News

RNS Best of 2017: All the president’s clergy: A close look at Trump’s ‘unprecedented’ ties with evangelicals

Jared Kushner, middle left, senior adviser to the president, stops by a White House listening session with pastor Paula White, middle right, and other evangelical leaders, hosted by the Office of Public Liaison on July 27, 2017. Others present include Johnnie Moore, Jennifer Korn, Ronnie Floyd, Mac Brunson, Jack Graham, Greg Laurie and Skip Heitzig. Photo courtesy of Johnnie Moore

EDITORS’ NOTE: New Year’s Day is a time of reflection — and looking ahead. Religion News Service is highlighting top stories by our staff last year including this September story by a quartet of writers and editors. It looks at conservative Christian clergy who blessed Donald Trump’s presidency in 2017 — and may influence his policies in 2018. 

WASHINGTON (RNS) — The invitation was unexpected. Would any of the preachers and pastors and other religious leaders, who had come to hear the administration’s views on issues they cared about, like to meet the POTUS in person?

A number of them fumbled with their iPhones to get them selfie-ready as they made their way to the Oval Office. And when they filed in, President Trump greeted them warmly.

“Now this is a group that has the real power,” he said. “They have influence with God.”


RELATED: Conservative evangelicals revel in their ‘unprecedented’ presidential access


A little while later the crowd gathered round the president. Some laid a hand on him for a prayer that led the participant recalling the episode, Tony Suarez, to feel as though “the anointing of the Holy Spirit was in that room.”

Among those standing nearest the president were Florida prosperity gospel preacher Paula White; Tim Clinton, head of a national Christian counseling association; and South African-born TV evangelist Rodney Howard-Browne, who is known for leading raucous worship services at his megachurch in Tampa, Fla.

“I remember being overwhelmed,” said Suarez, who is executive vice president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference. “It was a very spiritual moment.”

Trump’s close ties with this group of conservative Christian religious leaders is, by all accounts, unprecedented. They come after he was elected president with 81 percent of the white evangelical vote — a higher share than cast ballots for Mitt Romney, John McCain or George W. Bush.

Since inauguration, there have been meetings, dinners, photo ops and conference calls, according to participants. And there have been countless other encounters, including some at prayer events and signing ceremonies and a concert at the Kennedy Center.

On Sept. 1, some from the group were back in the Oval Office as the president declared a National Day of Prayer for victims of Hurricane Harvey. Texas pastor Robert Jeffress led another laying-of-hands benediction that cast Trump as a national savior.


RELATED: All the president’s clergymen: The issues


“Father, I thank you that we have a president … who believes in the power of prayer,” he said. “This country has been bitterly divided for decades upon decades, and now you have given us a gift, President Donald Trump.”

Evangelical leaders in the Oval Office thank President Trump for declaring a day of prayer for Harvey Hurricane victims

“When someone like Robert Jeffress or Jerry Falwell Jr. says ‘This is the most faith-friendly president we’ve ever had,’ in some ways they’re right,” said John Fea, professor of American history at Messiah College in Pennsylvania. “No other group of evangelical pastors has had such access.”

And unlike the business advisory councils that disbanded over the president’s response to violence by white supremacists last month in Charlottesville, Va., the evangelicals are still standing by him.

Extensive interviews with key participants — as well as public statements and photos — reveal that a cadre of conservative Christian religious leaders — mostly white and male (with notable exceptions such as White and Suarez) — has the ear of the politically powerful on matters of national priority, from judicial appointments to immigration and criminal justice reform.

President Trump meets with faith leaders inside the Oval Office on July 10, 2017. Photo by Mark Burns

And while presidents before have consulted with spiritual advisers — evangelist Billy Graham is the best-known example — the current group’s members certainly appear to care not only about Trump’s own spiritual well-being, but also have concrete views about a range of issues and make no secret of wanting policy changes.


RELATED: All the president’s clergymen: The key players


 

But exactly how much influence they wield — and whether they benefit from the association — is a matter of conjecture and debate.


July 10 meetings and prayer in Oval Office

About 30 evangelical pastors and heads of Christian organizations attended six hours of meetings July 10 at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, where most White House staff members have offices. Afterward, the religious leaders were invited to the Oval Office, where they prayed for Trump.

Hover over the photo below to see some of the people who were there, and click on the Twitter icon to see tweets shared from the event.


Just like alumni?

In June 2016, in the midst of the presidential campaign, Trump formed an evangelical executive advisory board after meeting with some 1,000 conservative Christians in New York.

