The people who filled the pews of St. John’s Episcopal Church for a private service on the morning of the inauguration were a testament to the ascendancy of the religious right in Donald Trump’s Washington: James Dobson, the founder of Focus on the Family; Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council; James Robison, the Christian television preacher.
Right after Dobson blessed Mike Pence, and just before the congregation sang “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” Robison took to the pulpit and asked Trump to rise.
For six minutes, the president-elect stood as Robison heaped praise on him, extolling his ability to inspire a crowd, his choice of the deeply religious Pence as a running mate and his wisdom in selecting a White House team that he deemed “the greatest Cabinet I’ve ever seen.”
“You are, in fact, an answer to prayer,” Robison said, according to a video taken from the back of the church, where every president has attended services since it opened in 1816. “I think you have been designed and gifted by God for this moment.”
Trump, a profane, bombastic, thrice-married New Yorker, may not have been the candidate many religious conservatives prayed would win the White House. But the mutually beneficial arrangement he has nurtured with the Christian right is already starting to nudge the government in a more conservative direction.
The religious right’s influence is evident in the policies the new administration has prioritized in its first weeks, from Trump’s clampdown on federal funding that could indirectly support abortion to his directive to give persecuted Christians special dispensation to enter the United States. His pick to fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court, Judge Neil M. Gorsuch, has written opinions favorable to businesses that have religious objections to government mandates. And the White House has told leaders of the movement that the president will select nominees for the lower courts who are opposed to expanding abortion rights.
A group that has felt shunted aside by the Republican establishment is finding doors open more quickly and willingly than it did even under friendly presidents like Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.
Trump has given many conservative Christian leaders his personal cellphone number. He has solicited their advice for filling key positions. He has invited them to the White House. And he has staffed his Cabinet with many people of deep Christian faith, like Ben Carson, a Seventh-day Adventist, and Betsy DeVos, who was raised in the Calvinist tradition.
Now that he has the movement’s support, he has good reason to keep its adherents happy. He needs them to preserve his cobbled-together base of voters. And given how few votes put him over the top in the Electoral College — 77,000 total in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, where socially conservative Republicans are a key constituency — he may indeed owe them the election.
Once doubtful of his commitment to deliver on the promises he made during the campaign, they now count themselves among the converted.
“We’re happy to be wrong,” said Penny Young Nance, president of Concerned Women for America, who was once among the “anybody but Trump” Republicans but stood alongside him at the White House this month during a meeting of conservative leaders.
“He doesn’t pretend to be a Bible-banging evangelical,” Nance, an evangelical Christian herself, added. “And we respect that. But he was also very clear about what he was going to do, what positions he was going to take, what he was going to support for the country. And it lined up with what evangelicals wanted.”
This close relationship has consequences not only for how policy will be shaped over the next four years on issues like health care, education and free speech, but also for how the federal courts will decide cases for a generation or more.
What the religious right wanted, perhaps above all else, was the nomination of a solidly conservative judge to the Supreme Court. And Trump delivered with his selection of Gorsuch, whom he picked from a list of 21 candidates blessed by conservative groups.
Perhaps most important, Trump has been almost conspicuous in his embrace. Speaking to Pat Robertson before he named his Supreme Court nominee, Trump insisted, “I think evangelicals, Christians will love my pick.”
Richard Land, a prominent Southern Baptist and a member of Trump’s evangelical advisory board, said he had been repeatedly asked to provide names of people who would like to join the administration.
“That didn’t happen before,” Land said in an interview. He described his bemusement to a Christian news outlet last month, saying, “Are we hallucinating, or is this actually happening?”
Trump invited scores of prominent Christian leaders to his inauguration events and asked them to speak. Cissie Graham Lynch, whose father is Franklin Graham, the evangelist and Trump supporter who offered a prayer from the steps of the Capitol, said she sat there as the president was sworn in and thought to herself, “To hear the name of Jesus Christ proclaimed on that stage — and for people not to be ashamed of it — was a breath of fresh air.”
The Trump administration has moved fast to enact new policies that the religious right considers important, including vowing to “totally destroy” a law known as the Johnson Amendment that restricts the activities of tax-exempt entities like churches in politics.
Trump’s Cabinet is filled with deeply religious people who hold conservative views on religion, morality and social policy.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a Methodist, has questioned the wisdom of separating church and state.
Tom Price, the new health and human services secretary, helped lead an effort in Congress to repeal the federal mandate that insurers cover birth control, on the ground that it violates religious freedom.
Carson, the nominee for secretary of housing and urban development, once said he doubted the validity of the Big Bang theory.
Andrew F. Puzder, the labor secretary nominee, was an early architect of the legal effort to pass laws stating that life begins at conception.
Among the Trump inner circle, Pence and Kellyanne Conway, the counselor to the president, were known to the movement for their strong opposition to abortion and for other stances in culture war battles long before they were household names. In a first for a White House, Trump sent them both to address the annual march in Washington by abortion opponents.
Perkins, the Family Research Council president, who was at the White House for the announcement of Gorsuch’s nomination, said Trump had first reached out to him when he was considering challenging President Barack Obama. Then, in early 2016, after Perkins had aligned himself with many other evangelical leaders to back Sen. Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign, he received another call from Trump asking him to pay a visit.
Inside Trump’s office in Trump Tower, Perkins said, “I sat there for 20 minutes and explained to him what an evangelical is and what they believe and what they are looking for.” Trump, not usually one to sit still for very long, listened intently, Perkins added.
Perkins was invited to say a prayer at a private reception at Union Station in Washington on the night of the inauguration. Based on other encounters with politicians, he expected to have to submit his remarks in advance. But the only limit he was given from the administration was one on time. “They said, ‘You have five minutes,'” he said.
Though Trump’s elevation to champion of religious conservatives may seem incongruous, his followers understand the phenomenon well. Reagan, after all, was also divorced, once supported abortion rights and saw no problem with his wife’s inviting an astrologer to the White House.
“You don’t need to be one of us to get our vote,” said J. Hogan Gidley, a Republican strategist who has worked for presidential candidates Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, both of whom are deeply religious. “Donald Trump didn’t walk around pretending to be this paragon of Christian virtue. What he did was say he’d protect your right to be one.”
Robison, the televangelist who was among those who spoke at St. John’s, spoke later that day to a crowd gathered for the Faith, Freedom and Future inaugural ball. He told a story of how he had called Trump’s cellphone just to see if he would still pick up after he had won the election.
Trump, he said, answered.