Trump To Values Voters: In America 'We Don't Worship Government, We Worship God'
Updated at 5:38 p.m. ET
President Trump spoke to one of the most faithful blocs of his base on Friday, telling attendees of this year's Values Voter Summit that in America "we don't worship government, we worship God."
Trump was the first sitting president to address the annual gathering of Christian conservatives, and while he has had trouble enacting some of his campaign promises legislatively so far in his term, he has ticked off many boxes with the evangelical voters who helped propel him to the Oval Office.
"We know that it's the family and the church — not government officials — who know best how to create strong and loving communities," Trump said.
He got a standing ovation when he talked of appointing Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. Trump noted he signed a religious liberty order on the National Day of Prayer that eased enforcement of the Johnson Amendment, which regulated political activity of churches. And he reminded the crowd that last week he also weakened the contraception mandate in the Affordable Care Act, which some religious groups like the Little Sisters of the Poor opposed.
"We are stopping cold the attacks on Judeo-Christian values," Trump said to applause.
Referencing his announcement late Thursday night that he was ending payments for the Affordable Care Act's subsidies for low-income Americans, he said his efforts to enact a health care overhaul — not helped thus far by having a GOP-controlled Congress — was a "step by step by step" process and that the latest action was a "big step."
"We're taking a little different route than we had hoped, because getting Congress — they forget what their pledges were," Trump said. "So we're going a little different route. But you know what? In the end, it's going to be just as effective, and maybe it'll even be better."
Trump also received acclaim for his recent criticism of NFL players who have knelt during the national anthem to protest what they see as racial injustice in the country. He got another standing ovation when he proclaimed that "we respect our great American flag."
Bill Bennett, a conservative radio host and former secretary of education under Ronald Reagan, followed Trump and suggested that many of the NFL players were kneeling because they "don't know any better" and don't know enough about the country's history and reverence for the flag.
The president also returned to a familiar campaign trail refrain, promising that as the holiday season approaches "We're saying 'Merry Christmas' again."
"And as a Christmas gift to all of our hardworking families, we hope Congress will pass massive tax cuts for the American people," Trump continued. "That includes increasing the child tax credit and expanding it to eliminate the marriage penalty. Because we know that the American family is the true bedrock of American life."
He touted his administration's success in taking on ISIS, pledging to fight "radical Islamic terrorism."
"In this administration, we will call evil by its name," Trump said. "We stand with our friends and allies, we forge new partnerships in pursuit of peace and we take decisive action against those who would threaten our people with harm."
And Trump got cheers when he pledged that, "In protecting America's interests abroad, we will always support our cherished friend and partner the state of Israel."
"We're confronting rogue regimes from Iran to North Korea," he continued. "And we are challenging the communist dictatorship of Cuba and the socialist oppression of Venezuela. And we will not lift the sanctions on these repressive regimes until they restore political and religious freedom for their people."
Trump also talked of the courage and resilience he saw when visiting victims of the recent deadly mass shooting in Las Vegas and while touring areas devastated by hurricanes in Texas and Florida — and knocked negative media coverage of his administration's response to devastation in Puerto Rico. He said he was in contact with leaders in all the ravaged areas, including the president of the Virgin Islands. However, there is no president of the U.S. territory — that would be Trump himself.
His speech Friday was the third time Trump addressed the conservative gathering, after previously speaking at the event in 2015 as a candidate and then in 2016 as the Republican presidential nominee. Both of those appearances came amid plenty of questions as to whether the thrice-married billionaire and former casino owner could appeal to religious conservatives.
But this year, there was no hesitation among the crowd in its fervor for Trump, as he threw out plenty of red meat and hit many religious themes, despite showing an unfamiliarity with Scripture in the past.
"As long as we have pride in our country, confidence in our future and faith in our God, then America will prevail," Trump said.
White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, who was Trump's campaign manager during the final months of last year's race, also spoke to the group after the president, where she was introduced as "the woman who saved the world" for helping defeat Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
Former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, who recently left the Trump administration to return as chairman of Breitbart News, will also address the group Saturday morning. He is expected to detail some of his plans for backing challengers who will take on establishment candidates and incumbents, like he did with former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore last month, who defeated incumbent Sen. Luther Strange in the state's special Senate primary.
Moore addressed the summit on Friday afternoon, where he was introduced as the "Gandalf of Alabama" for his famous refusal to remove a Ten Commandments monument he'd had placed in the rotunda of the Alabama Judicial Building. That resulted in his first removal from the bench.
"Our foundation has been shaken to the core because we have forgotten the source of our morality," Moore said, who has made Christian nationalism a hallmark of his campaign.
Encouraging primary challenges against lawmakers who didn't fall in line with conservative orthodoxy also got an endorsement from House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows, R-N.C., who spoke before Trump.
Comparing such politicians to dud bullets, Meadows said some people "have been left in the chamber too long" and should be ejected. "Quit trying to make them perfect — eject them, start over with a fresh shell."
The annual gathering began in 2006, near the end of the term of the previous Republican president and a few years before Barack Obama's two terms in office.
"After eight years enduring the Obama administration's hostility toward everything from religious liberty to the unborn, values voters were eager to see President Trump accelerate the undoing of Obama's policies," Family Research Council President Tony Perkins wrote on the conservative website Breitbart recently. FRC Action, the legislative affiliate of Perkins' group, founded the yearly summit.
Perkins even kicked off Friday's slate of speakers by taking the stage wearing camouflaged fishing waders, pledging the group was ready to "drain the swamp," an invocation of one of Trump's trademark refrains from his campaign rallies.
FRC has attracted controversy and criticism, particularly for its stance on homosexuality. In a statement provided to NPR, Sarah Kate Ellis, president and CEO of the gay-rights group GLAAD, called the annual gathering "a convening of fringe groups united around discrimination against LGBTQ Americans [that] serves as a place for them to actively strategize on rolling back and erasing hard-fought LGBTQ progress."
Speaking to the gathering in September of last year, Trump addressed what had been a lingering question during the GOP primaries about his ability to reach and win over the party's evangelical bloc — and the then-candidate said that their loyalty to him would be reciprocated.
"A lot of people said: 'I wonder if Donald will get the evangelicals,' " Trump told the conference last year. "I got the evangelicals. I'm going to make it up to you, too. You watch. There are no more decent, devoted or selfless people than our Christian brothers and sisters here in the United States."
And win them over he did — 80 percent of white evangelicals cast their vote for Trump last November, according to exit polls. That's a higher percentage than supported President George W. Bush in 2004, Sen. John McCain in 2008 or former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in 2012.
Bennett, the conservative commentator, acknowledged in his remarks that Trump may not always seem like the best match for the devout group. "They say what about the tweets? What about the past? What about some of the profanities and vulgarities?" Bennett wondered.
But, he said, values voters ultimately stand behind Trump not because of what he has done, but because of what they believe he can do for their cause.
"We are conscious of his history. We are conscious of his future. And as Oscar Wilde said, 'Just as every sinner has a future, every saint has a past,' " Bennett said.
NPR congressional reporter Susan Davis and NPR producer Barbara Sprunt contributed to this report.
Correction Oct. 13, 2017
A previous version of this story incorrectly said that the Ten Commandments monument had been placed in front of an Alabama state judicial building. It was actually placed in the building's rotunda.