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Trump White House faith outreach a picture of selective access

President Trump, largely surrounded by evangelical leaders, holds up an executive order that he signed during a National Day of Prayer event in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, D.C., on May 3, 2018. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

WASHINGTON (RNS) — Patrick Carolan, leader of a Franciscan network active on environmental issues, used to meet fairly regularly with Obama administration staffers.

Since President Trump took office, he met with then-Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt. But he’s never been invited to the White House.

“We haven’t been invited to any meetings there or to any other agency,” said Carolan, executive director of the Franciscan Action Network, who noted his staffers also had regular meetings in the Bush administration.

Though the White House is always a busy place with limited invitation lists, the two previous administrations made concerted efforts to connect with a wide array of faith groups that may not have agreed with most of their political positions but nevertheless could meet together, at least on occasion, for what the Obama administration called “partnerships for the common good.”

Now, it appears the Trump administration is taking a different approach — giving selective access to the White House to some faith groups while having cabinet-level offices meet with others. Some groups say they have been left out.

Conservative Christians have been the most visible religious visitors to the White House. Notably, they were guests at a dinner just for them in the State Dining Room in August. Days later, Americans United for Separation of Church and State requested that such White House gatherings of evangelicals come to a halt.

Patrick Carolan. Photo courtesy of Franciscan Action Network

When asked about AU’s assertion that continuing meetings with that select stripe of American religiosity violated federal law, the White House told Religion News Service: “The Administration continues to engage hundreds of faith leaders on various issues that directly impact their communities.”

But Carolan said he and numerous other religion-related advocacy groups in the nation’s capital are not in that number.

“We’re not,” he said. “We work with a wide variety of faith organizations on a variety of issues and I don’t know a single organization that is in contact on a regular basis with the Trump administration or on any basis with the Trump administration.”

The White House, which has yet to appoint an adviser to its Faith and Opportunity Initiative announced in May, did not immediately respond to requests for additional information about its connections with faith groups. But the Justice Department and State Department provided some details of their religious outreach.


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


More than a year ago, the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund called interaction with the White House at a “very limited level to practically nonexistent.” More recently, said communications director Gujari Singh, there have been meetings with offices of the Departments of Education, Justice and Homeland Security.

The American Sikh Council, with dozens of gurdwaras representing 100,000 families, says it has received no invitations.

“No one from the White House has ever communicated with us since the new president came in,” said Kavneet Singh, the council’s chief resource and advocacy officer. “We have attempted to contact the Trump administration but to no avail.”

Imam Mohamed Magid, left, at the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in Washington, D.C. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks

Imam Mohamed Magid, leader of All Dulles Area Muslim Society in Virginia, declined his sole invitation to the White House when he was traveling during the Rose Garden ceremony in May marking the National Day of Prayer. But the former president of the Islamic Society of North America attended the State Department’s religious freedom summit in July and has met with Sam Brownback, U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, about the plight of Rohingya Muslims, along with an interfaith coalition pleading their cause.

Islamic Relief USA spokesman Minhaj Hassan, who reported no direct contact from the White House in the administration’s first six months, says his organization has now met with officials from the White House and five federal departments or agencies.

His relief group, along with the Hindu American Foundation and Church World Service, is among the groups that report meeting with the State Department. A department official confirmed that Brownback’s regular roundtables include faith group representatives and “those holding no faith at all.” Those meetings have addressed “policies and practices of foreign governments and non-state actors that impact religious freedom, cases of individuals imprisoned on account of their beliefs, and global themes and trends impacting the enjoyment of these rights.”

Catherine Orsborn. Photo by Benjamin Orsborn

Catherine Orsborn, director of the Shoulder to Shoulder Campaign, an interfaith group that counters anti-Muslim bigotry, has attended State roundtables, which she said have recently focused on alleviating persecution of Uighur Muslims in China and Rohingya in Myanmar. She said the Justice Department has also asked her organization, Muslim groups and other organizations for advice as it prepared training for law enforcement to increase understanding of Muslim and Sikh Americans.

Jewish leaders report continuing connections with the White House.

“Regardless of what administration is in the White House, we have always been able to ensure the Reform Jewish Movement has a seat at the table and our concerns are met with respect,” said Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, whose group has advocated on issues such as health care, criminal justice and immigration.

Nathan Diament, executive director for public policy for the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, ticked off examples of invitations Orthodox Jewish leaders have accepted: Trump’s Hanukkah reception, the National Day of Prayer event in the Rose Garden and the pre-Rosh Hashanah conference call.


RELATED: All the president’s clergymen: A close look at Trump’s ‘unprecedented’ ties with evangelicals


Not much has changed for the National Council of Churches and Christian Churches Together, two groups whose memberships include a wide range of Christian traditions. NCC President Jim Winkler said he attended one meeting with an interfaith group and a White House staffer in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building about a year ago and has had no other interaction. CCT Executive Director Carlos Malavé said he has received no invitations to meetings at the White House or with senior staff.

