Trump is dismantling Obama’s religion initiatives

President Donald Trump listens as faith leaders speak in September, in Washington. CREDIT: AP Photo/Evan Vucci

President Donald Trump’s most devoted religious backers often claim the real estate mogul was catapulted into the Oval Office because of one reason: God put him there. But when the Trump administration issued an executive order in late September renewing a slate of federal advisory councils, the “God” bit was conspicuously absent. Left off the list was the White House Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, created in 2009 by Barack Obama as an extension of an office of the same name created by George W. Bush.

The omission may seem unexpected. But it represents just the latest example of Trump methodically erasing any hint of Obama’s engagement with religion.

Melissa Rogers, a lawyer and expert in church-state relations who headed the faith office during Obama’s second term, wasn’t surprised the 25-member council was cut. After all, she said, the Trump administration has yet to fill the vacant leadership slot in her old office.

“The advisory council was one part of our work with the faith community,” Rogers told ThinkProgress. “The advisory council itself was very important, but it was nested within a much greater universe.”

That universe is now slowly unraveling, according to Rogers and other former Obama staffers.

“The continuance of this Evangelical Executive Advisory Board, even unofficially, and the apparent failure to have any comparable entity that is open to non-evangelicals, sends a troubling message that the administration prefers evangelicals over other people of faith.”

Some of the alterations have been subtle. Few noticed when Trump quietly ended the White House Easter Prayer Breakfast — a tradition created in 2010 under Obama — and replaced it with renewed emphasis on the National Day of Prayer (something Obama is falsely accused of ending).

But former staffers say the most striking shift is the way the Trump administration is dismantling a once-influential ecosystem of official interfaith councils and offices set up by previous presidents to advise on matters of faith.

In their place, the president appears to be substituting informal, amorphous, and comparatively un-vetted relationships with mostly evangelical Protestant Christian leaders who directly advise Trump — and possibly his entire cabinet.

Rogers says the administration’s ongoing relationship with the unofficial evangelical advisory board raises concerns for people of faith, especially religious minorities.

“The Trump administration isn’t obligated to continue this council, but it is obligated to ensure that’s it’s not preferring some faiths over others or seeming to do so,” said Rogers, who currently serves as a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “And the continuance of this Evangelical Executive Advisory Board, even unofficially, and the apparent failure to have any comparable entity that is open to non-evangelicals, sends a troubling message that the administration prefers evangelicals over other people of faith.”

Barack Obama prays with Laura Bush, Michelle Obama, John Lewis, and George W. Bush in March 2015. CREDIT: AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

Trump is replacing formal religion expertise with informal faith councils across the government

A few years ago, the State Department’s Office of Religion and Global Affairs (RGA) was a bustling workspace. Headed by Shaun Casey, now a professor at Georgetown’s foreign service school, it boasted a staff of 30 that included several graduate-level experts in policy and the study of religion. They busied themselves with an array of high-profile projects, advising diplomats and government officials on all matters of faith.

Under Trump, the RGA is a shadow of its former self. The staff has been reduced to four, and their work is now folded into the Office of International Religious Freedom (IRF), a separate State Department group whose mandate is primarily focused on publishing an annual report on religious freedom. No longer run by a traditional scholar of religion, the office is instead led by Pam Pryor, a former communications expert and campaign faith adviser to onetime Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and, more recently, Trump.

“I think it’s clear—at least in terms of the State Department—[Trump officials] don’t care about engaging with a broad range of religious communities either domestically or internationally.”

Casey has publicly lamented the hobbling of his former team, which once advised the government on everything from the Paris Climate Accords to Israel-Palestine peace negotiations. He says Trump’s evangelical leaders are no substitute for the wide-ranging theological expertise his staff offered, especially when it comes to understanding a diversity of faith traditions.

“I think it’s clear—at least in terms of the State Department—[Trump officials] don’t care about engaging with a broad range of religious communities either domestically or internationally,” Casey told ThinkProgress. “The American evangelical and fundamentalist Christian community [advising Trump] has no policy expertise in other religions—even other Christians. If you were to look at religious dynamics in a place like Ukraine, for instance, the complexity there is almost unmeasurable.”

