When a Turkish court released American Andrew Brunson after two years of confinement, it was a profound moment for Christian evangelicals, who had made the pastor a symbol of religious persecution worldwide.
In Brunson’s case and others, they had prayed for deliverance. And President Donald Trump, they said, delivered.
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Trump on Friday said there was “no deal at all” with Turkey to win Brunson’s release, but the administration had brought significant political and economic pressure to bear. In an unusual move, the administration had used a religious freedom law to target Turkish officials, the first time such economic sanctions had been brought against a NATO ally.
Again and again, evangelical activists say, the administration has made good on promises made to the faith voters who lifted Trump into office — a group he will sorely need to turn out again for his 2020 re-election bid.
“He wouldn’t be our Sunday School teacher necessarily, but he’s doing a great job of leadership,” said televangelist and Trump adviser James Robison. “I love him so much I can hardly explain it.”
Some of the administration’s actions that have impressed Christian groups have come as seismic pronouncements, such as formally recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Others, such as installing hundreds of conservative jurists on federal courts, have come more gradually but will have an impact for generations.
Other policy and priority shifts have been less obvious. The president early in his term reinstated a Ronald Reagan-era rule that prohibits recipients of government funds from referring women for abortions. And he quietly withdrew U.S. funding of a global women’s health agency at the United Nations, pleasing anti-abortion leaders who had accused it of supporting coercive abortion, a claim the group vigorously denies.
Under the radar, government agencies, too, are deliberately pushing an agenda that evangelicals support. At the Department of Education, Secretary Betsy DeVos has embraced school choice and private schools, to the benefit of religious academies, and is weighing rules that would make it easier for faith-based colleges to access federal funding.
The Department of Health and Human Services in January launched a division of conscience and religious freedom to police rules that allow health-care workers to refuse to participate in procedures, such as abortion and assisted suicide, if they object on religious grounds.
In August, the Department of Labor issued a directive that critics, including advocates for gay and transgender workers, say could allow government contractors to discriminate based on religious grounds. And this summer, Attorney General Jeff Sessions convened a Religious Liberty Task Force.
“Under this administration, the federal government is not just reacting — we are actively seeking, carefully, thoughtfully and lawfully, to accommodate people of faith,” Sessions said in July. “Religious Americans are no longer an afterthought.”
Human rights groups view the activity with deep suspicion and say the DOJ task force in particular could lead to government-sanctioned discrimination based on religious grounds.
“It’s a very dangerous move,” said Matt Dann, director of government affairs at the Secular Coalition for America. “We think they’re paving the way for some broad-based religious exemptions.”
In April, lawmakers led by Reps. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) and Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) created the Congressional Freethought Caucus, a reaction to the influence of religion, especially the Christian right, in public policymaking.
The group has demanded answers about the Religious Liberty Task Force, saying in a September letter that it “could undermine religious liberty by promoting policies that come at the expense of non-religious Americans and other vulnerable communities by imposing a specific set of religious viewpoint.”
Christian conservatives, meanwhile, are thrilled. While they publicly pray for the president to be more Christlike in his tweets and speeches, they say their political and personal support for him has only grown.
“For eight years, values voters felt that literally the whole power and weight of the federal government was being brought down on their heads,” said Gary Bauer, president of the non-profit American Values and a Trump appointee to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. “What we’ve seen happen in these first two years validates the reasons these voters went with the Trump-Pence ticket.”
There’s likely more action to come. In October 2017, Sessions issued a 25-page memorandum outlining religious freedom protections long enshrined into law. While the document had no binding authority, it signaled that the Justice Department was paying close attention to the issue.
The agency has been weighing in on more religious liberty cases — involving all faiths — than it did under Barack Obama’s administration, said Hiram Sasser, general counsel at the First Liberty Institute, a religious freedom advocacy group.
Sasser’s group has used the DOJ memo as a tool to press cities, school boards and county governments into settling complaints or amending their practices.
“I can’t tell you how many times litigation has actually been avoided, costly litigation,” Sasser said. “It’s led to a lot of positive outcomes.”