The US health secretary sat for an interview with a man experts say is the leader of a hate group known for “defaming gays and lesbians”, just two days after Karen Pence, the US second lady, was criticized for teaching at a Christian school that bans homosexuality.
Alex Azar, secretary of health and human services, was interviewed by the Family Research Council President, Tony Perkins, at an anti-abortion event called ProLifeCon in mid-January.
“We are the department of life,” Azar told Perkins, “from conception until natural death, through all of our programs.” He then rattled off victories – new policies that make it difficult to obtain an abortion, including allowing healthcare workers to refuse to treat patients based on moral objections. “The right of conscience is as foundational as the right to life.”
Perkins has falsely claimed homosexuality is linked with pedophilia, advocated for parents’ rights to send children to harmful conversion therapy, and said about transgender people: “I mean, what’s to keep you from saying that you’re an animal?”
The interview is the latest example of how a narrow slice of the American right has gained unprecedented access to the White House, as defining Trump statements have emboldened the antisemitic far right and Trump administration policies put the brakes on Muslim immigration.
The access “has been remarkable, and candidly it has gone back to the campaign”, said Ralph Reed, executive director of the Faith and Freedom Coalition. While Reed and other evangelicals have celebrated the Trump administration’s hunger for their views and policies in line with them, critics argue it is running a de facto advisory committee in violation of federal law.
“This is part of a story about the emboldened religious right that has a partnership at the highest level of government with the Trump and Pence administration,” said Rachel Laser, CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “Together, they’re co-opting the term ‘religious freedom’ to advance their political agenda.”
Paula White, a televangelist from Florida cited as the president’s chief spiritual adviser, told Charisma News she was able to make calls to the White House following Hurricane Maria. “You can do that because you have a seat there,” she said.
Johnnie Moore, a Southern Baptist minister and former co-chair of the Trump campaign’s evangelical advisory board, estimated he’d visited the White House 20 times by early last year. Roughly 100 evangelical leaders were invited to the White House for a meal with all the trappings of an official state dinner.
At the same time, Reed said many of the top priorities of evangelicals had been supported by the administration. He included “repeal of the Johnson amendment”, which prohibited nonprofits and houses of worship from endorsing political candidates, “Christian persecution around the world, the Obamacare conscience mandate … the pro-life issue, judicial nominations and judicial appointments, especially to the supreme court.”
This summer, Trump successfully appointed the conservative Catholic Brett Kavanaugh to the US supreme court. The former attorney general Jeff Sessions announced a religious liberty taskforce, but the names of its members are not public. In the summer of 2017, Trump unexpectedly announced a ban on transgender people serving in the military.
Last week, Azar’s health department exempted South Carolina from anti-discrimination statutes that protect same-sex couples from discrimination while adopting from faith-based agencies. Trump tweeted support for Bible study classes in state schools.
In each instance, the Trump policy was widely supported by evangelical leaders, even as some were barely on the radar for traditional conservatives. At the same time, some evangelical leaders have provided cover for the Trump administration during moments of crisis.
When Trump shut the government down over a border wall, the Faith and Freedom Coalition wrote a letter calling on Democrats to fund the wall. “We think that’s a Biblical principle,” said Reed. “There’s nothing in scripture anywhere about a barrier or a wall being immoral.”
When the Trump administration separated children from their families at the border, White refuted arguments that Jesus was a refugee, Christian Today reported. White said: “Yes, he did live in Egypt for three and a half years. But it was not illegal. If he had broken the law then he would have been sinful and he would not have been our Messiah.”
Members of the Trump family have also donated to leading evangelicals. Ivanka Trump gave $50,000 to the Texas megachurch leader Jack Graham to help reunite migrant families after her father’s administration separated them from their parents at the border. Ivanka remains a senier advisor to the president. In 2013, Graham’s church described nontraditional gender identity as “sexual identity confusion”.
“It’s an ugly story about the politicization about one of America’s most sacred symbols: religious freedom,” said Laser. “It’s also a story about one narrow slice of America, the religious right, trying to hold on to their power in a country that is quickly becoming less white and less Christian. It is a true religious threat to Americans.”
For evangelical leaders, however, the president’s interest in their views has been thrilling.
“If you talk to enough of these leaders, they’re not only thrilled by the unprecedented access, and he’s so solicitous of their views as is the rest of the team at the White House, but also the decisions he makes,” said Reed. Trump, he said, “dances with the one he brought”.