President Donald Trump met with a group of about 25 mostly "Never Trump" conservatives last September in an unpublicized meeting that helped shape his understanding of religious liberty concerns related to coercive health care mandates and LGBT rights, bestselling Christian author Jay Richards told The Christian Post.
While speaking with CP last Friday at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference outside of Washington, D.C., Richards, the executive editor of The Stream and a Catholic University professor, told of an underreported meeting at Trump Tower between Trump and conservative thought leaders known for being publicly critical Trump's candidacy.
According to Richards, the meeting took place on Sept. 29 and was organized by members of the Trump campaign who are interested in religious liberty issues.
Richards, who attended the meeting, explained that two-thirds of the people in the meeting were leading conservatives who had voiced their opposition to Trump. The others who attended were either conservatives reluctant to vote for Trump or Trump supporters, such as author and radio host Eric Metaxas.
"The campaign, when it could have benefited greatly by publicizing the event, didn't. It didn't say anything about it," Richards, the author of the New York Times bestsellers Infiltrated and Indivisible, told CP. "They didn't publicize it and I think that spoke well of the campaign."
Although Trump famously met with over 900 evangelical leaders in June to claim that he would protect religious freedom and repeal the Johnson Amendment, many evangelicals and conservatives were still hesitant to vote for Trump. In fact, the "Never Trump" movement even fueled the campaign of independent candidate Evan McMullin.
In an attempt to listen to the concerns of the "Never Trumpers," Trump sat down with the group for about an hour to ask questions and gain a better understanding of what they were looking for in a president.
"Donald Trump sat, listened and asked questions for a whole hour and wasn't looking at his watch," Richards said, adding that the group also talked for over an hour with campaign staffers. "He was there with us."
Richards said that the point of the meeting was to show the then-Republican presidential nominee that protecting religious liberty in an era where abortion and LGBT rights have risen to a level of prominence would take more than simply repealing the Johnson Amendment, a decades-old law prohibiting churches and pastors from endorsing political candidates or engaging in the political process.
"The only thing he talked about before the meeting was the Johnson Amendment. Remember, he pounced on that after the big meeting with evangelicals in the summer. Somebody told him about the Johnson Amendment and then he sort of took that up as a cause," Richards said. "I think most religious liberty scholars would say that is not the most pressing issue but it was kind of a concrete thing."
As the Obama administration made efforts to force businesses, schools, institutions and other employers to abide by coercive health care mandates that force them to provide abortion-inducing drugs and provide healthcare that covers transgender-related surgeries, Richards said that the group explained the religious liberty concerns those mandates have created.
"We focused specifically on religious liberty — about the HHS mandates and the transgender bathroom stuff and all these sort of flashpoints that we have been dealing with," Richards said. "We really wanted him to understand that there is a way to defend religious liberty without being 'anti-gay' or 'anti-transgender.' It's clear he doesn't feel strongly about those issues, I don't think. He didn't make any campaign promises on that but there were a lot of conservative Christians who came out in support of him. I think that it made sense for him to learn about the issue."
Although the meeting was months ago, Richards praised the fact that Trump's Departments of Education and Justice sent a guidance letter to public school districts last week reversing a guidance sent by the Obama administration last year telling schools to allow children to use locker rooms and bathrooms consistent with their perceived gender.
"The fact that he is now following through with these things is definitely a positive development," Richards said. "The fact that he did this [guidance letter], as controversial as it is on the Left, I think it shows there is loyalty to the people that actually support him."
"If you had asked me a week ago, I would have told you that I don't think he is going to touch the transgender thing and issue an executive order defining religious exemptions," he added.
It has been reported that there is a draft executive order on religious liberty that is making its way around the Trump administration. However, the draft order is just one of hundreds of draft orders making its way around the administration and there is no indication whether or not Trump will actually sign it into action.
"I am more optimistic that we will get some form of executive order dealing with religious liberty but that won't substitute for Congress doing something on this. I still think we need to be focusing on the First Amendment Defense Act," Richards explained. "But what an executive order would do is create some breathing room for private individuals and private organizations [to act in accordance with their beliefs]."
Richards said that it was sometime after the meeting with Trump that he came to the realization that he would vote for him. Richards also believes that the meeting may have helped "weaken" the "Never Trump" rhetoric.
"I do think that it weakened it some," he explained. "There are a number of people, all the way out into the election, who made a public position being 'Never Trump.' I do think that he exhibited the ability just to talk and be able to have discussion and ask honest questions. People that actually encounter Donald Trump in private settings often come away with a much better impression of him as a person than if you were just to see the TV persona."