How has religion played a role in Donald Trump’s presidency?

President Donald Trump holds a Bible as he visits outside St. John's Church across Lafayette Park from the White House on June 1, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

WASHINGTON (RNS) — There has been no shortage of “God-talk” during Donald Trump’s first term in office, with the president regularly consulting — and praying — with a tight group of evangelical advisers. The 45th president of the U.S. once even declared himself “the chosen one.”

As Trump prepares to kick off the first day of the 2020 Republican National Convention and his bid for four more years, Religion News Service takes a look back at some of the most impactful religion moments of his administration thus far.

November 2016: Winning 80-81% of white evangelicals

Arguably the biggest religion story of Trump’s presidency is how he got there in the first place: by winning 80-81% of white evangelicals who turned out on Election Day 2016. His ability to curry favor with white evangelicals baffled pundits and political analysts, many of whom expressed confusion that so-called “values voters” would back a candidate who stumbled over Bible verses, frequently used crude language and was caught bragging about sexual assault. This despite vehement opposition from some evangelical leaders such as Russell Moore, the head of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Yet Trump’s appeal with the group would become a mainstay of his first term in office, with the president sometimes openly acknowledging that some of his policy positions were designed to please evangelical Christians.

January 2017: Travel ban triggers religious uproar

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Within a week of his inauguration, Trump signed an executive order entitled “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States” that barred refugees and immigrants from certain Muslim-majority countries from entry into the U.S. His administration would insist that it was not narrowly targeted at Muslims, but the move was widely seen as Trump making good on his 2015 promise to institute a “Muslim ban,” calling for "a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country's representatives can figure out what is going on."

The ban sparked widespread outcry, with opponents filing lawsuits and flocking to airports to voice fierce disapproval. Among the throngs were religious protesters holding signs emblazoned with Scripture, with dozens of denominations, religious organizations and individual faith leaders decrying the move as discriminatory and a violation of religious freedom.

February 2017: Trump 'finally' condemns anti-Semitism

After initially refusing to denounce explicitly discrimination against Jews on two separate occasions in the opening weeks of his presidency, Trump finally condemned anti-Semitism amid a series of bomb threats made against Jewish organizations. During a visit to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., he declared, “The anti-Semitic threats targeting our Jewish community and community centers are horrible and are painful and a very sad reminder of the work that still must be done to root out hate and prejudice and evil.”

May 2017: Trump signs executive order limiting the power of the Johnson Amendment

Surrounded by religious leaders and evangelical advisers, Trump signed an executive order on May 4, 2017 hamstringing the so-called Johnson Amendment — a rarely enforced section of the tax code that prohibits churches and other nonprofits from endorsing candidates. It made good on a campaign promise to “totally destroy” the provision, with Trump telling attendees at the signing that “No one should be censoring sermons or targeting ­pastors.” But the order drew criticism from both sides: thousands of faith leaders from across the religious spectrum signed a letter to Congress urging lawmakers to maintain the provision, and some conservative groups believed Trump’s order didn’t go far enough. 

May 2018: New U.S. embassy opens in Jerusalem

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Trump announced that the U.S. would formally recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and move the U.S. embassy there in December 2017 — a decision that drew mixed reactions from faith leaders at home and abroad. But the embassy wasn’t formally inaugurated until May of the following year, when two prominent conservative evangelicals from the U.S. offered blessings as part of its program: Robert Jeffress, a Texas pastor and longtime supporter of Trump, and John Hagee, head of the lobbying group Christians United for Israel.

Two years later, Trump would tell a crowd that the decision was made “for the evangelicals.” 

May 2018: Prominent evangelicals appointed to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom

Several prominent evangelicals were appointed to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, either by Trump or Republicans in Congress. Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Council, was appointed by Sen. Mitch McConnell in May 2018, but Trump himself soon appointed two others: Gary Bauer, another former president of the Family Research Council and director of the Christians United for Israel Action Fund; and Johnnie Moore, a former vice president of Liberty University and longtime faith adviser to Trump.

June 2018: Religious outcry over "zero tolerance" family separation policy

In the summer of 2018, the Trump administration drew widespread criticism for implementing a so-called “zero tolerance” policy that led to the separation of immigrant families who crossed the U.S.-Mexico border. Faith communities were among those who expressed outrage over the policy, but their ire intensified when then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions and then-White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders both attempted to justify it by citing the BibleScores of faith groups and religious leaders — including some of Trump’s evangelical advisers — voiced their disapproval, with Catholic bishops discussing possible “canonical penalties” for Catholics who participate in the government action and hundreds of United Methodists filing a formal church complaint against Sessions, who is a member of their denomination. (The complaint was ultimately dismissed.) 

July 2018: Brett Kavanaugh appointed to Supreme Court

Trump’s appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court proved controversial for many reasons, particularly allegations that he sexually assaulted Christine Blasey Ford in his youth. Many religious leaders and activists participated in protests against his appointment, but the eventual vote to seat him on the bench was seen as a victory for conservative Christians who wanted to retake the balance of power on the court with Kavanaugh, who was seen as a “warrior” for religious liberty.

