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The continuing pro-life evolution of Donald Trump

Social conservatives have reason to warm up to the president

Fred Lucas author image / /   48 Comments

The Protecting Life in Global Health Assistance (PLGHA) policy is the latest example of President Donald Trump paying more than lip service on pro-life policy, despite doubts many pro-lifers once had.

The policy, spelled out in Executive Order 13798 dated May 4, builds on President Ronald Reagan’s Mexico City policy, put in place in 1984, which specifies that federal funds for family planning go only to foreign nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that agree not to perform or promote abortions as a method of family planning. Since 1984, “the policy has been enforced by every Republican president and suspended by every Democratic president shortly after being inaugurated,” Melanie Israel notes at the Daily Signal.

PLGHA cranks the principle up a notch, applying it to $8.8 billion in annual global health funding. Trump is strengthening the Mexico City policy by directing “the secretaries of state and health and human services to extend the policy to funds ‘furnished by all departments or agencies,’” she writes.

“Importantly, the policy does not reduce funding for global health assistance. Rather, it ensures that U.S. dollars are not entangled with the abortion industry and that American taxpayers do not subsidize nongovernmental organizations that do not respect innocent human life.”

In years past, U.S. tax dollars have been used to weaken pro-life laws in other countries.

The president has also proposed cutting – or more precisely, zeroing out – federal funding for Planned Parenthood, the nation’s largest abortion provider, in his budget blueprint for fiscal 2018 which begins this Oct. 1. Predictably, the defunding proposal has spawned apoplexy on the Left.

Pro-lifers’ concerns about the president were well-founded, based largely on a 1999 interview, when Trump was considering running for president as a Reform Party candidate. He said at the time he was “very pro-choice,” even when it came to late-term abortion. During the 2016 Republican primary campaign, Trump talked about how Planned Parenthood “helped millions and millions of women.”

Many conservatives were suspicious of Trump on a number of fronts, but social issues might well have been the biggest front. Trump lived a less than exemplary marital and personal life. He was the first Republican nominee to tout his support for the LGBTQ [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer/questioning] community. Even President Barack Obama, supposedly the “first gay president” rarely talked about the Qs.

Early in the campaign, Trump even described communion as, “When I drink my little wine – which is about the only wine I drink – and have my little cracker, I guess that’s a form of asking for forgiveness.” This didn’t exactly make him sound like a Christian familiar with the theology and language. Of course, most of the mainstream media that found another reason to attack Trump for this probably had to look up the word communion themselves.

That aside, Trump potentially has more support among social conservatives today than from any other faction of conservatism. Trump’s first commencement speech as president was at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, the nation’s largest evangelical university.

This came days after he held a National Day of Prayer event in the Rose Garden that included a performance by Christian music star Steven Curtis Chapman, and prayers from evangelical, Catholic, and Jewish clergy. Executive Order 13798 a mandates a church-friendly approach to interpreting the Johnson Amendment, a law that curbs what nonprofit groups, including churches, are allowed to say about politics.

The Johnson Amendment states that tax-exempt organizations “are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of [or in opposition to] any candidate for elective public office.”

Scott Walter, president of Capital Research Center, has written about the Johnson Amendment.

Proposed by then Senator Lyndon B. Johnson (D-TX) and passed by Congress in 1954, the law prohibits tax-exempt organizations—including churches and other nonprofits—from lobbying elected officials, campaigning on behalf of a political party, and supporting or opposing candidates for office. Section 501(c)(3) of the tax code bestows tax-exempt status upon nonprofit groups as long as they don’t “participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for office.” (The “in opposition to” clause was added in 1986.)

The Johnson Amendment is now applied most scrupulously to churches and faith-based organizations, which are barred from translating their community organizing into political activism of any kind. A Southern Baptist congregation opposed to abortion, for example, is prohibited from explicitly supporting a pro-life Republican running for Congress solely because of the church’s nonprofit status.

Through the Johnson Amendment, the Internal Revenue Service exercises the power to stifle a religious organization’s right to free speech. In effect, an evangelical pastor, Orthodox rabbi, Muslim imam, or Catholic priest who wishes to urge support for a religious freedom bill or oppose Obamacare’s contraception mandate can be muzzled under federal law.

