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Faith leaders reflect on Trump's first year in office
President Donald Trump and his wife, Melania, look at the frescoed ceilings during their visit to the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican, Wednesday, May 24, 2017. - photo by Kelsey Dallas
One year into President Donald Trump's first term, America's faith leaders are still at odds over his style and substance.

Efforts to restrict abortion rights are either praiseworthy or proof of his disdain for women. Episodes like insulting immigrants from the entire African continent are either a silly distraction or a symbol of a larger moral crisis.

More conservative religious believers are as overjoyed as their progressive counterparts are enraged.

Trump has fueled these interreligious debates over the past year with a stream of faith-related policy decisions. He issued a ban on travel from six Muslim-majority countries, enabled more employers to refuse to provide contraception coverage, announced his intentions to move the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and appointed dozens of new conservative federal judges, to name a few.

Faith leaders of all stripes have also struggled over Trump's conduct, considering the consequences of hostile tweets, unsavory language and sexual misconduct allegations.

As the president prepares to deliver his State of the Union address on Tuesday, religious leaders disagree on the significance of Trump's leadership. Is he a champion of religious freedom or is he waging an assault on common decency? It depends on whom you ask.

Trump's polarizing presidency is reshaping America's faith communities, inspiring new alliances and reopening old wounds, said Serene Jones, president of Union Theological Seminary.

"The positive side of that is we can no longer ignore the fact that deep differences exist. The negative part is that we haven't seemed to have found a way to talk across that divide," she said.

Religion-related policies

Trump's diverse array of religion-related policy decisions share a common thread: They pleased his core group of conservative, white evangelical Christian supporters. He courted these voters during the final months of the presidential campaign, promising action on Jerusalem, abortion rights and the Johnson Amendment, which prevents campaigning from the pulpit.

After taking office, Trump got to work fulfilling those promises. He nominated Justice Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, thrilling those who saw a vote for Trump as a vote for a conservative justice. The decision, as well as the Trump administration's efforts to fill open judicial posts at the district and appellate level, was celebrated by folks looking to use legal action to restrict abortion rights and protect religious freedom.

"He understood that to maintain (white evangelical) support, he had to deliver these things," said E.J. Dionne, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution.

Richard Land, president of Southern Evangelical Seminary, has stopped thinking of Trump as the best of two bad options.

"After a year, he's more than a lesser evil," said Land, who is also one of Trump's evangelical advisers. "He has been a force for good."

Land added, "I'm still getting used to the fact that we have a president now who actually keeps his campaign promises."

Land and Johnnie Moore, another member of Trump's moral evangelical advisory board, both praised the Trump administration's work to overturn what they saw as unlawful action taken during President Barack Obama's time in office.

Other faith leaders criticize Trump's departures from the Obama administration's policies on transgender Americans, refugees and health care, condemning efforts to use religion as an excuse to harm minority groups.

"In his unabashed hostility towards Islam in particular, (Trump) has had a horrendous impact not just on the Muslim community, but on all people who respect the deep traditions of tolerance and acceptance," Jones said.

Rabbi Jonah Pesner, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, argued that "we have seen an assault on many vulnerable communities: transgender people, immigrants, refugees and people of color caught up in the criminal justice system."

Both Jones and Rabbi Pesner expressed dismay about Trump's decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which provided work permits to immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children. Jones called DACA's end "blatantly cruel," noting that even the president's evangelical friends support these immigrants, who are also called "Dreamers."

Moore agreed that faith leaders across the political spectrum find common ground on this immigration issue but said he supports the president's choice to have Congress replace DACA with a new law. People shouldn't blame Trump for lawmakers' inability to act, he said.

"Evangelicals want to see the 'Dreamers' protected," he said. "We want to see Congress behave in a less juvenile way and get stuff done."

Although Rabbi Pesner disagrees with many of the actions taken by the Trump administration over the last year, he said he does give it credit for listening to his concerns.

"They have been willing to hear from us," Rabbi Pesner said. "They're respectful, but they don't do what we want them to do."

Input from evangelical advisers appears to carry more weight, but Land says not every wish is granted.

