The sun rises behind the steeple of a church, Aug. 23, 2015, in Plains, Ga.
Photo by David Goldman/AP

This Week in God, 2.3.18


First up from the God Machine this week is a look at faith-based developments in the Trump administration, which are the basis for culture-war controversies happening largely outside of public view.

When we think about the Department of Health and Human Services in the Trump era, we tend to think of the administration’s efforts to deliberately undermine the Affordable Care Act. Politico published a report recently, however, pointing at a very different kind of effort underway at HHS.

A small cadre of politically prominent religious activists inside the Department of Health and Human Services have spent months quietly planning how to weaken federal protections for abortion and transgender care – a strategy that’s taking shape in a series of policy moves that took even their own staff by surprise.

Those officials include Roger Severino, an anti-abortion Catholic lawyer who now runs the Office of Civil Rights and last week laid out new protections allowing health care workers with religious or moral objections to abortion and other procedures to opt out.

It would appear some career officials at HHS aren’t altogether pleased – since Politico talked to “more than a dozen” current and former staffers at the cabinet agency about Trump’s political appointees and their religio-political agenda.

And what an agenda it is. The article added that in October, Shannon Royce, one of HHS’s devout Christian leaders who heads the agency’s Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, launched a “vast outreach initiative to religious groups … asking how to serve them better.”

The result, Politico added, is an initiative that began “a rulemaking process that could culminate in a rollback of Obama-era protections for transgender patients and allowing health providers more protections to deny procedures like abortion.”

Royce reportedly neglected to mention the outreach initiative to others at HHS, including members of her own staff. Royce “put it together with Roger Severino and jammed it out the door,” one staffer told  Politico, who noted that the center had never issued a request for information before.

This dovetails a bit with last week’s installment of This Week in God: why is the religious right prepared to look the other way when the president is accused of, among other things, paying hush-money to a porn star with whom he allegedly had an affair? Because for politically conservative evangelical Christians, policy advances like the ones they’re seeing at HHS make the trade-off worth it.

Also from the God Machine this week:

* Sam Brownback stepped down as Kansas’ governor this week in order to join the Trump administration. Before departing, the Republican asked his constituents statewide “to fast and pray on his last full day in office.”

* Vice President Mike Pence published a tweet on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, though it was not without controversy.

* Something to keep in mind for those watching the game tomorrow: “As the Super Bowl nears and football fans head to Minneapolis, dozens of homeless people who usually spend the night at a church across the street from the stadium will sleep under a different roof for a few days. Christian, Jewish and Muslim congregants are preparing meals for shelter residents. And a multicultural array of Minnesotans are raising money for emergency rent assistance to help prevent others from joining their ranks.”