The irony was not lost on Trump’s critics: On a day when social media were afire with fresh claims involving Michael Cohen’s hush-money payoffs to the president’s alleged lover, the porn star Stormy Daniels, there’s Trump getting publicly pious, announcing a new “faith-based initiative” while snuggling with his familiar crew of conservative Evangelical advisers (with some extras representing other faith traditions on hand as well).
Whatever his sins, the president is entirely innocent of having arranged the coincidence: His announcement coincided with the annual National Day of Prayer, a congressionally sanctioned event that often (if not always; Barack Obama did not personally participate in NDP commemorations, though he always offered official encouragement of them) has involved presidents.
But the proclamation Trump signed at the event was related to his more general line of defense against revelations like those being made about his handling (so to speak) of Ms. Daniels. It re-created a “faith-based organizations” infrastructure in the administration similar but not entirely identical to that of his two immediate predecessors. Vox’s Tara Isabella Burton makes some distinctions:
The institution of faith-based initiatives is not uncommon in the White House — Barack Obama launched the Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, and George W. Bush instituted an Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. Both programs were designed to provide faith-based charity organizations with a clear avenue to get federal funding for their work.
That said, Trump’s initiative seems to expand previous offices’ remit in a number of ways. For starters, the office isn’t just focusing on community-based or charitable initiatives. According to the Religion News Service, it’s also charged with informing the administration of “any failures of the executive branch to comply with religious liberty protections under law.” The Trump administration has consistently been a champion of religious liberty, particularly insofar as it pertains to evangelical Christian causes.
The political function of the faith-based initiative in the Trump administration is also significantly different. The Bush initiative became famous for creating a modest but symbolically important grants-and-contracts-based patronage operation, with conservative African-American churches notably benefiting. Obama’s initiative also offered outreach to a previously hostile community — white Evangelicals — and adjudicated for good or for ill many fights between conservative religious groups and advocates for LGBTQ rights.
In line with Trump’s loud-and-proud advocacy of the political views of conservative Christians, his new faith-based office will apparently focus on policing agencies to make sure there is no interference with participation by church-sponsored organizations, and no transgressions against the “liberty of conscience” of believers. This is a term, of course, that both political and religious conservatives these days construe very broadly to sanction all sorts of exclusive and exclusionary demands, even in the use of federal funds.
According to Adelle Banks, who first reported the initiative, the office will “serve as a watchdog for government overreach on religious liberty issues.” It will be interesting to see if the watchdog growls, and if so, at whom.
All in all, it is clear that this is another of a series of steps by Trump to solidify his relationship with his largest and most loyal constituency, and perhaps scandal-proof it against disclosures of heathenish presidential and prepresidential behavior yet to come. To an extent unseen in the White House for a long time, Trump is treating conservative Evangelicals not as allies, but as partners. Since unlike George W. Bush he cannot credibly pose as a brother-in-faith, it’s probably the best he can do to keep them inside his tent.