Left, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks to supporters in Charleston, W.Va., on May 5, 2016. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Chris Tilley. Right, Russell Moore leads a June 9, 2014, panel discussion. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks

On the delusion of clergy access to the royal throne

The Wall Street Journal reports that Southern Baptist bigwig Russell Moore is in trouble with some powerful constituents because of his very public opposition to Donald Trump during the campaign. One major concern is that when the new president gathers his trusted counselors around him, Russell Moore will not be invited.

Shed no tears over this great loss, Southern Baptists.

Russell Moore, if you keep him, will be of more value to you away from the throne rather than next to it.

That's because clergy access to the royal throne has always been a snare and a delusion.

Christian leaders who are granted access to emperors, kings, and presidents believe that their presence will give them the opportunity to wield influence to advance their religious or moral agenda. When the ruler is deciding what to do about something, the Christian leader right next to the throne will be able to whisper in the ruler's ear and help determine the outcome.

Perhaps this does sometimes occur. Perhaps it did so especially back in the days of Christendom, when church and state were formally aligned.

But recent instances are relatively rare.

Some of us were once granted access to circles around President Obama. We were invited to special phone calls, got listed on advisory councils, got invited to the Democratic National Convention, even schlepped over to a White House Christmas party or three, hoping for a handshake or a selfie.

How many of us can say that a single policy decision was ever affected by these dribs and drabs of "access"? Isn't it a fairer description to say that our purported access was about the president gaining our loyalty and some access to the constituencies we represented? For progressive evangelicals like myself, isn't it more the case that we helped Barack Obama win a few states like North Carolina and Ohio in 2008 because we maybe helped shave a few percentage points off of the white evangelical GOP vote?

If Hillary Clinton had been elected, and had constituted a council of religious advisers as President Obama did, how much influence would these advisers have had on her actual policy decisions?

Maybe Hillary was too honest. (Laugh if you will.) Maybe her abysmal religious outreach operation reflected the level of influence she really would have wanted religious advisers to play in a Hillary White House. So she never really pretended to reach out. Score one for honesty? But then Donald Trump got 81 percent of the white evangelical vote.

Perhaps it's different on the Republican side. Perhaps one can expect that religious advisers around a Republican president will have real rather than illusory influence.

I wonder. Do you think Richard Nixon called up Billy Graham and asked him what he should do about China policy — or whether to break into the Democratic headquarters? Did Ronald Reagan call Jerry Falwell for counsel on tax cuts? Will Donald Trump text Franklin Graham and ask for his wisdom on regulatory reform?

Probably the most that can be said even on the GOP side is that a deal has been struck with constituencies related to a culture wars issue or two. Donald Trump says: Without ever saying I actually agree with you on abortion, I will give you Supreme Court judges who might roll back Roe v. Wade, and you deliver me the white evangelical constituency in November 2016 and every day of my presidency. I wonder who is the bigger winner in that exchange?

So if the Southern Baptists were hoping that a more compliant ethics agency head would have been able to snuggle up to President Trump and offer him advice that he would heed, they were undoubtedly delusional.

The religious leader types who may get a Christmas party invitation or two to the White House (or will it be the Tower?) or will get to offer a prayer at a meeting or two are mainly useful idiots — useful because they are being used, idiots because they won't know they are being used.

Perhaps Southern Baptists might like an ethics agency head who is not a useful idiot. Or maybe not.

Meanwhile, some of us are trying to wean ourselves off of the politics addiction and trying to remember Who it is exactly that Christian clerics are called to serve.


  1. “But recent instances are relatively rare.”

    In the West, you mean. Ethnocentrism and all that.

  2. please elucidate: where do you see otherwise? Perhaps in Russia, where the throne influences the bishops, rather than vice-versa? Or in so-called Islamic states where the Qur’an is perverted in the name of faithfulness to the Prophet? Or how about Israel, where extremists’ desire to steal more land has made a distorted reading of the Hebrew scriptures a convenient tool for justifying greed? Seems to me that the waters flow in the other direction in all those cases.

  3. In ancient Israel, God called the prophets to declare His will and they were generally obligated, by force of circumstance, to do so outside the precincts of power. Occasionally, under a pious or righteous King, they were able to declare their message at the Royal Court in relative acceptance and safety. More often they were political outcasts, and among those whose writings we retain, none fell short of his obligation to speak truth to power. Would that there were more such prophets today.

  4. No, he was talking about Somalia, where lighter skinned Arab Muslims and darker skinned African Muslims are battling…still.

  5. yikes. Yeah, I’d imagine so. So painful to hear that. Of course, the interethnic hatreds are a lot older than the religions.

  6. Some Southern Baptists might be inspired by Herod. He could promise to keep his fellow Jews in line (or at least try) while profiting handsomely from the empire. Trump could throw SB’s a few bones — a Supreme Court justice with no actual principles but a willingness to vote against abortion would do it. Maybe an opening in the tax laws regarding churches and political speech. One or two symbolic “Merry Christmas”-type things. Nothing that would keep Trump and Bannon from their ultimate ends of course. (Making money, tearing down the country, marginalizing minorities.)

    You just have to make nice with the Romans if you hope to be a Herod. Something they fear Moore isn’t doing

  7. Steal more land? Little Israel is the size of the State of New Jersey. Islam has a bunch of large nations, home to a billion Muslims. The Bible tells us that God will protect Israel in the last days and that it will belong to the Jewish people forever, in spite of ISIS, etc. and hatred towards Israel from people like you. Judea and Samaria – the homeland of the Jewish people since biblical times.

  8. Excellent article! We Baptists need more leaders like Moore who will hold dearly to the principles of our heritage–especially now that our political and religious realms are so desperately in need of prophetic voices. How have we not learned yet that political power corrupts the Church and religious leaders have a terrible track record of affecting political change?

  9. Brilliant analysis, I am in awe of your sceptered wit.

  10. I disagree with David on a range of issues, but not this one. The delusion of power is Oh so tempting! This article is wise and adroit in its observations. May the Church proclaim the Gospel of the Kingdom, and therein place its hope.

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