During the election, Donald Trump made a promise that few people anticipated: He would do away with the Johnson Amendment, which in 1954 effectively barred pastors from endorsing or opposing candidates from the pulpit.
In recent years, religious liberty issues have gotten caught up in debates over contraception and LGBT rights. But Trump’s promise was a throwback to the 1950s, an era when many pastors felt they were freer to say what they believed. He repeated the promise to religious leaders during his campaign, and on Thursday — the National Day of Prayer — they saw him begin to deliver.
The president first announced his plans for an executive order on religious liberty to about 45 pastors in the White House on Wednesday night, according to Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Dallas.
The pastors, many of whom were on Trump’s evangelical advisory council during his campaign, were joined in the Blue Room by several members of the administration, including Vice President Mike Pence; Trump’s daughter Ivanka and her husband, Jared Kushner; chief strategist Steve Bannon; and chief of staff Reince Priebus. Jeffress said administration officials were still working on the details, but Trump promised to effectively halt the Johnson Amendment. (It would take an act of Congress to change the law.) On Thursday, the president held a gathering of interfaith leaders at the Rose Garden.
Jeffress told the group that the amendment was a hindrance, saying that left-leaning groups have used it to “harass” pastors like him for speaking out on political issues. “It’s time to take the muzzle off pastors and allow them to speak openly,” Jeffress said.
The announcement was an “unexpected delight and pleasant surprise” to people in the room, said Ralph Reed, chairman of the Faith & Freedom Coalition. During the dinner, those gathered also learned that Congress would vote Thursday on repealing the Affordable Care Act, which would include pulling funding from Planned Parenthood. “These folks walked off the White House about 10 feet off the ground,” Reed said.
Many religious conservatives who endorsed Trump have been waiting for him to continue fulfilling a series of promises he made during his campaign. After years of battling with the Obama administration, many of them see Trump as a breath of fresh air.
During the election, Trump made a special effort to reach out to white evangelicals in particular, meeting with several of them in Trump Tower and creating the evangelical advisory council that gave him feedback throughout the campaign. He received support from other religious groups, but white evangelicals voted for him overwhelmingly (exit polls showed 80 percent) compared to other groups.
While evangelicals vary in their views of Trump, a recent survey from the Pew Research Center found that white Catholics and white evangelicals who attend religious services regularly have a higher approval rating of Trump than those who don’t attend services regularly.
James MacDonald, a megachurch pastor of Harvest Bible Chapel who served on Trump’s evangelical advisory council, had called Trump “lecherous and worthless” after it was revealed that he had made lewd comments about women in a 2005 video. On Wednesday, MacDonald said he is pleased with Trump’s efforts as president.
“The conscientious effort to make good on the campaign promises is very apparent,” MacDonald said. “Only a hardened and cynical person would conclude that he’s not trying to keep the campaign promises.”
Ahead of Trump’s 100th day in office last week, some religious conservatives, like the Rev. CJ Conner, a pastor of a Kansas church, were worried the president could “forget us” and protections for Christian institutions.
“We have sacrificed for you, Mr. President,” Conner wrote in an open letter published at Charisma, a magazine for Pentecostals, in which he urged Trump to uphold “Christian freedoms.”
“Thousands of us have sacrificed our standing in our denominations,” Conner wrote. “Some have been fired from our congregations for supporting you. We have suffered in many ways, but our families have suffered the most.”
Before the news of the Johnson amendment this week, R. R. Reno, who edits the ecumenical magazine First Things, echoed many religious conservatives by saying he was still waiting for Trump to deliver on promises he made.
Trump had promised — saying, “I will fight for you” — to protect the religious freedoms of groups like the Little Sisters of the Poor, a group of nuns that battled the Obama administration over contraceptive coverage. But many religious leaders want Trump to permanently end Barack Obama’s mandate requiring contraception coverage, an issue that has gotten caught up in larger health-care battles.
“I think we have to take a wait-and-see attitude,” said Reno, who surprised many of his conservative friends by endorsing Trump. “It’s not disappointing, but he hasn’t thrilled us either.”
Continued access to the White House
The biggest win for religious conservatives has been Trump’s nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, which they consider key to winning future cases involving religious liberty or abortion. Trump has also rolled back federal guidelines specifying that transgender students have the right to use public school restrooms that match their gender identity.
“Interestingly, as much as President Bush is revered by evangelicals, in a certain way, they have even more trust of Donald Trump,” Jeffress said.
Jeffress said evangelicals are especially pleased with Trump’s outreach to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He also expects Trump to turn his attention to persecuted Christians overseas, an issue Trump emphasized early in his term.
Abortion rights opponents have been pleased by Trump’s appointments, including making Charmaine Yoest — the former head of Americans United for Life — the assistant secretary of communications for Health and Human Services. Penny Nance, president of the conservative group Concerned Women for America, said she was nervous when Trump took office because he had no record in Washington. But she said that if it reaches his desk, she expects Trump to sign a bill that would ban abortion past five months of pregnancy.
When Nance saw several presidential or vice presidential staffers appear at the March for Life alongside Pence in January, she was encouraged Trump would deliver on his promise to oppose abortion. “It was this moment for me that was, ‘This is legit.’ ” She said she has been invited to the White House seven times.
Other leaders are pleased with the continued access they’ve had to the White House.
“I think evangelicals have found their dream president,” said Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University — where Trump will give a commencement address on May 13. “I’ve never seen a White House have such a close relationship with faith leaders than this one.”
While several evangelical leaders who were involved in Trump’s campaign say they have good access to the administration, Catholic bishops do not have “one sure avenue of contact” with White House officials, according to Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who said they worked with the faith-based office in the past administration.
Trump has yet to make several faith-related appointments, including the head of the White House’s Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, the ambassador for international religious freedom and director of the State Department’s Office of Religion.
And Catholic leaders in the United States have vocally opposed several of Trump’s policy moves, including those relating to climate change, health care and immigration.
However, Archbishop William Lori said the bishops see some areas of agreement with the Trump administration, including opportunities to advance their religious freedom and protect Catholic institutions, like hospitals. Lori, chairman of the U.S. Catholic bishops’ committee on religious liberty, said the bishops are also concerned about immigration and how budget cuts could affect the poor.
“Quite often when there are cuts to human services, real people suffer,” Lori said.
Trump’s executive order suspending the U.S. refugee program also capped the number of refugees that could enter the country, leading to steep financial cuts at several religious nonprofits that handle resettlement, including evangelical organization World Relief.
Trump is expected to meet with Pope Francis in late May during a trip to Italy, though no details have been announced.
Correction: An earlier version of this story named the wrong organization handling refugee resettlement. That organization is World Relief. This story has been updated.