President Trump in a Rose Garden ceremony Thursday announced an executive order he said would expand government grants to and partnerships with religiously-affiliated groups through a new faith-based office — a move described by one of his top faith advisers as aimed at changing the culture to produce fewer discussions about church-state barriers with “all of these arbitrary concerns as to what is appropriate.”
Trump has shrunk the infrastructure built by presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, who created offices across many agencies, including a 30-person office in the State Department under Obama. Under Trump many of those staffs have grown smaller, and director positions have been left unfilled. However, he has expanded greatly the access to the White House of conservative Christians — evangelicals, in particular, but also Catholics who feel alarmed by the growing legal tension between gay rights and conservative religious rights.
The specific responsibilities for the new office, called the White House Faith and Opportunity Initiative, were not made clear in the executive order. But Johnnie Moore, spokesman for the president’s evangelical advisory group — his only faith advisory group with regular access — said the initiative included an order to every department “to work on faith-based partnerships.” That, Moore said, “represents a widespread expansion of a program that has historically done very effective work and now can do even greater work.”
Moore mentioned an emphasis on faith-based partnerships focusing on prison reform, education, mental health and “strengthening families.” Faith-based groups have always been in such partnerships, but federal law requires that the government not show preference for one faith or put recipients in the position where they are essentially proselytized to in order to receive care.
The ceremony was held on the National Day of Prayer and featured prayers from various faith leaders, including Cissie Graham Lynch, the granddaughter of the late evangelist Billy Graham; Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Catholic archbishop of Washington, and Levi Shemtov, the longtime D.C. leader for the Chabad Lubavitch movement, and also the rabbi where Jared and Ivanka attend services in town. Southern Baptist pastors Jack Graham and Ronnie Floyd and conservative Focus on the Family founder and radio host James Dobson were also in attendance.
Faith-based offices in recent presidential administrations — which have their roots in the Clinton White House in the 1990s — have always faced legal challenges, as various groups jockey for resources and others focus on guarding Constitutional protections against government-backed religion. Trump is the first to seek counsel from such a homogeneous group of faith advisers and pursue goals described in such a sectarian manner.
At the ceremony Trump said he’s responsible for people saying “Merry Christmas” more, and talking more openly about prayer. “Don’t you notice a big difference between two or three years ago and now? Now it’s straight up.”
Melissa Rogers, who served as executive director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships under Obama, said in a statement that protecting religious freedom for all, not just Christians, should be a key aim of the government.
“At the event today, President Trump should retract and apologize for his call for ‘a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,’ ” she wrote in an email. “President Trump should also pledge to respect and vigorously protect the equal rights of Americans of all faiths and none, including the rights of American Muslims to religious freedom.”
Rabbi Jonah Pesner, who runs the policy-outreach arm for the Reform Movement, the largest segment of American Judaism, said in an e-mail that he has “grave concerns” about the new order and its ability to let faith groups play a key role in government programs while also protecting “the rights of all people, regardless of their faith. We have already seen efforts by this administration to undermine essential rules…thereby threatening religious liberty.”
The timing of the event comes as Trump continues to receive attention for a settlement his lawyer paid to Stormy Daniels, an actress in pornographic films who has said she had a sexual encounter with the president more than a decade ago.
Former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who serves on Trump’s legal team, said Wednesday that Trump made a series of payments reimbursing his attorney for the settlement. Trump confirmed Thursday that lawyer Michael Cohen was reimbursed but said that they payments were through a “private agreement” and did not come from campaign funds. Trump said last month that he didn’t know anything about payments to Daniels.
Faith-based offices were considered major announcements under the past three presidents. However, Trump’s plans came as a surprise to many observers. It was absent from the White House daily schedule and some attendees said they were told only of the National Day of Prayer blessing and nothing of the executive order.
A version of the office similar to what Trump outlined was created by Bush in 2001 with a mandate to partner with and serve as a resource to the faith community. The idea of the office was intended to put religious groups on equal footing with other nonprofit organizations when competing for federal funding, setting off a wave of criticism and questions about whether funding could breach a separation of church and state. Under the Bush administration, faith-based nonprofit organizations received federal grants totaling more than $10.6 billion.
Weeks into his presidency, Obama announced his version of the office at the National Prayer Breakfast, which kept Bush’s rules allowing faith-based groups to compete for grants and served as a liaison between religious leaders and the White House.
Obama augmented the offices Bush had already created, adding staff to the Environmental Protection Agency and the Peace Corps (as well as the State Department office), established about a dozen offices in various agencies and vastly expanded the number of staff members aiming for that same goal — connecting faith-based nonprofit organizations with the government in a fair way. Moore said for the agencies that don’t have a faith-based office — or a chief of that office — the same premise would be encouraged.
Since Trump took office, the position of director of the White House faith-based office has been vacant, although some agencies have named faith-based-office appointees.
A White House official told the Religion News Service that those working on the initiative will inform the administration of “any failures of the executive branch to comply with religious liberty protections under law.”
A year ago, Trump issued an executive order on religious freedom that drew mixed reactions among religious conservatives. Several of his evangelical advisers praised him at the time, but many in conservative religious freedom advocacy circles said that the text of the executive order did not change much. An executive order, critics argue, doesn’t last long because the next president can come in and rescind it.
Congressional attempts to chip away at the Johnson Amendment, which bars nonprofit organizations such as churches from endorsing or opposing political candidates, have been unsuccessful.
Moore said this new executive order is part of the White House’s broader efforts to promote religious freedom.
Earlier this year, the Department of Health and Human Services announced new regulations and a new division responsible for handling complaints from health-care workers who do not want to perform a medical procedure such as an abortion or assisted death because it violates their religious or moral beliefs. The regulations were seen as a win by religious conservatives although critics worried that their wording would lead to discrimination.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that President Barack Obama opened all the faith-based agency offices. Most were opened by President George W. Bush.