Trump Highlights Aid to Faith in Speech to Evangelicals, Promises Action on In-school Prayer

By Petr Svab
Petr Svab
Petr Svab
Petr Svab is a reporter covering New York. Previously, he covered national topics including politics, economy, education, and law enforcement.
January 5, 2020Updated: January 5, 2020

President Donald Trump highlighted his accomplishments in aid of the faith community in a speech to evangelicals on Jan. 3 and promised more, including an action to ensure teachers and students are free, or perhaps freer, to pray in schools.

“A society without religion cannot prosper. A nation without faith cannot endure. Because justice, goodness, and peace cannot prevail without the glory of Almighty God,” he said to a crowd of about 7,000 at the King Jesus International Ministry on the outskirts of Miami.

“For America to thrive in the 21st century, we must renew faith and family as the center of American life. There are those who say these sacred beliefs are outdated, but we know they are just the opposite. Our traditions and our values are timeless and immortal.”

Speaking to the Base

Trump’s job approval has dipped among evangelicals in recent polls coinciding with the release of an editorial in Christianity Today, a mainstream Christian magazine, in support of the Democrats’ efforts to impeach Trump.

Doug Pagitt, the executive director of Vote Common Good, a progressive Christian group, called the rally “Trump’s desperate response to the realization that he is losing his primary voting bloc—faith voters.”

Evangelical Christians, however, remain one of the most strongly pro-Trump demographics, along with rural communities, the self-employed, and military households, according to the Dec. 19-20 Morning Consult poll (pdf).

“The extreme left is trying to replace religion with government and replace God with socialism,” Trump said, taking a shot at the Democratic presidential contenders, most of whom support large-scale government programs such as “Medicare for all.”

Trump’s Message

Trump has previously acknowledged his coming short of living up to Christian ideals. He’s been married three times, and his personal life has been a recurring topic of tabloid journalism for decades.

His pitch to evangelicals has relied on his improvements to the political, cultural, and legal climate for the religious.

“Evangelicals, Christians of every denomination, and believers of every faith have never had a greater champion, not even close, in the White House than you have right now,” he said.

Prayer in Schools

Trump promised to address “faithful Americans getting bullied by the hard left.”

“Very soon I’ll be taking action to safeguard students’ and teachers’ First Amendment rights to pray in our schools,” he said.

He gave an example of the Smith County School System in Tennessee that allowed student-led voluntary prayer at school events only to be sued by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) for allegedly violating the separation of church and state (pdf).

The lawsuit said the instances of religious expression “had the effect of coercing the children Plaintiffs into participating in religious observance” and “exposed them to unwanted, officially sponsored religious messages and proselytizing.” The school district admitted some religious expressions took place, but said they were voluntary and not “official.” It denied some of the allegations too.

Under the leadership of Attorney General William Barr, the Justice Department is getting involved in many cases, such as the one in Tennessee, Trump said.

Establishment Clause

Some groups have advocated restrictions on religious expression in public schools. In some cases, restrictions imposed by courts—including the Supreme Court—using the establishment clause of the First Amendment, which says that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Some say the clause prohibits even certain personal and voluntary religious expressions, such as a student-led voluntary prayer before a school sports game or a public school teacher silently reading a religious text during self-study time in the classroom.

Yet religious groups such as the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) have argued that the interpretation of the clause has, in many cases, become overly broad to the point of infringing on the right to free religious expression guaranteed by the First Amendment. Some court decisions seem to bolster that view, such as a 2005 ruling (pdf) by the Sixth Circuit appeals court, which called “the separation of church and state” an “extra-constitutional construct [that] has grown tiresome.”

“The First Amendment does not demand a wall of separation between church and state,” the court stated.

Johnson Amendment

One of the accomplishments Trump said he made was getting “rid of this horrible Johnson Amendment”—a law that prohibits tax-exempt nonprofits, including religious organizations, from endorsing or opposing political candidates.

Though the president doesn’t have the authority to change the 1954 law, Trump did issue an executive order in 2017, directing the Treasury not to enforce the law against religious entities in cases where a non-religious entity would not have been targeted.

The law has rarely been enforced. Still, some conservative groups, including the ADF, have called on lawmakers to rewrite it, saying it makes pastors self-censor and avoid political topics in their sermons.

“Even without direct action by the IRS, the law creates a chilling effect on speech, especially for religious institutions,” the ADF said in a 2016 release, adding that certain groups “regularly send threatening letters to pastors filled with warnings.”

The ADF deems the Johnson Amendment unconstitutional and has organized pastors since 2008 to discuss positions of political candidates, waiting for the IRS to try and enforce the law so it could be challenged in court. There doesn’t seem to be a single such case since then. In 2009, it appeared the IRS almost took the bait, but then dropped its investigation of a pastor in Minnesota, citing an internal procedural issue.

Many pastors and religious groups have endorsed the law, saying it prevents churches from becoming akin to super PACs through which tax-exempt donations could be funneled to political advertising. Some Republicans in Congress have introduced bills that would allow nonprofits to talk about political candidates in the normal course of their activities, but not to spend tax-exempt dollars for such purposes beyond a trifling amount.

Trump promised the legislative change is in the works, though it’s not clear whether it would stand a chance in the current House of Representatives, where Democrats hold the majority. The current bills have been referred to committees with no apparent action for months.

Only a small minority of pastors run afoul of the law, a Pew Research survey indicated, but the violations seemed to hurt Trump politically. Despite his popularity among evangelicals, only 1 percent of churchgoers in the summer of 2016 heard endorsements of him from the pulpit, compared to 6 percent who heard endorsements of his opponent, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Among black Protestant churchgoers, the difference was even starker, as only 2 percent heard endorsements of Trump, while 28 percent had Clinton endorsed to them.

End of ‘War on Religion’

Trump’s speech further highlighted the administration’s actions that generally align with evangelicals. Those actions include a push to deny federal funds to abortion providers, making it easier for employers not to cover contraceptives costs for their employees, and supporting faith-based adoption agencies.

“I may not be perfect, but I get things done,” he said.

He characterized his administration as a turning point from policies that negatively affected faith-based institutions.

“Before my election, religious believers were under assault like never before, you all know that—so many leaders here,” he said. “Faith-based schools, charities, hospitals, adoption agencies, business owners, and pastors were systematically targeted by federal bureaucrats in order to abandon their religious beliefs or stop serving their communities. You know all about that. But the day I took office, I got sworn in, the federal government’s war on religion came to an abrupt end.”

He also took credit for the return of wishes of “Merry Christmas” into marketing messages previously driven out by political correctness.

He urged his supporters to convince more people to register to vote and called for even higher voter turnout among evangelicals on Nov. 3, when he’s facing reelection. His 2016 victory, which came as a surprise to many if not most, he seemed to attribute to the divine.

“I really do believe we have God on our side. … Or there would have been no way we could have won, right?” he said.

Reuters contributed to this report.