WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump's evolution from twice-divorced casino owner viewed warily by Christian conservatives to evangelical favorite defending religious liberty was on full display Friday as he promised conservatives a return to traditional American values, including restoring "Merry Christmas" to the national discourse.
Trump, the first sitting president to address the Values Voter Summit, ticked off the promises he's fulfilled to evangelical Christians and other conservatives, pledging to turn back the clock in what he described as a nation that has drifted away from its religious roots.
"How times have changed, but you know what, now they are changing back again, just remember that," Trump told the cheering crowd.
It was a far cry from the skeptical welcome Trump received when he first addressed the group as a neophyte politician in 2015. With questions swirling then about whether he could appeal to evangelicals over conservative candidates like Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Trump held a Bible aloft and declared: "I believe in God. I believe in the Bible. I'm a Christian.'"
Trump appeared before the group again last September, in the electoral stretch run usually devoted to wooing undecided voters, and aimed his pitch toward his religious base. Though he avoided some hot-button social issues like same-sex marriage and abortion, he vowed his support for Israel, an important issue for evangelicals, and said it was the "dream" of the Islamic State for his opponent Hillary Clinton to be elected president.
This time, he had the crowd won over before he stepped onstage.
He bemoaned the use of the phrase "Happy Holidays" as a secular seasonal greeting and vowed a return to "Merry Christmas."
He noted, as Christian conservatives often do, that there are four references to the "creator" in the Declaration of Independence, saying "religious liberty is enshrined" in the nation's founding documents.
"I pledged that in a Trump administration, our nation's religious heritage would be cherished, protected and defended like you have never seen before," Trump said. "Above all else in America, we don't worship government. We worship God."
Trump stressed his move to weaken the Johnson Amendment, which limited political activity or endorsements by religious groups that received tax exemptions, as well as his administration's effort to expand the rights of employers to deny women insurance coverage for birth control. The White House has also issued sweeping guidance on religious freedom that critics have said could erode civil rights protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
Trump waded again into the cultural war that has captured his attention in recent weeks, declaring to loud applause that "we respect our great American flag," a not-too-subtle reference to his repeated denunciations of NFL players who have taken to kneeling during the national anthem.
But Trump also struck several empathetic notes, offering condolences to the victims of the Las Vegas mass shooting with a quote from scripture and pledging support to the people of Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico, which have been ravaged by recent hurricanes. His kind words for Puerto Rico — which included a morning tweet in which he vowed to "always" be with its residents — stood in stark contrast to his tweets the day before, when he declared that federal personnel would not be able to stay "forever" to help the island. Puerto Rico remains largely without power weeks after the storm.
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