of the campaign promises he made to evangelicals, including his promise to defund Planned Parenthood and help end the Johnson Amendment, which prohibits churches from endorsing or opposing political candidates.
A huge percentage (80 percent) of white evangelicals voted for Trump based on these promises, despite his involvement in the gambling industry, his previous views in favor of abortion rights and his obscene language about women.
Evangelicals expect Trump to continue to fulfill his promises to them, said Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University and an early Trump backer.
“It’s a happy group of people right now,” Falwell said of evangelicals.
Falwell and said he and other leaders who were involved in Trump’s campaign, such as televangelists James Robison and Paula White, feel like they have had the best access to any president in recent memory.
“I think Trump is more one of us. He’s not an elitist. He doesn’t look down his nose at evangelicals and Christians and conservatives. I’m very shocked by how accessible he is to so many. He answers his cellphone any time of the day or night.”
Falwell said his father, Jerry Falwell Sr., an architect of the Religious Right, never had such access to previous presidents, including Republican ones. He said hundreds of evangelicals are getting positions at the lower levels of the administration.
Under previous administrations, evangelicals would often go through a liaison to get their concerns heard. Falwell is pleased so far with his access to the Trump administration, saying he will talk with Trump on Wednesday and was on the phone with Trump adviser Steve Bannon on Tuesday. Bannon had asked him to lead a panel on reform of higher education regulations.
Trump’s ear to evangelicals
Trump is not necessarily listening to religious leaders or political operatives who traditionally have been a bridge between the White House and religious voters. Cardinal Donald Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, told The Post on Tuesday that the archdiocese, which normally has channels to communicate with the White House, has not had any contact with it yet at all.
Trump is listening to people outside Washington, Falwell said, including megachurch pastors and Christian media influencers who will talk about Trump on their shows, blogs or Twitter feeds. Plus, evangelicals have one of their own in the White House: Vice President Mike Pence, who has called himself an “evangelical Catholic.” Someone like James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family and now host of “Family Talk,” can call Pence on his cellphone.
Ronnie Floyd, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, will be one of those attending the prayer breakfast Thursday and hopes the president will speak on abortion and religious freedom. His megachurch in Arkansas has a ministry to refugees, though he supports Trump’s executive order last week that suspended refugee admissions, citing national security concerns. He opposes, however, Trump’s decision to keep the protections that President Barack Obama extended to LGBT federal workers.
“I think it’s unnecessary that we have to try to grant special rights based on sexual identity,” Floyd said, though he noted that he wasn’t surprised since Trump suggested during his campaign he would promote LGBT protections. “I think obviously we believe in America that all men are created equal.”
Floyd, who read a Scripture passage at Trump’s prayer service at the National Cathedral during his inauguration weekend, said he was never asked to provide input during the Obama administration. He has served on Trump’s evangelical counsel, which he said has stayed in touch with him weekly since it was formed in July 2016, and he continues to give Trump administration officials input.
Floyd, whose Cross Church has 20,000 members, is especially excited by “followers of Christ” nominated for Trump’s Cabinet. He listed Tom Price, the nominee to head the Health and Human Services Department; Scott Pruitt, Trump’s pick to head the Environmental Protection Agency; Betsy Devos, nominated to be education secretary; Rick Perry, tapped to head the Energy Department; Sonny Perdue, the nominee for agriculture secretary; and Jeff Sessions, the attorney general nominee.
“The administration has been way over the top in giving them visibility and recognition that we can bring values,” Floyd said of evangelicals.
Trump’s Supreme Court pick was seen as a home run, according to Russell Moore, who heads the advocacy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention. The Supreme Court was the No. 1 issue for many evangelical voters, he said.
Moore expects Trump to work with Congress on more abortion legislation, including extending protections to people who don’t want to provide abortions or contraception based on their conscience. Many evangelicals, Moore said, are divided over his executive order related to refugees. But so far, he said, evangelicals are generally happy with Trump’s administration, especially his reinstatement of a policy prohibiting funds for abortions overseas.
“Most people are just waiting to see what the first 100 days will look like,” he said. “People are wanting to assume the best and to pray for success.”
Trump’s visit to the National Prayer Breakfast
The National Prayer Breakfast has served as an annual opportunity for politicians to speak about the role of faith in public life and has featured guest speakers on both the right (including Ben Carson) and the left (including Hillary Clinton). Carson, who has spoken twice, used his second speech in 2013 to launch attacks on Obama that upset leaders in the Fellowship, which organizes the breakfast.
“People were falling off their chairs, they were so upset,” said Bob Hunter, one of the leaders of the Fellowship. “He took advantage of the situation to jump-start his campaign.”
Trump, he said, is unpredictable, so leaders don’t know what to expect this year.
“All we can do is pray for it and put people [from across the aisle] in a position where they’re sitting together,” he said. “There’s always a risk of something bad happening.”
Evangelical author Eric Metaxas, who was a prominent backer of Trump during his campaign, also took aim at Obama’s views on abortion during his speech in 2012, which helped raise his visibility. Perhaps most famously, Mother Teresa in her 1994 speech decried abortion before President Bill Clinton spoke. “Please don’t kill the child,” she said. “I want the child. Please give me the child.”
Trump’s recent travel ban will impact those living overseas who were planning to attend the prayer breakfast, Hunter said. He declined to share his personal perspective on the executive order, writing in an email: “It would be inappropriate for me to say my perspective during this time. It is a time for unity, not words that might divide.”
The Fellowship, which has been seen by some as secretive and the subject of many media stories and a book by writer Jeff Sharlet, has made an effort in recent years to become more transparent by setting up a website with more information. According to its most recent tax filings in 2014, its assets were $10.9 million. It has drawn extra attention for politicians who have been involved in fellowship groups, notably Hillary Clinton and Mark Sanford when he was governor of South Carolina.
The Fellowship’s unofficial leader for many years was Doug Coe, who is now 88 and due to health issues has offloaded many of his responsibilities to a handful of other leaders, according to Hunter. Sens. John Boozman (R-Ark.) and Chris Coons (D-Del.) are the chairmen of the breakfast this year, but four people handle the logistics of the prayer breakfast now. Those duties include choosing the speaker, a decision that is not announced before the breakfast.
The leaders of the Fellowship focus on a shared admiration for the teachings of Jesus through small group gatherings, but they are not supposed to wade into politics. Coe, who has never told his staff whether he is a Republican or Democrat, emphasizes relationships.
“His mantra is, we’re not into politics,” Hunter said. “We know people are polarized. The reason for our existence is to try to help minimize that.”
Julie Zauzmer contributed to this report.
This story has been updated.