Inside the Church Service President Trump Attended Before he Was Inaugurated; And the Pressure he Faces to Keep his Promises to Religious Conservatives Who Supported him
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 J. 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 Mr. Dobson blessed Mike Pence, and just before the congregation sang “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” Mr. Robison took to the pulpit and asked Mr. Trump to rise.
For six minutes, the president-elect stood as Mr. Robison heaped praise on him, extolling his ability to inspire a crowd, his choice of the deeply religious Mr. 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,” Mr. 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.”
Mr. 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 Mr. 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.
Mr. 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, the 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,” Ms. 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.