What you see with Donald Trump is what you get. Until it's not.
On the campaign trail the GOP nominee repeatedly vowed to side with the Little Sisters of the Poor, an order of Catholic nuns who run nursing homes to care for the indigent elderly. They and six other religious nonprofits had been embroiled in a legal battle with the Obama administration over a Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) rule saying they had to help make sure their employees have access to totally free contraception and sterilizations.
The Supreme Court last spring kicked the case back to a lower court and ordered the two sides to try to come up with a compromise—getting women access to birth control, in other words, but doing so without forcing the sisters, who object on moral grounds to those products and procedures, to be involved in a way they believe makes them complicit in sin.
But that was when most everyone still believed that Hillary Clinton would be our next commander in chief, and, thus, that she would get to select the person to fill then–recently departed Justice Antonin Scalia's seat on the high court. It was also assumed that her HHS Department would be eager to continue the fight against the Catholic sisters, et al.
After Trump shocked the world on November 8, all those predictions flew out the window. But it seems the new set of assumptions that replaced them—namely, that Trump, a Republican who campaigned promising to protect religious liberty, would actually do so—may have been wrong as well. In October, he penned a letter to the Catholic Leadership Conference in which he explicitly proclaimed that
Hillary Clinton supports forcing the Little Sisters of the Poor who have taken care of the elderly poor since 1839 [to] pay for contraceptives in their health care plan (even though they have never wanted them, never used them and never will), and having the government fine them heavily if they continue to refuse to abide by this onerous mandate. That is a hostility to religious liberty you will never see in a Trump administration.
As The Washington Post is now reporting, conservative Trump voters may have been taken for a ride they weren't expecting. Rather than rescinding the HHS mandate or dropping the government's case, his Justice Department yesterday "asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit for an additional 60 days to negotiate."
The best-case scenario is that this is mere incompetence on the part of an administration still in its first 100 days. The Post notes that "Justice argued in its petition…that it needs more time to litigate the case because numerous Cabinet and subcabinet positions in several federal agencies involved remain unfilled several months into the new administration." Perhaps they really do just need to get butts in seats in order to put the wheels in motion to end the fight.
I've also heard it suggested that Attorney General Jeff Sessions wants this to be decided by the Supreme Court now that Trump's pick in Neil Gorsuch is safely aboard. But until he comes out saying that's his plan, this move will be cause for concern.
The Trump administration is now locked in battle with Christians on at least two fronts. Numerous Catholic and other religious groups have objected to the president's executive orders on immigration. (In March, Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., told the Post that "When we come to something like immigration, our voice is always going to be: Aren't we supposed to be welcoming people, especially those who are fleeing persecution?") Whatever the reason, it now seems Trump's lieutenants are content to let the legal battle against the Little Sisters of the Poor drag on as well.
As I wrote last month over at America magazine, there's reason to think Trump was bolstered in the election by a sense that Clinton would be hostile to religious freedom. White born-again Christians voted for him by an even higher margin than they did George Bush—who is himself a white born-again Christian—in 2004. For a primer on why that might have been, I'd direct you to this post from the evangelical Christian blogger Jonathon Van Maren. "The simple fact is that Christians voted in self-defence," he wrote. "They voted to put the brakes on the relentless, eight-year-long assault not just on their values, but on their ability to live their lives unmolested without having radical progressives attempt to force some newly invented ideology down their throat or hang some new 'phobia' label around their necks or garnish their wages."
This moment should be a reminder that trusting a man who has no principles of his own to do right by yours is a dangerous proposition. Put not your trust in princes, as I think I read somewhere.