With regard to the Johnson Amendment, EO 13798 says:

All executive departments and agencies (agencies) shall, to the greatest extent practicable and to the extent permitted by law, respect and protect the freedom of persons and organizations to engage in religious and political speech.  In particular, the Secretary of the Treasury shall ensure, to the extent permitted by law, that the Department of the Treasury does not take any adverse action against any individual, house of worship, or other religious organization on the basis that such individual or organization speaks or has spoken about moral or political issues from a religious perspective, where speech of similar character has, consistent with law, not ordinarily been treated as participation or intervention in a political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) a candidate for public office by the Department of the Treasury.

The order also directs the Treasury, Labor, and Health and Human Services departments to “consider issuing amended regulations, consistent with applicable law, to address conscience-based objections to the preventive-care mandate promulgated under [Obamacare mandates].”

The order was more timid than religious freedom advocates had anticipated. But iconic Christian broadcaster James Dobson, who founded Focus on the Family, gave the order his stamp of approval.

It was in that same aforementioned Republican convention speech in July 2016 where Trump might have made the most humble comment of his life, declaring, “I would like to thank the evangelical and religious community because I’ll tell you what, the support they’ve given me, and I’m not sure I totally deserve it.”

He hasn’t demonstrated humility or questioned why others supported him. He’s a New York billionaire and never suggested he wasn’t sure he deserved the support of blue collar workers in the heartland. Trump is not a doctrinaire conservative –many in the GOP wouldn’t label him a conservative at all—but he never suggested he didn’t deserve Tea Party support. Yet, with a Christian kind of humility, he questioned whether he was truly worthy of evangelical backing.

The Supreme Court vacancy caused by the passing of Antonin Scalia last year made Trump the logical choice. Social conservatives are perhaps the voting demographic most aware of the importance of the judiciary and how it can —for better or worse—remake America. The court vacancy made the election about the next 40 years, not just the next four years. With the 4-to-4 ideological split, the Supreme Court was one vote away from wiping out even the most modest restrictions on abortion. It was one vote away from disregarding religious freedom and forcing the family that owns Hobby Lobby, and charities such as Little Sisters of the Poor, to conform to a far-left agenda. The high court was one vote away from suppressing political speech by overturning the Citizens United decision.

Social conservatives backed Trump, but they weren’t merely falling in line. Arguably social conservatives always fall in line every four years with the Republican nominee. But in 2016, there was an enthusiasm for Trump among evangelical voters that we didn’t see for Mitt Romney or John McCain. That enthusiasm rivaled evangelical support for President George W. Bush—who was a sincere evangelical.

We can’t speculate on Trump’s faith. Only he and God know about that. We do know he has business sense and knows who helped put him in the White House.

Evangelical Christians, conservative Catholics, and other social conservatives backed Trump for the same reason these other demographic groups helped propel the most unlikely of election victories.

These groups believed—whatever hesitations they might have—that Trump was a fighter and was ready to throw out the old order.

After eight years of the Obama administration’s relentless assaults on religious liberty and an extreme “transformation” agenda, people of faith saw someone who would fight on their behalf even if he was only a baby Christian.

Still, there is reason for caution. Moving to protect life and taking executive action to curb the Johnson Amendment are significant, but they’re not everything. His daughter, who has his ear, Ivanka Trump, secretly met with Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards in the weeks following Trump’s inauguration, to talk about funding for the nation’s largest abortion provider. Richards reportedly stressed to the president’s daughter that no federal funds pay for abortion. That, of course, has always been a red herring, since money is fungible. And, as noted above, he did water down the religious freedom executive order from the original draft that included religious freedom in hiring practices and health care.

Still, Vice President Mike Pence is solid, and there is good reason to believe that Trump is sincere in a commitment to a constituency he must keep loyal for 2020.

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The Author

Fred Lucas

Fred Lucas is author of Tainted by Suspicion: The Secret Deals and Electoral Chaos of Disputed Presidential Elections (Stairway Press, 2016) and White House correspondent for The Daily Signal.