When President Trump speaks to the March for Life from the Rose Garden Friday — the administration has billed him as “the first sitting president to address the” major antiabortion event “from the White House live via satellite” — it will mark a new chapter in American social conservatism.
Many of the issues that gave rise to the Religious Right have been settled (there is no longer much pushback against gay marriage) or remain stalled even if public opinion polls still capture significant support for socially conservative positions (reinstating school prayer).
Yet abortion remains a hotly contested issue 45 years after the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Roe v. Wade. The March for Life has been an annual protest against the ruling that dissenting Justice Byron White described as an “exercise of raw judicial power” and the anti-abortion activists who will hear Trump speak regard as an injustice against millions of unborn children.
The public is still split on abortion, with 49 percent self-described to Gallup last year as “pro-choice” versus 46 percent “pro-life.” The poll has recorded small pro-life majorities in the past decade. Support for gay marriage, by contrast, has exploded from 27 percent in 1996 to 64 percent in 2017.
New bans on abortion after 20 weeks are being enacted. The Supreme Court's 1992 Casey v. Planned Parenthood decision, a major disappointment at the time to social conservatives who hoped it would overturn Roe, actually expanded the permissible range of abortion restrictions.
“The president is committed to protecting the life of the unborn, and he is excited to be part of this historic event,” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said at Wednesday’s press briefing as she announced Trump would speak.
Last year, Trump tweeted in support of the March for Life while Vice President Mike Pence and other officials attended the event. Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush spoke to the gathering by telephone, once each.
Sanders is herself the daughter of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Southern Baptist preacher whose appeal to conservative evangelicals made him part of a generation of Christian Right political figures who succeeded in politics. Huckabee ran a respectable campaign for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008, launching a second, less successful bid eight years later.
Like former Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., a conservative Catholic with a long political track record, Huckabee was overshadowed in 2016 by Trump. Trump was a reality TV star who had never expressed much interest in traditional social issues, was not especially straitlaced apart from his abstention from alcohol and tobacco, and had been “very pro-choice” in his most significant previous political foray, an abortive campaign for the Reform Party’s 2000 presidential nomination against culture warrior Pat Buchanan.
Unlike Roe, Trump has characterized same-sex marriage as “settled” and the Supreme Court’s Obergefell v. Hodges decision declaring a constitutional right to it as “fine.” In December, the president congratulated the Log Cabin Republicans club, a venerable gay Republican organization that had sparred with the Christian Right over the years, on its 40th anniversary.
“No matter the color of our skin or our sexual orientation, we all live under the same laws, salute the same great American flag, and are made in the image of the same Almighty God,” Trump wrote in his letter to the group.
“As your president, I will do everything in my power to protect our LGBT citizens from the violence and oppression of a hateful foreign ideology,” he vowed in his Republican National Convention acceptance speech, saying the acronym haltingly. When he received applause, Trump deviated from his prepared remarks to add, “As a Republican, I'm so happy to hear you cheering for what I just said.”
Trump is a thrice-married man facing fresh adultery allegations, including reports he paid hush money to pornstars with whom he has had dalliances. The accusations have been denied, but not long ago would have elicited social conservatives’ condemnation.
When the Senate failed to remove President Bill Clinton from office after the Monica Lewinsky scandal, in part due to a lack of support for impeaching the popular Democrat over what many regarded as a personal matter, veteran conservative activists wondered if there was a “Moral Majority” in America anymore.
“It is a different time,” conceded an activist who participated in the 1990s battles.
Nevertheless, Trump has been a fairly reliable ally to abortion foes since taking office. He has also been supportive of the Christian Right’s newer emphasis on religious liberty, seeking to ease Obamacare’s contraceptive mandate and creating a new Conscience and Religious Freedom Division at the Department of Health and Human Services.
The latter move put Trump at odds with the Log Cabin Republicans. "It's amazing how the same people who regularly deride the LGBT community for seeking 'special rights' are now reveling in the creation of special rights for themselves,” the group’s president, Gregory Angelo, said in a statement provided to the Washington Examiner. “Log Cabin Republicans [are] proud to support both religious liberty and LGBT equality, but the Conscience and Religious Freedom Division at HHS seems primed to tip the scales in favor of overly broad, vague, and frivolous complaints that disproportionately impact the LGBT community in matters — quite literally — that could mean life and death."
Many of the religious liberty issues still put conservative Christians at odds with the gay community, now from a position of relative political and cultural weakness, even in red states like Pence's Indiana.
Early generation Christian Right leaders and their descendants have frequently been quite supportive of Trump: Huckabee, Santorum, James Dobson, Jerry Falwell Jr., even Franklin Graham. Phyllis Schlafly published a pro-Trump book before she died.
It is the younger generation of leaders, like Russell Moore, who have been most critical of him, especially on issues related to race and immigration. Trump won 80 percent of white evangelical or born-again Christians but underperformed among Mormons at 56 percent.
Those disagreements are likely to take a backseat Friday as the March for Life hears from a president who is broadly on their side, discussing an issue that is not going away.