As Donald Trump exited the stage after addressing the 2016 Values Voter Summit (VVS) in Washington, DC a year ago, the Rolling Stone’s “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” blasted from the speakers. The audience gathered together for the Family Research Council’s annual conference offered both Trump and then-Governor Mike Pence standing ovations, even though Senator Ted Cruz had won the traditional VVS presidential straw poll each of the previous three years, with Ben Carson consistently coming in second. The thousands cheering in the hotel ballroom were early evidence that evangelicals (who make up the country’s biggest and most powerful religious voting bloc) were gradually coalescing behind Trump. Indeed, come Election Day they turned out in force: exit polls from the 2016 presidential election revealed that the Trump/Pence ticket managed to win over 81 percent of White, self-described evangelicals.
On Friday, the crowd will likely offer an even more enthusiastic reception to now-President Trump. Announcing the president’s confirmed attendance, Family Research Council leader Tony Perkins said, “Values voters have waited eight years for a leader who puts America’s mission first and respects the values that made America into a great nation. … Since the early days of the campaign, President Trump allied himself with values voters, promising to put an end to the 8 years of relentless assault on the First Amendment.”
Perkins emphasized some of the actions taken by the Trump administration that are perceived as major victories for the Christian Right, including Trump’s executive order on religious liberty, which LGBTQ advocates described as a “license to discriminate,” and last week’s directive from U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions that further codified the Right’s redefinition of religious freedom. For LGBTQ people, these actions effectively legalize discrimination, and further embolden the violence and persecution that has been on the rise ever since Trump’s election.
Perkins also praised the Trump administration’s attack on reproductive freedom last week. The new mandate from the Health & Human Services Department significantly increases the range of employers and insurers that can invoke “religious beliefs and moral convictions” to avoid the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that birth control pills and other contraceptives be covered at no cost to patients. According to the Obama Administration, which instituted this coverage, more than 55 million women relied on the provision.
CNN has described the Values Voter Summit (VVS) “one of the conservative movement’s marquee annual events,” and Fox News talk show host Sean Hannity called it “the premier conservative event now in the country.” This year’s gathering will feature notable right wing celebrities such as Roy Moore, Steve Bannon, Michele Bachmann, and Everett Piper, and breakout sessions range in topic from “Radical Islamic Supremacy” to “Transgender Ideology.”
Trump’s return to the stage indicates the strength of the Christian Right’s allegiance to a man who stands in stark contrast to what most might assume “values voters” hold as fundamental characteristics of a “model Christian” — Trump is twice divorced, rarely attends church, and has bragged about sexually assaulting women. But his ascension and continued popularity within Christian Right circles reveals the true underpinnings of their agenda: misogyny and White supremacy.
As researcher and sociologist Alex DiBranco explained in the Winter 2017 edition of The Public Eye, “Abortion, contraception, and sexuality education all threaten the enforcement of traditional gender roles,” therefore threatening the dominance of White, male power and control. To appeal to a broader base, however, the Christian Right has adopted the framework of “protecting women” (the same language used to promote discriminatory anti-trans legislation.
Trump’s unfamiliarity with the Christian Right and its evolving tactics is especially evident in his clumsy navigation of abortion rights — one of the Christian Right’s traditional bread-and-butter issues. DiBranco writes,
Set on proving that his “pro-choice” days were behind him, during the 2016 campaign Trump denounced Planned Parenthood as an “abortion factory” and selected hardline reproductive and LGBTQ rights opponent Indiana governor Mike Pence as his running mate. In his eagerness, Trump unknowingly violated the Christian Right’s strategic deployment of a “kinder, gentler” image when he announced that women who obtained an illegal abortion should face “punishment.” Although Trump backpedaled to mollify anti-abortion groups that claim to protect women, his original statement was characteristic of the anti-woman vitriol of his campaign.”
Though VVS attendees may try to distance themselves from that sort of vitriol, and may even denounce groups that are more blatant in their racist and sexist values such as those aligned with the Alt Right, they have always had more in common with people like Richard Spencer and Milo Yiannopoulos than they’d care to admit.
The Christian Right has aligned themselves with Trump not because he shares in their commitment to restricting the rights of women and LGBTQ people; the Christian Right has pledged allegiance to Trump because they value the preservation of White, male, nativist dominance.