As Trump prepares order on religious liberty, Pence’s credibility with evangelicals is at stake

Mike and Karen Pence
Vice President Mike Pence and his wife, Karen. (Photo: Nicholas Kamm/AFP)

NASHVILLE — As evangelicals gathered here last week, expectations were high about the upcoming announcement of an administration executive order on religious liberty. But so were anxieties.

Christian author Rod Dreher made no effort to hide his skepticism about President Trump. “I don’t think he cares about the thing that matters most to us, and that is religious liberty,” Dreher said from the stage.

The marriage of evangelicals to Trump, Dreher added, will not end well. “I think it’s going to be a bitter harvest for us,” he said.

No one seems to know what Trump’s executive order will say, because it has been so closely held by Vice President Mike Pence and a few aides. A draft version that was leaked to the Nation magazine soon after the inauguration was broadly worded to create “wholesale exemptions [from anti-discrimination statutes] for people and organizations who claim religious or moral objections to same-sex marriage, premarital sex, abortion, and trans identity,” according to the magazine.

But there is reason for religious conservatives — including Pence, a deeply conservative Christian — to worry about how the final version will read. The president’s daughter Ivanka and his son-in-law Jared Kushner are more aligned with gay, lesbian and transgender groups on the issue. In fact, some observers believe the leak to the Nation was orchestrated by someone in Jared and Ivanka’s orbit to sabotage the process

“The Jared and Ivanka thing, that’s real,” said one congressional aide.

One Senate aide said the rumor on Capitol Hill was that “President Jared has it on hold. … I haven’t seen any evidence that Pence has the pull to trump Jared.”

And that gets to the heart of the matter. Pence has a long history with the issue of religious liberty, having been embarrassed by a bungled attempt in Indiana when he was governor to implement a law on the matter.

Pence, widely criticized after signing the Indiana legislature’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act in the spring of 2015, then bowed to pressure and altered the legislation in a way that angered religious conservatives. So in the view of some in the community, the vice president has an obligation to make it up to them.

But a fight with Trump’s own family is a formidable task. This is not the only issue that Pence cares about, though it is a high priority one for him and many others in the faith community. So the question for Pence has been how much political capital is he willing to expend on this matter.

The broader context is that Pence is always thinking about how to gain influence in the Trump administration while also keeping a certain distance from the president.

Keeping that distance will help Pence if the Trump presidency ends up being judged a failure, giving him the vice president the deniability he would need to mount a credible run for the White House himself.


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