That board, with around 25 members including Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr., Focus on the Family founder James Dobson and Southern Evangelical Seminary President Richard Land, was dissolved when he became president. But while the current group includes some of the same names, it has no formal status.

“It’s sort of an influential informal coalition of evangelical leaders that has a special relationship with the White House,” said Johnnie Moore, a minister and public relations consultant who serves as an unofficial spokesman for the group.


RELATED: Trump’s evangelical advisers discussed transgender ban at White House meeting


“It’s like being an alumni of a school, and so you’re no longer a student at the school but you continue to get together with your friends and people and you care about the same things. And you meet and you might interact with the school as alumni of the school,” Moore added. “You don’t work for the school. You don’t have any formal association with the school.”

Frank Page, a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, attended one of the main meetings, on July 10 at a building that houses offices of White House staff. But he isn’t even sure of his own status.

“I don’t know if I’m actually a part or not,” he said. “I have not seen anything codified.”

While some who have attended events, including Franklin Graham, have referred to a “faith council,” Jeffress, the Dallas pastor, rejected the term. That would come with “certain legal ramifications,” he said.

Which is true. Sunshine laws such as the Federal Advisory Committee Act establish procedural and transparency standards for “any committee, board, commission, council, conference, panel, task force, or other similar group” established to advise members of the executive branch.

Asked about its links to the group and its members, the White House declined to provide specifics of meetings or contacts.

And a number of individuals who are known to be part of the group said through spokespersons that they were unavailable for interviews for this story — including White, the Florida preacher whom many described as one of the key leaders of the group; radio hosts Dobson and Eric Metaxas; and Franklin Graham, who heads the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association named after his father.

But participants who did respond confirmed that most of the group, estimated to be at least 50 people, got together on July 10 for extended sessions at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, next door to the White House.

“It was a day hearing reports from various administration personnel and, yes, seeking advice from evangelicals as to what we cared about, what mattered, what issues were on our hearts,” said Page. “So it was both a reporting and speaking gathering.”

Moore said a number of lower-level White House staff attended the meeting, and he described them as “taking prolific notes and those notes being delivered as memos, is what we’re told, to the various departments.”

As for the high-level officials, Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser to the president, was there “in a listening capacity,” according to Suarez. 

Kushner also got up and spoke, said Mark Burns, CEO of The NOW Television Network in Easley, S.C. “And then, of course, right after Jared leaves, he comes back with” Vice President Mike Pence.

Pastor Mark Burns’ family with candidate Trump. Photo by Gene Ho Photography

“No one there really thought that we would be contacted by the vice president or the president but the vice president came in and gave us a brief word,” said another former SBC president who was there, Ronnie Floyd. “He just gave us a kind word and said, ‘Hey, the president heard that you guys are working over here, wanted to come by and tell you thank you and he would love for you to come to the Oval Office.’”

That prayer session that ensued was a particular point of pride for Burns.

“Matter of fact, if you see the picture of that circulating, I think my hand is the only African-American hand that you see in the picture,” he said, adding that he’d been to the Trump White House “a handful of times.”

The day of meetings at the Eisenhower Building and the Oval Office followed a much-tweeted dinner in the White House Blue Room on May 3, on the eve of the National Day of Prayer, when a handful of evangelical leaders were pictured standing behind the president along with leaders of several other faiths as he signed an executive order about religious liberty.

Jeffress characterized the dinner as a “thank you” to the campaign’s evangelical advisory board.

Vice President Mike Pence delivers remarks during a dinner with religious leaders on May 3, 2017, in the Blue Room of the White House in Washington, D.C. (Official White House photo by Shealah Craighead)

On July 27, some from the group met again at the White House, the visitors this time consisting of what Jordan Easley, pastor of Englewood Baptist Church in Jackson, Tenn., called the “Faith Leadership Initiative.

Moore said there have also been conference calls “every few weeks.” And in-person meetings involving some of the key players appear to have taken place on the margins of other events — such as the National Prayer Breakfast and the July 1 “Celebrate Freedom” concert at the Kennedy Center in Washington, co-sponsored by Jeffress’ church, First Baptist Dallas.

“There are more meetings now than there were during the campaign,” said Suarez, though he wasn’t able to participate as much then because his wife was battling a cancer that took her life.

Pentecostal preacher Harry Jackson said he’s had as many as a dozen meetings with Trump, Kushner and others since the inauguration.

Bishop Harry Jackson of Maryland speaks at the unveiling of the “Justice Declaration,” a statement by Christian leaders on criminal justice, in Washington, D.C., on June 20, 2017. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks

“My experience is I’ve had more access with these guys than I did under Bush and other GOP leadership,” Jackson said, referring to President George W. Bush’s administration.