"(Trump's) responsible for what he does. We're responsible for giving him advice," he said.

Moral impact

People of faith who are critical of Trump's leadership over the last year offered more than policy decisions to support their analysis. They addressed Trump's discomfort with condemning white supremacy, his foul language about immigrants and his seemingly never-ending stream of angry tweets.

"He's shown an utter lack of moral leadership," said Rabbi Pesner, who is also senior vice president of the Union for Reform Judaism.

Maha Elgenaidi, executive director of the Islamic Networks Group in San Jose, California, said she's been disheartened by the president's apparent encouragement of discrimination against the Muslim community and others.

"His animus towards nonwhite people was very much evident in his response to the white supremacist march in Charlottesville and, more recently, his expletive-laced comments about African nations and Haiti," she said.

Even Land takes issue with Trump's leadership style at times.

"Do I agree with his tweets? No. Do I agree with his style or vocabulary? No," he said. "I don't use the language and I wish our president didn't. I think it coarsens the culture and is not a good example for our young people."

However, Land believes frustrating tweets or sound bites are a walk in the park compared with the scandals that would have plagued a Clinton administration.

"Whenever I am chagrined or upset or disappointed with something the president does, I think about the alternative and it acts like a painkiller," he said.

Dionne, who has written about politics for decades, offered a much harsher assessment of the situation, noting that Americans are growing numb to Trump's rejection of behavioral norms.

"I think we've defined our moral standards down in a very radical and depressing way in this period. There's just never been a president who spoke publicly in this way about minority groups and who attacked his opponents with such consistent viciousness," he said.

This numbness extends to American Christians, wrote Michael Gerson in a recent column for The Washington Post.

"Some Christian leaders are surrendering the idea that character matters in public life in direct exchange for political benefits to Christians themselves," he said.

Trump's break from typical presidential deportment has led to some positive outcomes, religious leaders said, noting that his moral missteps inspire others to do better.

"I think for many religious people, (his presidency) is a clarion call to not take inclusion and religious diversity for granted," Jones said.

Trump's profanity-laced remarks on immigration and negativity toward Muslims and other nonwhite Americans have enraged Elgenaidi, but she has his presidency to thank for her organization's recent success. More people are interested in learning about Islam and forming interfaith alliances.

"The requests we've gotten have increased tenfold. The sizes of the audiences for our speaking events have grown larger and larger," Elgenaidi said.

New movements, old tensions

Over the past year, many people of faith frustrated by Trump's policy decisions and leadership style have experienced a political awakening of sorts, embracing new forms of activism and outreach.

On Jan. 17, Rabbi Pesner was arrested for the first time in his life during a rally for young, undocumented immigrants, or "Dreamers." He had ignored police warnings while standing with dozens of other Jewish leaders in the U.S. Capitol rotunda, singing praise songs and demanding action on immigration.

"I've never committed civil disobedience before, but that's what this moment calls for," he said.

The protest represented a more extreme form of the political engagement Rabbi Pesner encourages in his faith community. In the year ahead, his organization will help lead voter registration drives and train Jews across the country to serve people in need.

"We've tried to focus our congregations on protecting and defending the most vulnerable among us," he said.

In general, Trump's time in office has lit a fire under America's so-called progressive faith communities, Dionne said.

"There has been a certain new energy that Trump has given religious progressives," he said, citing recently announced, faith-driven campaigns aimed at addressing racial and socioeconomic inequalities.

This activism has exacerbated tensions within and between faith communities, putting a spotlight on the conflicting ways people of faith approach social issues, Jones said.

"There are strong disagreements occurring, which, in some cases, are ripping communities apart," she said.

However, the conflict has also prompted meaningful conversations, encouraging new connections between leaders from different religious backgrounds, Moore said.

"I'd say I'm in touch with more faith leaders and with more progressive evangelicals today than I was a year ago," he said.

People of faith may never agree on the value of Trump's religion-related policies, but they should be able to unite around ongoing efforts to build a more just world, Rabbi Pesner said.

"Many of the injustices that we're confronting existed before this administration, but because of this administration's rhetoric and priorities, they've become a flashpoint," he said. "There's work that needs to be done."
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