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.”