Jeffress argues that there’s “nothing unusual” about evangelical leaders meeting at the White House. He believes they are not the only group being consulted in this way.

If that’s true, maybe the other groups haven’t posted about it on social media as prolifically. But it’s certainly not the case with mainline or progressive Christians.  

“I’d absolutely say we’re frozen out,” said Steven Martin, the communications director for the National Council of Churches, a group that includes mainline Protestant, Orthodox and historically black denominations.

Muslim and Sikh groups have also reported little or no contact.

RNS asked the White House whether similar forums exist to consult with leaders of other faiths. A White House spokesman replied with a statement saying that the president and his staff’s participation in events such as the National Prayer Breakfast and a Passover seder dinner is “showing his commitment to the faith community.”

The statement cast the issue in general terms.

“The Trump Administration looks forward to creating our own initiatives to continue our work with communities of faith,” it said. “The White House continues to invite different faith leaders on an ongoing basis, like we do with all groups, for meetings and briefings to talk about a variety of issues important to them.”


May 3 dinner before National Day of Prayer

A number of prominent evangelicals gathered for dinner May 3 in the Blue Room of the White House. Jeffress characterized this as a “thank you” to members of the Trump campaign’s disbanded evangelical advisory board, though some who tweeted photos from the event, including Franklin Graham and Metaxas, had not been members of that board.

Hover over the photo below to see some of the people who were there, and click on the Twitter icon to see tweets shared from the event. 


Charlottesville

Whatever the group’s status, A.R. Bernard, a black megachurch pastor in Brooklyn, left it after the president said there were “fine people on both sides” of the conflict in Charlottesville.

But Jeffress stayed on, saying he agreed with the president.

“President Trump said exactly the right thing in exactly the right way in his comments on Charlottesville,” he said.

Suarez, the Hispanic pastor, said he’d received a thousand phone calls and emails over the issue.

“I think there’s this perception that we’re just the amen corner to President Trump. This is a group made up of people with pastoral hearts that will share praise, they’ll share inspiration in the sense that they’ll pray with the president, they’ll share Scripture with the president, but they’ll also share concern,” he said.

Suarez cites Scripture to explain how he could work with a man who has hardly been seen as a paragon of moral virtue, especially in the way he has dealt with and spoken about women.

In the Book of Samuel, the prophet Nathan confronts King David over his seduction of Bathsheba, the wife of a top general he got rid of by deliberately sending him on a fatally doomed military mission, Suarez recalled.

“I don’t see Nathan saying, ‘Oh, you slept with Bathsheba? We’re done, bud. We’re done with you.’ But I do see him call (David) out and say, ‘Thou art the man.’”


July 27 meetings

On July 27, evangelical leaders again gathered for meetings in Washington, D.C., though these seem to have been shorter and more pointed than the daylong meetings earlier in the month.

Hover over the photo below to see some of the people who were there, and click on the Twitter icon to see tweets shared from the event.


A short list of accomplishments

The hope is that they can influence key policies. And the meetings with White House officials have covered a range of issues, including health care, taxes, religious liberty and judicial appointments, according to participants.

In small ways, evangelical advisers seem to be having some influence. Several said they had a hand in Trump’s nomination of Sam Brownback to be religious freedom ambassador, and it’s believed they also applied pressure to ensure that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson kept a special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism, despite cuts at the department.

But given the amount of access they’ve had, the list of accomplishments is relatively short.

Some accounts say that at the July 10 meeting, one of the subjects that came up was a transgender ban on soldiers in the military, which the president announced two weeks later. One of those present, Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, later told The New York Times that he pressed Trump about it for months.

But Tim Clinton, president of the American Association of Christian Counselors, who was also at the July 10 meeting, disputes that evangelicals pushed for the ban.

Tobin Grant, a political scientist at Southern Illinois University, says that with a few exceptions — such as Land, former head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s policy arm, and Ralph Reed, former head of the Christian Coalition who now runs an organization called the Faith & Freedom Coalition — these evangelicals are pastors, not political operatives.

“They tend to be people who are not involved in politics or policy,” he said. “They’re newbies on this.”

The evangelical advisers were also not known to have been involved in picking Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, though they backed the choice. Trump publicly thanked the Federalist Society and the Heritage Foundation for help with that nomination.

They are, however, pushing for socially conservative judicial appointments — an issue of critical importance to evangelicals who would like to see the courts reverse abortion rights and LGBT protections while carving out religious liberty exemptions.

