(RNS) According to Merriam-Webster, a “court” is “a sovereign’s formal assembly of councilors and officers.” A court is made up of “courtiers,” which the dictionary defines as “one in attendance at a royal court” or “one who practices flattery.”
We can debate whether to call Donald Trump’s circle of advisers a court, but the president of the United States certainly has his fair share of courtiers. Many of them are evangelical Christian leaders. These Court Evangelicals have sacrificed the prophetic voice of their Christian faith for a place of power and influence in the current administration.
The Court Evangelicals were on full display last week in the White House. On the eve of the National Day of Prayer, these Christian leaders dined with Trump and received an insider tour of the second floor of the White House. The Christian Post reported that Greg Laurie, pastor of Harvest Christian Fellowship in Riverside, Calif., and a member of Trump’s evangelical advisory team, told his congregation the Court Evangelicals were “reduced to being like little children” when Trump took them into the Lincoln bedroom. Evangelicals used to save phrases like that for their encounters with God during worship.
The following day, many of the Court Evangelicals were in attendance as Trump signed an executive order on religious liberty. The order was little more than a symbolic gesture meant to appease evangelicals and secure their support.
Trump’s executive order did not end the so-called Johnson Amendment, a clause in the tax code that forbids churches from endorsing or opposing political candidates. This is because the president does not have the authority to change the tax code. That job belongs to Congress.
Moreover, Trump’s executive order did not secure religious liberty for Christian institutions in jeopardy of losing federal funds for upholding conservative positions on reproductive rights and marriage.
A lot of evangelicals voted for Trump because he said he would deliver on these religious liberty issues. On the day the executive order was released, Christianity Today, the flagship magazine of American evangelicalism, ran an article on its website titled “Trump’s Religious Liberty Order Doesn’t Answer Most Evangelicals’ Prayers.”
Christianity Today was not alone in its critique. A National Review columnist said the executive order was “worse than useless.” One blogger wrote that conservatives were groaning and the ACLU was snickering. A Princeton University professor tweeted: “the executive order is meaningless.”
The Court Evangelicals were not fazed by these criticisms. Like all good courtiers, they remained loyal. They took to Fox News and other conservative news outlets to inform their constituents of all that was accomplished by one stroke of the president’s pen. Their defense of Trump’s executive order was just as strong as their defense of Trump in the wake of the now-famous "Access Hollywood" tape.
Jerry Falwell Jr, the president of Liberty University, praised the order and declared “evangelicals have found their dream president.”
Robert Jeffress, pastor of Dallas’ First Baptist Church, claimed the executive order “ended the 60-year war on religious liberty.” He then declared, “without hesitation,” that Donald Trump “is the most faith-friendly president in U.S. history.”
Who are the Court Evangelicals and what do they believe? They are American born-again Christians who think it is a good idea for ministers to endorse political candidates from the pulpit. They have bowed a knee to political power as a means of furthering their agenda to make America a Christian nation. And they show up at the White House whenever Trump wants to say something about religion.
The Court Evangelicals have put their faith in a political strongman who promises to alleviate all their fears and protect them from perceived forces of secularization. In addition to Jeffress, Laurie and Falwell, they include:
Paula White: A televangelist, prosperity preacher, and pastor of the New Destiny Christian Center near Orlando, Fla. White claims to have led Trump to Christ.
James Dobson: The former leader of the evangelical ministry Focus on the Family. He is also the guy who, in 1998, said that Bill Clinton should be removed from office because he lacked moral character.
Mark Burns: The African-American televangelist and pastor of the Harvest Praise & Worship Center in South Carolina. In a prayer at the GOP convention last summer, Burns asked God to defeat the “liberal Democratic Party” and thanked the Lord that the Republican Party was the “conservative party under God.”
Franklin Graham: The North Carolina evangelist who declared that “God allowed Donald Trump to win” the 2016 election.
Eric Metaxas: The popular Christian biographer and radio host. He has defended Bill O’Reilly and was seen yucking it up at the executive order ceremony with Mike Pence and Franklin Graham.
For now, the Court Evangelicals seem to be enjoying their privileged position in the White House. Trump has convinced them that he cares about their concerns. Maybe he really does. Or maybe he is very good at saying the kinds of things that will keep them loyal. Whatever the case, don’t expect the Court Evangelicals to speak truth to power anytime soon.
(John Fea chairs the History Department at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pa. He blogs daily at www.thewayofimprovement.com and you can follow him on Twitter @johnfea1)