Trump’s latest appeal to evangelicals: a new office to protect religious liberty

Trump on last year’s National Day of Prayer.

Trump will sign an executive order launching the new White House Faith and Opportunity Initiative today.

President Donald Trump will sign an executive order today launching a new initiative designed to bolster the influence of faith groups in government. The news was announced by White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Twitter. The executive order, which will be signed in the White House Rose Garden during proceedings for the National Day of Prayer, is likely to please Trump’s evangelical base.

According to a White House document sourced by the Religion News Service, the White House Faith and Opportunity Initiative will “ensure that the faith-based and community organizations that form the bedrock of our society have strong advocates in the White House and throughout the Federal Government.”

This initiative goes further than similar ones in past administrations

The institution of faith-based initiatives is not uncommon in the White House — President Barack Obama launched the Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, and George W. Bush instituted an Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. Both programs were designed to provide faith-based charity organizations with a clear avenue to get federal funding for their work.

That said, Trump’s initiative seems to expand previous offices’ remit in a number of ways. For starters, the office isn’t just focusing on community-based or charitable initiatives. According to the Religion News Service, it’s also charged with informing the administration of “any failures of the executive branch to comply with religious liberty protections under law.” The Trump administration has consistently been a champion of religious liberty, particularly insofar as it pertains to evangelical Christian causes.

Last year, for example, the Justice Department filed an amicus brief for the Masterpiece Cakeshop Supreme Court case in support of the Christian baker who refused to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple. Likewise, last October, the Department of Justice released a memo telling its federal agencies to allow maximum discretion to those claiming religious exceptions on the grounds that it was not the government’s place to challenge “the reasonableness of a religious belief.”

The reach of this office also seems broader than its predecessors. Unlike in other administrations, the office will work with all government agencies, even those without department-specific faith-based initiatives. Agencies without faith-based offices will be assigned a liaison to work with the Faith and Opportunity Initiative.

And a spokesperson for the White House told the Washington Post’s Michelle Boorstein that Trump’s office would worry less “where the church-state barriers are” allowing government-religious partnerships to function “without all of these arbitrary concerns as to what is appropriate.”

Members of Donald Trump’s unofficial evangelical advisory council, a loose umbrella of faith advisers with close access to the president, celebrated the news. “I could not be more proud to stand with President Trump as he continues to stand shoulder to shoulder with communities of faith,” evangelical preacher Paula White told Religion News Service, “This order is a historic action, strengthening the relationship between faith and government in the United States and the product will be countless, transformed lives.”

Other faith leaders were more cautious. “We don’t consider respect for the First Amendment to be ‘arbitrary,’” said Rabbi Jack Moline, president of Interfaith Alliance, in a statement emailed to journalists.

This is the second time Trump’s used the National Day of Prayer to court evangelicals

Thursday is the National Day of Prayer, and this isn’t the first time Trump has used the day to court evangelical supporters. Last year, Trump used the day to announce his plan to rescind the Johnson Amendment, the provision that prohibits religious institutions from directly endorsing political candidates lest they lose their 501(3)(c) nonprofit status. (Ultimately, Trump signed an executive order that, in practice, changed very little, in part because the Johnson Amendment is almost never actually enforced).

But the rollout for today’s announcement was particularly irregular.

The development of an office like this has, under previous administrations, been a majorly publicized affair, announced many days in advance. But no news about the announcement appeared on the original daily schedule, and several attendees told the Washington Post’s Boorstein that they had not been expecting the executive order. The haste of the initiative was, therefore, notable, especially when juxtaposed with last night’s revelation that Trump had, despite his prior claims, repaid his lawyer Michael Cohen the $130,000 Cohen paid to porn actress Stormy Daniels to guarantee her silence following an alleged affair with Trump.

It would be possible to speculate that this new initiative is a calculated one, designed to placate evangelicals and distract from the latest Daniels news. But it’s worth asking why that would even be necessary. After all, white evangelical leaders have consistently supported Trump throughout the Daniels saga, arguing that he should be given a “mulligan” for past misdeeds. And a Public Religion Research Institute study from last month found that white evangelical support for Trump is at an all-time high.

So while it may be cynical to view this latest statement as a political ploy, it may be just as cynical not to.

source: vox

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