A State Department spokesperson told ThinkProgress integrating the offices is designed to “eliminate redundancies that dilute the ability of a bureau to deliver on its primary functions,” noting Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s plan gives the Office of International Religious Freedom expanded access to administrative and policy resources within the Department.”

Nevertheless, Casey pointed to Trump’s ongoing feud with Pope Francis as evidence of the administration’s challenges regarding religious matters. He also characterized the president’s first international trip to Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the Vatican as a series of “missed opportunities.” When asked how Trump’s evangelical advisers compared to his team, Casey was blunt: “They have no chops.”

Johnnie Moore, the de facto spokesman for Trump’s informal evangelical advisory board, doesn’t agree. He argued that formalized projects like the RGA and White House faith council are now unnecessary because expertise about religion is already “baked” into the Republican Party and the Trump administration.

“I think the [faith-based] office did some extraordinary work, [but] at points it was a foil to keep the religious community outside the White House while being affiliated with it,” Moore, who has advocated for Christians persecuted abroad, told ThinkProgress.

Instead, Moore promoted the alternative advisory model he and his fellow evangelicals have created for Trump’s White House: informal groups of leaders with direct access to power.

“Every single cabinet member to my knowledge has positive relationships with faith leaders that precedes the administration,” Moore said. “There are lots of evangelical leaders that have never been to a White House meeting that have an equally significant relationship with various cabinet leaders.”

Asked if this meant agencies have something like Trump’s unofficial circle of evangelical advisers, Moore said yes. But he quickly clarified the formation of informal evangelical councils across the federal government was a natural byproduct of pre-existing relationships, and not part of a coordinated “plan as far as I know.”

“There are lots of evangelical leaders that have never been to a White House meeting that have an equally significant relationship with various cabinet leaders.”

The nature of these cabinet-level exchanges with religious leaders has not been heavily reported, and their exact nature is unclear. Representatives from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) did not immediately return request for comment on this story, and attempts to contact the White House press office bounced back.

When responding to questions about informal evangelical advisers, however, a State Department spokesperson did not deny their existence, saying: “Officials in Washington and at our embassies meet regularly with a wide variety of religious groups and civil society, and collaborate to produce the annual International Religious Freedom Reports.”

It’s no secret that many cabinet members have well-established connections to conservative Christianity—especially white evangelicals, who represent just 16.8 percent of the U.S. population. Scott Pruitt was endorsed by a prominent array of evangelical leaders when he was tapped to head the EPA, and recently participated in a call with the Family Research Council (FRC)—a far-right conservative Christian organization that the Southern Poverty Law Center classifies as a hate group (a claim the FRC vehemently disputes). Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has ties to conservative faith movements, and Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson and Attorney General Jeff Sessions are both known for preaching right-wing Christian positions. Cabinet members, along with Vice President Mike Pence, regularly attend a Bible study together.

If faith is “baked in” to the Trump administration, it appears to be mostly of one flavor: conservative Christian.

Shaun Casey, U.S. State Department Special Representative for Religion and Global Affairs under Barack Obama, center, stands with the Greek Orthodox Christian Archbishop Chrysostomos, left, and Muslim Grand Mufti Talip Atalay, right, in March 2016. CREDIT: AP Photo/Petros Karadjias

Under Trump, a shift away from transparency

While cabinet members require extensive vetting, unofficial faith advisers mostly do not—a notable shift in transparency compared to the Obama era.

Rev. Jennifer Butler, head of advocacy group Faith in Public Life and former chair of Obama’s faith advisory committee, said she and her colleagues had to undergo a rigorous vetting process to serve.