And they also support a repeal of the Johnson Amendment, the law — which the president has promised to “destroy” — that prohibits tax-exempt churches from endorsing political candidates.

Dream come true

What is beyond doubt is that the access evangelicals are getting to Trump and his advisers has been a dream come true.

Since the late 1970s, conservative evangelicals have wanted to influence the direction of the country through politics. Groups such as the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition were set up to accomplish just this.

The idea was to get Christians elected to every level of government, from school boards to statehouses. At the same time, leaders such as Reed and Jerry Falwell Sr. never hid their desire to bring change through the election of a president who could elevate and enshrine conservative Christian values on issues such as school prayer, abortion, marriage and gay rights.

John Fea teaches American history at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pa. Photo courtesy of John Fea

Fea, the Messiah College historian, calls this “the playbook,” and he says it’s as operative today as it was 40 years ago.

Of course, modern presidents before Trump have surrounded themselves with people who prayed with them or provided them spiritual guidance.

George W. Bush notably created the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. The office, located on Jackson Place near the White House, allowed for federally funded partnerships between the government and faith-based groups for the delivery of social services, such as drug and alcohol rehabilitation or after-school programs.

But before President Obama, no modern-day president asked religious advisers to play roles in recommending policy, said Melissa Rogers, former special assistant to Obama and director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

Obama was the first president to create a faith-based advisory council. During his eight years in office he appointed three such councils consisting of 20-25 members that met for about a year and were tasked with studying particular issues, including human trafficking, poverty and interreligious cooperation.

The councils were diverse; they included members of Baha’i, Baptist, Buddhist, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Mormon, Muslim, Native American, Orthodox Christian and Sikh faiths.

But Obama met with each faith-based advisory council only twice, first when they were appointed and second when they concluded their work.

And critically, Rogers said, the Obama faith-based councils held public meetings, produced public reports and were subject to the Federal Advisory Committee Act.

Just why Trump keeps soliciting these evangelical advisers is probably a political calculation, said Fea.

“Donald Trump knows that he can ride these evangelicals,” the historian said. “He needs this as part of his base. I still can’t believe that at some deep level of spiritual or moral conviction he believes what these evangelical pastors believe. I think it’s utilitarian: ‘Let’s keep these people close.’”

About the author

Adelle M. Banks

About the author

Emily McFarlan Miller

Emily McFarlan Miller is a national reporter for RNS based in Chicago. She covers evangelical and mainline Protestant Christianity.

About the author

Yonat Shimron

About the author

Jerome Socolovsky

18 Comments

Click here to post a comment

  • I believe Obi Wan Kenobi described this group all too well, “You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy”

  • Actually, it really wouldn’t hurt to give each of those Christian leaders the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

    AND the Congressional Medal of Honor. AND the Nobel Peace Prize. AND an official sovereign Order of Knighthood directly from Queen Elizabeth II. AND the French Legion of Honor medal (but be sure to put Macron on his filthy knees while he’s handing out the medals).

    AND $1,000,000 in cash per Christian leader, drawn directly from the Democratic National Committee’s 2018 election budget. Just to restore faith in America’s political process.

    Umm, immediately (if not sooner) will do nicely.

  • I would have to agree. At least the Koch Brothers contribute massively to the arts. This group is just a front for grifting.

  • There is a presidential award for grifting and craven hypocrisy?

    I don’t think these people are wanting for cash. People like you love funding their mansions, amusement parks and private jets.

  • What we can count on in 2018 — and it’s in full evidence here at RNS on a daily basis:

    The same subset of Christians spreading the same old tired toxic lies about LGBTQ folks, using the “bible” (their tiny handful of verses ripped out of context, as they ignore the bulk of what the bible says about love, justice, and mercy) to attack a vulnerable minority group in God’s name.

    This is a cultural battle that they are spectacularly losing, but they will not admit loss or learn from their loss. Instead, they double down on the hate and the lies, and craft a strategy of imposing their minority control on pluralistic secular democracies, even to the extent of allying themselves with moral monstrosities like the man in the White House to achieve that goal.

    The task of all the rest of us who care about our democratic institutions (and of the many Christians who do also care about rescuing the gospel message from what these idolatrous hate-mongers are doing to it): challenge the lies relentlessly. Call them out. Refuse to let them win.

    Until the use of the bible to bless slavery was challenged by courageous people both inside and outside religious bodies, most Christians took for granted that slavery was an institution ordained and blessed by God. The predecessors of LGBTQ-hating Christians who brandish select bible verses today to suggest that “God” and “Christ” and “the bible” are on the side of their hatred once did the very same thing with bible verses ripped out of context to support slavery.

