SALT LAKE CITY — President Donald Trump heralded the strength of American families and faith communities during his State of the Union address Tuesday night, presenting shared moral values as a unifying force.
"In America, we know that faith and family, not government and bureaucracy, are the center of American life. Our motto is 'in God we trust,'" he said.
But even this departure from policy talk proved divisive, eliciting competing responses on how the Trump administration's actions over the past year impacted parents and people of faith. Conservative and liberal Americans continue to disagree on the value of recent tax cuts, immigration policy proposals and judicial appointments.
"President Trump understands that our freedom to unite under God has been under steady assault — and he's spent the last year reversing this devastating trend," argued Tony Perkins, president of the conservative Family Research Council, in a statement issued after the address.
Rabbi Jack Moline, president of Interfaith Alliance, strongly disagreed.
"Trump clearly doesn't know what the words 'religious liberty' mean if he thinks he's taken historic action to protect it. His actions in his first year have in fact significantly undermined the rights of people of faith whose beliefs don't align with the president's allies in the religious right," he said in a statement.
The president's State of the Union address focused on immigration reform, economic growth and security concerns. Trump urged Democrats and Republicans to find a way to work together, calling on them to continue building a "safe, strong and proud America."
However, his immigration-related policy proposals illustrated the challenges of compromise. Some Democrats booed as the president addressed his desire to end "chain migration," a term used to describe family based immigration that allows immigrants to sponsor relatives to immigrate to the United States.
"Under the current broken system, a single immigrant can bring in virtually unlimited numbers of distant relatives. Under our plan, we focus on the immediate family by limiting sponsorships to spouses and minor children," Trump said.
Most immigration experts reject this characterization of the current system, as the Deseret Newsreported in January. There are eligibility and time restrictions, limiting what's possible for immigrants who want to sponsor other family members.
Immigration policies that support family reunification are understood by many as a way to attract highly skilled workers from other countries, the article noted. The president's preferred changes to the current system may disrupt this form of economic growth and harm America's compassionate reputation.
Trump's "chain migration" assertion came during his discussion of the "four pillars" he hopes will anchor new legislation. He seeks to create a path to citizenship for "Dreamers," or illegal immigrants brought to the country as children, shift away from the visa lottery in favor of a merit-based process, boost border security and reduce the number of family members an immigrant can sponsor.
Religious immigration activists celebrated the president's willingness to protect childhood arrivals to the U.S. However, some expressed concern about the possibility of harming other types of immigrants in the process of helping "Dreamers."
"We remain concerned about the potential cuts to family based immigration. God ordained the family as the cornerstone of society, and we believe that our country is stronger when our citizens can be quickly reunited with their close family members," read a statement from World Relief, an evangelical Christian service organization.
Trump emphasized that any action on immigration must be designed to benefit current citizens, in addition to new arrivals. "Americans are dreamers, too," he said.
Taxes and the economy
The president praised the recent changes to tax policy, arguing that they serve poor and middle-class Americans.
"We nearly doubled the standard deduction for everyone. Now, the first $24,000 earned by a married couple is completely tax-free. We also doubled the child tax credit. A typical family of four making $75,000 will see their tax bill reduced by $2,000 — slashing their tax bill in half," he said.
Americans disagree about the value of the Trump administration's tax bill, according to Pew Research Center. "About as many say the law will have a mostly positive effect on them and their families (29 percent) as say its effect will be mostly negative (27 percent)," a January survey reported.
Personal income helps drive these views, and wealthy Americans are more supportive of recent tax reform than others. Serene Jones, president of Union Theological Seminary, addressed this discrepancy on Twitter Tuesday night, arguing that Trump needs to do more for poor families.
"Our morality is measured in how we stand by those who struggle, not by how we increase the margins of the comfortable," she said.
Moving forward, Trump said Congress should use tax-related financial gains to boost the economy in other ways. "Let us invest in workforce development and job training. Let us open great vocational schools so our future workers can learn a craft and realize their full potential. And let us support working families by supporting paid family leave," he said.
In addition to celebrating tax reform, the president reflected a variety of religion-related achievements, including his efforts to fill open judicial posts.
"Working with the Senate, we are appointing judges who will interpret the Constitution as written, including a great new Supreme Court justice, and more circuit court judges than any new administration in the history of the country," he said.
Judicial appointments were a key reason evangelical Christians supported Trump in the 2016 election, as the Deseret News has reported.
Trump also cited his decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, noting that this choice was met with hostility by leaders of other countries. He wants Congress to punish those who speak out against U.S. policy.
"I am asking Congress to pass legislation to help ensure American foreign-assistance dollars always serve American interests, and only go to America's friends," he said.
Trump drew on religious language throughout his address, ending with the traditional call for God to bless the country. Although comments like these are a fixture in presidential speeches, Trump's allegiance to conservative evangelicals during his first year in office continues to anger American nonbelievers.
"The President of the United States either does not know or does not care that 1 in 4 Americans have no religious belief. Throughout the president's address, he routinely erased our existence by tying belief in God to patriotism," Larry T. Decker, executive director of the Secular Coalition for America, said in a statement.
In general, Trump's presidency has exacerbated tensions within and between faith communities, putting a spotlight on political and theological differences. Unity is a difficult proposition when religious leaders can't agree on the president's job performance.
"We haven't seemed to have found a way to talk across that divide," Jones, of Union Theological Seminary, told the Deseret News in late January.