A day after his first speech to Congress, President Trump was still basking in unexpected praise from the public and some pundits, who saw in his delivery a man who finally came across as measured in tone and downright “presidential,” as some put it, even if his few policy prescriptions reiterated the hard line, nationalist agenda that propelled him to office.
But there is one key constituency that might not be as enamored with the address: social conservatives, whose support was arguably most critical to Trump’s election.
“Did I miss references to religious liberty or the unborn?” Ed Stetzer, executive director of the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism at Wheaton College, tweeted right after the speech on Feb. 28.
No, Stetzer’s social media followers assured him, he did not miss them, because they weren’t there.
In fact, in the hourlong address — one of the longest such speeches delivered to a joint session by a president — Trump did not mention abortion, or gay rights, or religious freedom, or any of the issues that are central to religious conservatives.
The closest the president came to referencing the social conservative agenda was a passing mention of support for school vouchers to allow poor children “to choose the public, private, charter, magnet, religious, or home school that is right for them.”
Trump’s silence might explain the virtual absence of the usual praise for such a key speech from the many social conservative groups that normally weigh right in with support.
And at least one religious conservative, the Catholic League’s William Donohue, ripped Trump for going “mute on moral issues.”
“The problem with Trump’s speech is that it only spoke about missiles and markets, never citing morality,” Donohue said in a statement on Mar. 1.
“This is popular with many Republicans, whose only goals are making money and protecting national security,” he said. “But without demonstrating a concern for the moral order, the two ‘M’s’ of missiles and markets are an insufficient condition of the good society: the third ‘M,’ morality, must be added if success is to be achieved.”
Donohue noted that Trump made no mention of a rumored executive order that would provide sweeping exemptions from gay rights and abortion and contraception statutes for religious believers, including business owners.
A draft of the order has been circulating for weeks, but the fact that the White House has continued some Obama-era LGBT protections — and vowed to protect gays from discrimination — without also issuing that order has set off alarm bells for some.
There are indications that, as with the refugee travel ban targeting Muslims, the administration may be trying to revise the order so that it could pass judicial review.
But it was notable that Trump did not mention it on Tuesday night.
Yet many social conservatives also did not seem too upset with Trump’s speech: Stetzer, for example, appreciated the president’s new “tone” even while disagreeing with some of his policies. Prior to the election, Stetzer wrote critically about some of Trump’s statements on the campaign trail, and urged evangelicals to be consistent in holding candidates to account on moral issues.
Others appreciated Trump’s tough talk on immigration, Muslims, terrorism, and his “America first” rhetoric on jobs and the economy.
Still others argued that, in nominating a conservative to the Supreme Court, for example, the president is meeting their demands with actions, and he doesn’t need to use words that could otherwise be used to criticize him.
When the progressive Catholic activist Christopher Hale wondered “how my pro-life friends feel about the fact that the President didn’t mention the issue once,” Thomas Peters, a conservative Catholic blogger and Trump supporter, shot back on Twitter: “It’s an improvement over promising and delivering more Planned Parenthood funding every year!”
For now, that trajectory may be all the religious right needs.