    They lost that battle in the past, and their descendants will lose their battle in the present — the battle to reduce God and Christ and the bible to their hatreds. They did so because they aligned themselves then and are aligning themselves today with the losing side of history’s moral arc — and because a significant number of fellow citizens and fellow Christians refused to let their lies and their hatred prevail and posture as a summary of the Christian message.

  • The Christian rejection of homosexuality is not dependent on “select bible verses” as you maintain, but rather on the whole witness of Christian moral teaching on the subject, including:

    The Didache

    Justin Martyr

    Polycarp

    Basil the Great

    Clement of Alexandria

    Tertullian

    Cyprian of Carthage

    John Chrysostom

    Arnobius

    Eusebius of Caesarea

    Augustine of Hippo

    John the Faster

    Gregory of Nyssa

    To name just a few. In all the writings of the Fathers and Councils there is not a single example of the acceptance or approval of homosexuality. It is not a matter of a “tiny handful of [Bible] verses supposedly “ripped out of context”. It is a matter of fidelity to the entire length and breadth of the Christian tradition throughout two milennia of history.

  • Every single name you cite also held that usury is seriously sinful.

    Then the church changed its mind on that point — as it did on slavery.

    As the patriarchs of the Jewish tradition, whom Christians call their fathers in faith, did about the practice of polygamy, which was the default definition of marriage for centuries on end in Judaism.

    How, by the way, did the fathers of the church and patristic councils talk about homosexuality, when that word and the concept to which it points were not even coined until the latter half of the 19th century?

    I’m assuming you repudiate the lending of money at interest and all economic systems based on that practice?

  • No, the Church did not change its mind about usury. It is still condemned as an evil; see the document “Economy in the context of globalization: Orthodox ethical view” recently issued by the Russian Orthodox Church. Laymen are still admonished not to lend money at interest. Clergy are canonically forbidden to do so, and can be laicized (defrocked) if they do.

    No, the Church did not change its mind about slavery. It has long been considered a deplorable evil of this fallen world. Across the centuries, it has been condemned by many leaders of the Eastern Church:

    St. Gregory of Nazianzen condemned the holding of slaves.

    St. Basil the Great lamented it as “an established evil”.

    Eustathios of Sebasteia condmned slavery and even advocated slaves revolting.

    St. Theodore the Studite(9th Century) denounced slavery.

    Eustathios of Thessalonica (12th Century) condemned slavery as an evil, and advocated the manumission of slaves.

    Symeon of Thessalonica (+1428) taught it was the duty of Christians to liberate captives and slaves,

    And more could be added. So no, the Church has not changed its teachings about slavery. It still condemns it as an evil.

    As for marriage, Christianity is not Old Testament Judaism.

    As for homosexuality, you are just playing games with words. Male/male and female/female sexual contact is not permissible, no matter what you may call it.

  • For evidence that the Church has indeed changed its stance on usury, please see Tim Parks’s book ‘Medici Money’ [2005]. This is a very clear exposition of this matter, in terms that anyone may understand.
    Of course, the Church’s canon lawyers and theologians have managed to blur things, so that some people are still able to maintain that ‘nothing has changed’.
    But even this blurring is a good thing – because it means that change is possible in the Church. All that is required, is to be able to maintain the line that ‘nothing has changed’.
    And so it has been, for usury and slavery.
    This gives hope.

  • I believe Park’s book deals with the Roman Church, which long ago fell into heresy and has indeed changed the ancient teachings of the faith, and not just on usury. It has not been a part of, nor spoken for, the Church for many centuries.

    For evidence that the authentic Church has not changed its teachings on usury since the beginning, reference the document mentioned in my post, which is in line with the teachings of the Fathers throughout the ages.

  • But this is driving people away from Christianity. I would like to see Christians love people who are different. Remember, that many of these same authorities supported, or did not oppose slavery.

  • Regarding slavery, I guess you did not read my comment below.

    “I would love to see Christians love people who are different.”

    But we love all people. The Church comprises people of every race, and every nation, on earth. All are welcome. No exceptions. And all must repent of and struggle to overcome their sinful passions. No exceptions. Not even for those tempted to commit homosexual sins.

    “But this is driving people away from Christianity.”

    This is not a new phenomenon: “Many of his [Jesus] disciples, when they heard it, said,’This is a hard saying, who can accept it’….After this many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him.” (John 6: 60,66).

    We must not be afraid to speak the truth, even when it is unpopular. Even when it causes people to “draw back” from us. Even when it gets us thrown to the lions.

ADVERTISEMENTs