This year’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), which took place the weekend before last, provided a window into how Donald Trump is handling the religious right, which has had setbacks during the Obama era, as LGBTQ rights surged. I chatted with quite a few social conservatives in the crowd, and last week I published my interview with Ken Blackwell, a senior fellow at the notoriously anti-LGBTQ Family Research Council (FRC) who also served as the domestic policy chair of Donald Trump’s transition team.
The Blackwell interview was quite illuminating. He was candid about how a “religious freedom” executive order, which would allow for discrimination against LGBT people and others, was still coming from the president’s desk, despite the Trump administration playing it down after a draft had leaked last month. Blackwell, former Ohio Secretary of State, is a devout warrior among evangelical crusaders. He’s passionate and forthright in his beliefs and enjoys discussing them.
I had interviewed Blackwell in 2008 at the GOP convention in a thirty-minute discussion in which he defended his claim that homosexuality is comparable to arson and kleptomania, because it is, in his view, a compulsion that can be “contained, repressed or changed,” though that’s in complete opposition to the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association and just about every other authority on the subject. Blackwell seemed to imply, against all scientific evidence, that anyone could succumb to this compulsion ― hence the religious right claim that homosexuality is a “choice” ― even including himself.
“I’ve never had to make the choice because I’ve never had the urge to be other than a heterosexual,” Blackwell had told me. “But if in fact I had the urge to be something else I could have in fact suppressed that urge.”
People like Blackwell don’t change their minds easily about these things. And here he is now, newly emboldened, having served on Trump’s transition team and readying for the anticipated religious freedom order, working for a group, the Family Research Council (FRC), that is to the Trump administration what Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority was to the Reagan administration in the ‘80s.
Tony Perkins, president of FRC, has steadfastly supported Trump and had driven evangelicals to turn out to vote for him by a large percentage, just as Falwell did for Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984. While both Reagan and Trump were divorced celebrities who came out of decadent Hollywood and New York respectively before entering politics, they’ve each been viewed as speaking the “language” of evangelical Christians, presenting themselves as unlikely but committed fighters for social conservatives.
“The president said when he was a candidate that there is a war on Christianity in America,” the former head of FRC’s Center for Religious Liberty, Ken Klukowski, told me at CPAC, regarding Trump. “And as someone who is a religious liberty lawyer who frequently represents the evangelical and Catholic communities in this country, that’s exactly the sort of language that most people in that situation use. There has been unprecedented hostility against people of devout faiths in recent years. So the problem is there. It’s been clearly defined. The president is aware of it.”
During the 1980 election campaign, meeting with evangelical church leaders in Dallas, Reagan cemented his relationship with evangelical voters, famously saying, “I know you can’t endorse me, But . . . I want you to know that I endorse you.”
It’s a strikingly similar statement to many of Trump’s promises to evangelical leaders: Short on details, big on commitment and promise. At the time of Reagan’s election, evangelicals believed they were were in the wilderness and saw a country in moral decay in which tradition was uprooted, coming off of the ‘60s and ‘70s civil rights and liberation movements for women, people of color and gays.
Many evangelical leaders had believed they were betrayed by President Jimmy Carter, an evangelical himself. He was pilloried by social conservatives for supporting abortion rights and not referencing God in his speech at the Democratic National Convention in 1980 (in contrast to Reagan who did so at the Republican National Convention). In that context, the fact that someone like Reagan was even speaking up for evangelicals and promising to push their agenda ― including against abortion ― was enough to galvanize them.
Evangelicals have similarly expressed being in the wilderness during the Obama era, a period in which they experienced major defeats as LGBT rights surged forward with Obama’s repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” and at the Supreme Court with marriage equality. Like Reagan, Trump not only held himself out as someone who’d fight to take them back to a long lost era ― “Make America great again!” ― but also presented himself as a leader taking on enemies of religious freedom around the world. For Reagan, it was the “evil empire” of the Soviet Union, presented as an existential threat (ironic, given Trump’s current view of Russia), and for Trump it is Muslims, whom he portrays as a evil religious and existential threat. Both men augmented their fight for evangelicals against immorality within the country with battles against those outside the country who are perceived as threatening to religious liberty.
So, with Trump using the Reagan playbook, here is how things will go down. He will string them along with a lot of flowery statements, including biblical references, and make grand promises, such as allowing them to have a tax exemption while engaging in political activity ― repealing the Johnson Amendment in the U.S. tax code ― which will likely never happen. He’ll hope that nominating a judicial originalist like Neil Gorsuch for the Supreme Court will satisfy them. And he’ll give them morsels here and there, meant to placate them, but they can’t be too radical since that could cause too much outrage in the larger electorate.
Perhaps most consequentially, Trump won’t speak up or devote resources to issues or crises that arise affecting LGBTQ people ― as the AIDS epidemic did in a catastrophic way in the ‘80s, ignored by Reagan until it was out of control. Silence and ignorance ― allowing people to literally be harmed, suffer or die ― can go a long way at satisfying those who hate us. We’ve already seen this with the Trump administration’s decision not to continue defending a court challenge by several states against Obama administration guidelines to protect transgender students ― and then rescinding the guidelines entirely.
But, while at first being thankful that Trump is even paying attention to them, evangelical leaders will soon become vocal and demanding, as they did with Reagan. (This is already starting to happen).
The big difference thirty years later, however, is the organization and energy of the those of us who fight for equality. And that brings me back to CPAC. Blackwell spoke about the religious freedom order which would allow for discrimination against LGBTQ people as being “redrafted” to stand up to judicial scrutiny. But it’s also likely being re-written to withstand public scrutiny too. Last month’s leaked draft of the order ― and we should be thankful for whistleblowers who are revealing some of the horrific plans the Trump administration has under wraps ― caused an uproar in the media and among the public that forced the Trump administration into retreat, even if temporarily.
After the Muslim ban fiasco, the Trump team surely didn’t want another disaster, even as religious groups continue to pressure Trump for the executive order. Both situations showed how public outcry and the courts could help keep the administration in check, even as it’s made a second attempt on the Muslim ban (if a weakened version). LGBT rights have come into the mainstream, unlike in the ‘80s when queers were almost universally feared and shunned.
Religious conservatives will become louder, but there’s only so far that that Reagan playbook can take Trump today. He can be pushed back, and stopped, if we stand firm and organize. That’s especially true if LGBTQ activists don’t begin to compromise on rights ― a strategy some LGBT activists have actually suggested ― which would be an enormous trap.