December 2018: Criminal Justice reform passed with ample support from evangelical leaders

One of the rare moments of bipartisanship during Trump’s first term was the passage of the First Step Act, a law aimed at reducing the number of people who return to prison after serving time. The law was seen as a triumph for many groups, but also evangelical Christians, who played an outsized role in getting both Trump and members of Congress to back the bill.

September 2019: Trump joins Modi at a rally shortly after India’s Kashmir decision

Nearly 50,000 people — mostly Indian Americans — packed an arena in Houston, Texas, to attend a “Howdy, Modi!” event that featured Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was joined on stage by Donald Trump. But others, such as Indian Muslims and Christians, expressed deep frustration with the gathering’s symbolism: In addition to elevating Modi, whose administration is widely seen as propagating Hindu nationalism in general, the rally occurred shortly after he revoked the partial autonomy of the Kashmir region.

October 2019: Andrew Brunson released

The freeing of Andrew Brunson, an American pastor and missionary who was imprisoned by Turkish officials for almost two years and brought up on charges of terrorism that the U.S. government declared were false, was widely seen as a victory for the Trump administration. Brunson was invited to the Oval Office shortly after his release, where he prayed over the president. Brunson would later speak about his ordeal at State Department events as well as the Values Voter Summit, which is run by conservative Christian activist Tony Perkins.

November 2019: Paula White appointed to run the White House faith office

The appointment of Florida pastor Paula White to head the White House Faith & Opportunity Initiative was not entirely unexpected. White, who is often described as a preacher of Prosperity Gospel theology, had long served as a faith adviser to Trump and reportedly had regular access to the Oval Office. Even so, the creation of the office — which essentially replaced the existing faith office that was created under President Obama but left vacant by Trump — highlighted the outsized influence of evangelical Christians on the Trump White House.

December 2019 to FEBRUARY 2020: Impeachment debate

The historic debate over whether to impeach President Trump for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress had a surprisingly religious tenor. Congressional lawmakers on both sides of the aisle traded theological barbs over the issue, with representatives citing Scripture to defend their arguments and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi saying she was praying for the president throughout the impeachment process. Some religious conservatives even turned on the president: The editor in chief of Christianity Today published a widely read editorial calling for Trump’s removal from office in December 2019, and Utah Sen. Mitt Romney ultimately cited his faith as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as inspiring his vote to remove Trump from office — the only Republican senator to do so.

The saga culminated in Trump’s visit to the National Prayer Breakfast in February 2020, where he used his speech at the religious gathering to blast his political opponents, saying, “I don’t like people who use faith for justification for doing what they know is wrong, nor do I like people who say ‘I pray for you’ when they know that is not so.”

January 2020: Trump appears at March for Life

Trump became the first sitting president to appear in person at the March for Life in January, telling the sprawling crowd at the anti-abortion event: “All of us here understand an eternal truth: Every child is a precious and sacred gift from God.” Many participants — which included thousands of conservative Catholics and evangelicals — wore red hats and shirts emblazoned with Trump's campaign slogan “Make America Great Again.”

May 2020: Trump declares churches “essential”

As states implemented shutdown orders to prevent the spread of COVID-19 during the coronavirus pandemic, a debate quickly emerged over whether churches should be allowed to worship indoors. Scientists and many faith leaders pointed to evidence that in-person worship provided ample opportunity for the spread of disease, but conservative Christians in particular argued that banning worship infringed on religious liberty. Trump eventually weighed in and declared places of worship “essential,” setting up a standoff between his administration and state governors, who ultimately have the authority to ban churches within their borders.

June 2020: The Bible photo-op

Trump’s photo-op in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church, where he held a Bible aloft for cameras, was not only a religious moment but also one of the most controversial moments of his presidency. The outrage was less about the photo than how he got there: Shortly before Trump arrived, federalized police officers armed with batons, non-lethal projectiles and tear gas forcibly cleared hundreds of protesters from Lafayette Park, which sits in between the church and the White House. They also expelled an Episcopal priest and seminarian who were working at the church itself, leaving them coughing from exposure to the gas.

The jaunt drew criticism from many faith leaders, including the local Episcopal Bishop the Rt. Rev. Mariann Budde, who said she was “outraged” and “horrified” by the photo-op.

June 2020: Uighur Human Rights Act signed

The Uighur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020, which passed overwhelmingly in both the House and Senate in May, calls for sanctions against Xinjiang Communist Party Secretary Chen Quanguo and other Chinese officials over detention camps in China said to hold more than 1 million members of the country’s Uighur Muslim minority. Trump’s signing of the bill into law in June was marred by controversy, however: The same day he signed the bill, news broke of allegations in a new book by former national security adviser John Bolton that Trump encouraged Chinese President Xi Jinping to continue building the camps.

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