Updated May 4, 2018 at 8:30 a.m. EST
President Trump announced a new White House faith office on Thursday. At a speech in the Rose Garden, he called the initiative “another historic action to promote religious freedom,” saying the office will help “ensure that faith-based organizations have equal access to government funding and the equal right to exercise their deeply held beliefs.” The new initiative will also “design new policies” to recognize the role of faith in American communities, he said.
While exact details of the office are not yet clear, one thing is: An office dedicated to fostering partnerships between faith groups and the federal government is not a new idea. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama both created versions of this office and conducted significant outreach to clergy and religious communities during their presidencies. Trump’s new initiative has the potential to expand the diversity of the president’s religious advisers and offer visibility into the Trump administration’s connections to religious communities. But it will also be fraught, as religious groups continue to battle for influence over an administration that has often catered to the concerns of conservative Christians.
The original Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives was created in 2001 under Bush. While the office had a number of goals, its major purpose was to make grants to religious organizations providing social services at a state and local level. The effort was controversial: Critics, including Mark Chaves at Duke University, argued that the program was based on “false assumptions” about the degree to which faith groups can provide a “meaningful alternative” to government social services.
Under Obama, the focus—and the name—changed. The Democratic president redirected his new Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships to concentrate on partnerships with religious communities; it operated as the conduit between clergy and the White House. The office hit some major bumps, however, as the Obama administration pushed issues like the contraceptive requirement in the Affordable Care Act, incensing religious leaders and placing Obama’s faith office in the awkward position of having to defend a policy its staffers disagreed with.
Trump’s new office arrives in a radically different context, but with similarly complicated conditions. Religion has played a major symbolic role in Trump’s first year and a half in office. Last year around this time, the president signed another executive order that dealt with political speech in churches and the legal aftereffects of the contraceptive mandate in the Affordable Care Act. He gave the commencement address at Liberty University, one of the largest Christian schools in the country. He has routinely made speeches like the one he gave on Thursday, the National Day of Prayer: “Our country was founded on prayer, our communities are sustained by prayer, and our nation will be renewed by hard work, a lot of intelligence, and prayer,” the president said. “Prayer changes hearts and transforms lives. It uplifts the soul, inspires action, and unites us all as one nation under God.”
Not all religious groups feel empowered under Trump, however. Religious minorities, including Muslims, Hindus, and Jews, are increasingly concerned about hate crimes and discrimination, which some say are inflamed by the country’s toxic political environment. The Supreme Court is currently considering the third iteration of Trump’s ban on immigrants from a number of majority-Muslim countries, which challengers say is discriminatory against Muslims. And many black and Hispanic clergy have expressed alarm at Trump’s policies on a range of issues that affect their communities, from policing to immigration.
The new office also comes amid new revelations about Trump’s past conduct. In recent weeks, federal investigators have been exploring the possibility that Trump’s lawyer, Michael Cohen, made potentially illegal hush-money payments to a porn star who goes by the stage name Stormy Daniels, who claimed to have had a consensual affair with Trump in the months after his wife gave birth to the couple’s son, Barron.
Despite these allegations, and many others of sexual impropriety, one key group of voters has maintained its high approval of Trump: white evangelicals. During his time in office, Trump has focused on the priorities of this group in particular. Since his campaign, President Trump has maintained an informal council of faith advisers, almost all of whom are white and evangelical. The issues he mentioned in his speech on Thursday highlighted their influence: He praised the life of Billy Graham, the famous evangelist who recently died. He affirmed the work of the March for Life, which advocates against abortion. He even claimed that people are saying “Merry Christmas” more now. “You notice a big difference between now and two or three years ago?” he asked.
The faith leaders who offered prayers on Thursday were diverse, including Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who oversees the Roman Catholic archdiocese of Washington; Levi Shemtov, the Hasidic rabbi who leads the Rabbinical Council of Greater Washington; Jean Bingham, the general president of the Relief Society of the LDS Church; and the Hindu priest Narayanachar Digalakote. The new office may give more opportunity for diverse religious leaders to have access to the White House: Presumably, it will operate more transparently than Trump’s informal evangelical faith advisory board, since this initiative will create a formal government office.
But it’s also not exactly clear what this office will do, and how it will differ from the initiatives that preceded it. The executive order Trump signed on Thursday calls on executive departments and agencies to appoint liaisons with the new faith office. It recommends coordination between the faith office and community leaders on issues like “poverty alleviation, religious liberty, strengthening marriage and family, education, solutions for substance abuse and addiction, crime prevention and reduction, prisoner reentry, and health and humanitarian services.” And it encourages leaders in the faith office to notify the attorney general of potential violations of religious liberty and “identify and propose means to reduce … burdens on the exercise of religious convictions.”
Unlike Bush and Obama, who both created their versions of this office within the first months of taking office, Trump waited a year and half to create a formal White House mechanism for reaching out to faith groups. Many of his past religious initiatives have been more show than action, and this office, like so much other federal bureaucracy, may end up being more symbolic than anything.
But that symbol still matters. On Thursday, Trump’s message to Americans—and his voting base of white Christians—was clear. “We take this step because we know that in solving the many, many problems and our great challenges, faith is more powerful than government,” he said. “And nothing is more powerful than God.”