It’s an interesting time to be living in America. I’ve just spent the week before last in Washington, DC, where I had the opportunity to attend the Values Voter Summit—one of the biggest annual gatherings of Christians standing for freedom, faith, family and life.
The summit’s headline event was a Saturday night address by President Donald Trump. I must admit that I never expected to see America’s president in person on my first trip to the USA.
From across the Pacific, we Aussies often have the impression that American Christians form a neat line behind any Republican that makes it to the White House. But as I spoke with people over the weekend, I was struck by their measured response to Trump.
I saw no MAGA hats, and I heard no unbridled praise for the president.
Indeed, those who told me they voted for Trump in 2016 said their Christian convictions almost held them back. Trump was a mogul from liberal New York, unfaithful in marriage and divorced twice, vulgar towards women and verbally ruthless towards his opponents.
A good deal of the Christians who backed him saw it as a vote against Hilary Clinton’s godless platform rather than a vote for Trump.
Three years later, many feel the same about him, wishing and praying for a kinder, humbler and more presidential president.
But if there’s one thing that became clear over the weekend, it’s that American Christians feel that Trump is taking seriously their concerns for life, family, faith and freedom.
To the surprise of many, Trump’s two most senior appointments have been unashamed evangelical Christians—Mike Pence as Vice President and Mike Pompeo as Secretary of State.
Trump has made religious freedom a signature issue of his administration. He created the position of International Ambassador for Religious Freedom, appointing another outspoken Christian to the role in Sam Brownback, whom I had the honour of meeting with earlier this year.
In July this year, at Brownback’s request, the president welcomed victims of religious persecution from many nations to the Oval Office to hear their stories.
Following this, Trump held a special meeting at the UN in which he called other nations to stand with America to protect religious freedom around the world, pledging US$25 million to the cause.
During his speech, he declared that America is “founded on the principle that our rights do not come from government—they come from God,” adding that, “this immortal truth is proclaimed in our Declaration of Independence and enshrined in the First Amendment.”
For decades, American presidents have pledged to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital but then backed out under pressure. Trump broke with precedent to fulfil this long-standing desire of many Jewish and Christian groups and confirmed it by relocating the US embassy to Jerusalem.
Though Trump supported abortion for most of his pre-political life, many now regard him as the most pro-life president in America’s history. “Every child, born and unborn, is a sacred gift from God” is a phrase regularly heard during his speeches these days.
He has introduced changes to the Title X program so that taxpayer dollars don’t directly fund abortions. He has expanded the Mexico City Policy to ensure that American dollars aren’t used to promote abortion abroad.
Remarkably, Trump has made 150 judicial appointments so far—mostly conservative judges who will influence American courts for decades to come.
Two of these have been Supreme Court appointments, giving conservatives a 5-4 majority at America’s most powerful bench. Given that the two oldest sitting judges are liberal, if Trump wins a second term it’s a majority that could soon increase to 7-2.
Some are even tipping that Roe v. Wade could be overturned in coming years.
Trump has also responded to the growing suppression of free speech on college campuses. The 2017 Berkley riots and a string of other incidents prompted the president to sign an executive order which requires colleges to allow free inquiry and debate if they want to keep receiving federal grants.
The list could go on. Mat Staver, president of the Christian legal group Liberty Counsel, estimates that Donald Trump has fulfilled around 90% of the requests put to him by Christian groups. Staver has dubbed him “the most pro-religious freedom and pro-life president in modern history”.
As I lined up waiting to be scanned by Secret Service on my way into the Presidential address, I spoke with a Christian couple who gave an insightful assessment of Trump.
They likened him to another Old Testament pagan ruler—King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, who had something of a spiritual awakening mid-reign to become an unlikely advocate for a God he’d spent his life ignoring.
The prayer of many Christians is that Trump’s awakening would go beyond political advocacy for a certain stream of Christian values, to a personal transformation.
In the meantime, discerning Christians, American and otherwise, will continue to draw clear lines between the Trump policies they support and the Trump personality traits they disdain.
But when it comes to traditional Christian values, they’ve found a most unexpected ally.