“You had to list conflicts of interest,” Butler said. “They did reference checks. They even kind of looked through the internet to check on things they’ve done. It took like a year to be vetted.“

Even after members were approved, public accountability was paramount. Rev. Gabriel Salguero, a former council member who leads the National Latino Evangelical Coalition and serves on the board of the National Association of Evangelicals with Moore, recalled that lawyers trained members on how to avoid ethics violations.

“I had to submit tax information,” he said. “There are background checks. The FBI calls you … [and] you get an ethics training. An ethics lawyer comes in and says, ‘Hey you can’t do this.’”

Rogers noted that council meetings were typically announced 30 days in advance, accessible to the public, and included a moment for “public comment” over the phone at the end of each session.

Moore acknowledged the unofficial evangelical board is not subject to such scrutiny. But he described any implication that members are intentionally avoiding laws as “conspiracy theory-esque.”

“The expectations are different,” Moore said. “There aren’t bureaucratic expectations. It’s just regular citizens.”

Rogers believes it’s problematic when the government relies solely on advisory councils that aren’t transparent.

“Not having a transparent advisory council means the public is left in the dark and does not have a way to plug into this work,” she said.

President Donald Trump, flanked by clergy and some of his faith advisers, holds up a signed executive order on "religious liberty" in May. CREDIT: AP Photo/Evan Vucci

Unclear legal implications

Trump’s loose evangelical advisory strategy is built on long-established precedent. Various presidents were individually advised by evangelist Rev. Billy Graham, for instance. Rogers, Butler, and Salguero all acknowledged there were faith leaders who corresponded with Obama and other government officials during his tenure in less formalized ways.

“We had people across the administration and in the White House who had long-term relationships with the faith community and grassroots leaders,” Rogers said.

Yet obvious differences remain. Obama’s constellation of official faith advisers was task-based and intentionally interfaith, representing leaders from across the political and theological spectrum—including evangelicals such as the head of the Salvation Army and the National Association of Evangelicals. By contrast, Trump’s evangelical advisory board (and, according to Moore, the cadre of faith leaders advising cabinet members) appears to offer counsel on issues ranging from immigration to national security, and is almost entirely evangelical.

“I think it denigrates and cheapens faith, because it makes faith political and partisan rather than the unifying force that it is.”

The legal implications of the Trump administration’s current approach are murky. Formalizing an exclusively evangelical board may trigger accusations that Trump is violating the First Amendment—specifically the Establishment Clause, which prohibits the government from establishing one religion over others. But successfully suing the White House over such concerns is tricky: The Freedom From Religion Foundation sued the Bush administration over the creation of the White House Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives, but ultimately lost at the Supreme Court in 2007 on a technicality.

And while the 1972 Federal Advisory Commission Act was designed to create accountability and transparency for federal advisory groups, it’s geared toward reining in official councils. How—or if—it applies to informal advisory groups is unclear.

For now, at least, Trump’s evangelical advisory board seems safe. Moore and other members note that the president has offered them unprecedented access — which they describe as something close to a literal blessing.

“I have access that’s God-ordained and God-given,” Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, head of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference and a Trump adviser, told the Christian Broadcasting Network in August.

But the arrangement may come at a costUnder Obama, current and former faith council members (who regularly rotated off the council) criticized the president publicly on issues such as the Dakota Access Pipeline. Trump’s evangelical advisers, whose relationship is less formal and more fluid, tend to keep their criticism of the president private, and most refrained from public condemnations until very recently.

“They’re losing a credible moral voice,” Butler said. “They’re losing the expertise that religious communities actually bring. I think it denigrates and cheapens faith, because it makes faith political and partisan rather than the unifying force that it is.”

Disclosure: Before his time in the State Department, Shaun Casey was affiliated with the Center for American Progress. At its inception, Jennifer Butler’s organization Faith in Public Life was also affiliated with the Center for American Progress. ThinkProgress is an editorially independent news site housed at the Center for American Progress.

Clarification: This story has been updated to include a statement provided to ThinkProgress by a State Department spokesperson after publication. It has also been updated to clarify Melissa Rogers’ comments and her current title, and note attempts to contact the White House have since bounced back.