President Trump has a message for conservative Christians: It's all about you. On Thursday, he'll sign an executive order that professes to strengthen "religious liberty," but isn't about the liberty of Jews or Muslims or Hindus or mainline Protestants. It's about offering some special privileges to right-wing Christians who want to restrict women's reproductive lives and turn their churches into semi-official arms of the Republican Party.
That may sound like a crazy exaggeration, but it isn't. And it helps explain the unlikely degree of loyalty Trump got from religious right voters in the 2016 election.
During the campaign, many people puzzled over evangelicals' enthusiastic embrace of Trump. After all, here was a thrice-married New Yorker who relished his libertine lifestyle and could barely pretend to be a person of faith, yet he got the support of 80 percent of white evangelicals, more than any candidate since the beginning of exit polls. If it was just that he's a Republican, you'd think there would have been some drop-off, especially after he was caught on tape bragging about sexually assaulting women. But no.
So what was it they thought they were getting with Trump? There are a number of things; one compelling story is that he represents a return to a patriarchal vision of social relations many of them found attractive. But the most compelling explanation may lie in his particular combination of xenophobia and bigotry.
That's not because evangelicals are xenophobic and/or bigoted, though some surely are. It's because Trump was forthright about establishing lines of division and saying that he was going to be a president only for certain people. It was always about Us and Them with Trump, who assured conservative Christians that they were part of Us. Part of that was a pledge to advance a special set of rights for conservative Christians in particular.
So far, he's given them much of what they wanted. He appointed Neil Gorsuch, who is all but guaranteed to be a vote to overturn Roe v. Wade, to the Supreme Court. He not only revived but expanded the "global gag rule," forbidding U.S. aid money for all global health from going to any organization that even mentions abortion to anyone — so if you tell a sex trafficking victim where she can go to end the pregnancy that resulted from her rape, you'll lose American aid funds. He has appointed anti-abortion and anti-contraception zealots to run family planning policy in the Department of Health and Human Services. And now comes this executive order.
While the full text of the order hasn't been made available yet, in comments to reporters, administration officials have described it as broadening the ability of organizations and companies to exempt themselves from certain laws, like the Affordable Care Act's mandate that insurance plans cover birth control, if they claim a religious objection. That's aimed squarely at conservative Christians — most other faiths have no problem with birth control — and all but creates a special class of citizenship for those who hold a particular set of religious beliefs. Others with different ideas — whether they got them from their own scriptures or from their contemplations of secular morality — wouldn't be allowed to decide that they'd prefer not to obey certain laws.
The other focus of the executive order is the Johnson Amendment, a law dating back over half a century that prohibits non-profit organizations, including churches, from explicitly endorsing political candidates and engaging in campaign work. Trump's order would essentially order the IRS not to enforce the law. It's critical to understand that there's no widespread clamor among varied religious sects and houses of worship to allow them to get more deeply involved in partisan political campaigns. Most are perfectly happy with the law as it is, which allows a church, synagogue, or mosque to talk about politics, drive people the polls, and engage with the political world so long as they stay away from clear partisanship and endorsements of candidates. It's only certain evangelical churches who would like to instruct their members to vote Republican and work more closely with Republican candidates.
The message from Trump to conservative Christians is clear: This administration will privilege your particular beliefs above others. This isn't a nation where all are treated equally, it's a nation where you're on top.
And that's precisely what many Christians feel they've lost: the cultural hegemony that gave their faith a position so privileged that for a long time no one even questioned how things could be otherwise. That's why something as innocuous as putting up a sign reading "Happy Holidays" in a department store could provoke such enduring rage. What to most people looked like nothing more than a well-meaning attempt to be inclusive and welcoming to all customers seemed to some like a displacement, a message that now, instead of their culture being the culture, they'd have to share space with everyone else.
Which is exactly what it is. So when Trump told them that once he was elected "We're going to start saying 'Merry Christmas' again," he wasn't just talking about "Merry Christmas." He was talking about rolling back the clock to the days when Christianity was the only American faith that mattered. That's what conservative Christians understood, that the reversion to an earlier time promised by Trump's Make America Great Again slogan was a comprehensive package. He offered them a vehicle for their religious nationalism, with some other kinds of nationalism thrown in for good measure.
And now he's delivering.