Evangelicals, who have detailed their own gatherings with White House staffers, say they have been told of meetings with people of other faiths.

“It’s been made clear to us that they are getting advice from other faith leaders besides us,” said Richard Land, president of Southern Evangelical Seminary, who attended the Rose Garden ceremony in May that featured prayers from Catholic, evangelical, Jewish, Hindu, Muslim and Mormon speakers.

Johnnie Moore, who has served as an unofficial spokesman for the group of evangelicals who have prayed for and met with Trump, said he has been part of White House staff meetings with nonevangelicals on topics such as criminal justice reform, disaster relief and the opioid epidemic.

“I have been in meetings at the White House with Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant and evangelical Christians as well as with Hindu, Jewish and Muslim citizens and clergy,” Moore said.

Asked about the current administration practices — giving White House or cabinet-level access to some groups and having no interaction with others — religious freedom expert Charles Haynes said he sees a change from previous presidents dating to Bill Clinton.

“I think it’s a world of difference,” said Haynes, in contrast with the three administrations where he saw a “common thread” of engaging people of different faiths and backgrounds.

“Yes, of course, more traditionalist religious people in different faith communities are probably going to have a seat at this current table, but what about people who deeply disagree?” asked Haynes, founder of the Religious Freedom Center of the Freedom Forum Institute. “What about progressive groups or religious groups?”

Hindu priest Narayanachar Digalakote prays during a National Day of Prayer event at the Rose Garden of the White House on May 3, 2018, in Washington, D.C. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks

Mythili Bachu, the past president of Sri Siva Vishnu Temple in Lanham, Md., is familiar with White House invitations because a priest from her Hindu temple, Narayanachar Digalakote, prayed at the Rose Garden in the spring and also took part in a Diwali White House ceremony with President Obama. She sees communications with the White House — past and present — as a two-way street.

“We also have to reach out and say how we can help them,” said Bachu. “They’re so busy so I’m not going to sit here and say one is better than the other but we have to do our bit also.”

About the author

Adelle M. Banks

Adelle M. Banks, production editor and a national reporter, joined RNS in 1995. An award-winning journalist, she previously was the religion reporter at the Orlando Sentinel and a reporter at The Providence Journal and newspapers in the upstate New York communities of Syracuse and Binghamton.

28 Comments

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  • This article is a great example of how relativism has taken hold of so many people.

    They don’t even see it. Here, a writer concocts and weaves a classic PC hit job story on Trump. And this passes as good work?

    Not all faiths are equally close to the truth that God wants us to see and the good He wants us to do.

    If a president understands this, he shouldn’t be forced into a Procrustean position on this topic.

    Obama’s “faith” approach was one of thinly veiled tokenism…what did it lead to, but chaos and diffusion.

  • “Not all faiths are equally close to the truth that God wants us to see”

    Or maybe some faiths offer better cover for self-delusion.

  • Or maybe you’re a former “religionist” who’s become a hitperson when it come to religion.

  • Amazingly the National Rifle Association had little White House access during the Barack Obama Administration.

    There seems to be a pattern here: those with ties to groups supporting the President get better access to the President than those who do not.

    http://www.iwj.org/about/board/patrick-carolan

    Patrick Carolan’s ties are to the “Open Borders” immigration supporters, the climate change folks, and the AFL-CIO.

  • Yes just another hit story by a very liberal reporter.
    Please read the bottom two sentences.
    Another race baiter, This has nothing to do with God and Jesus.
    it is only her opinion.

    Adelle M. Banks | The Christian Century

    https://www.christiancentury.org/contributor/adelle-banks-rns

    Adelle M. Banks writes for Religion News Service. The ecumenical National Council of Churches has also launched a Truth and Racial Justice Initiative, “a nationwide accounting of how churches and their leaders have been complicit in, and have perpetuated, racism in America.”

  • So far I have read two articles from this website, they are the same written by liberal reporters.
    That are critical about conservatives.

  • The name of this site is Religion News Service. All religions, not your particular flavor of christianity. Nor does it mention political persuasion or your dying off conservative ideology.
    Please check your dictionary for the definitions of religion and politics. They are interchangeable only in your mind. And Bob’s.

  • so the two main religious groups are ‘evangelicals’ and ‘non evangelicals’?

    we have a supreme court, congress, and presidency all run by white evangelicals now. let that soak in.

  • talking about other religions here, not civil groups. presidents are supposed to meet with ALL religions or none at all.

  • presidents are by law supposed to meet with ALL religions or none at all, and that includes non believers. not just the god you believe in. he swore his oath to uphold the constitution, not your bible.

  • did the president put his hand on the constitution and swear to uphold the bible? or put his hand on a borrowed bible and swear to uphold our secular godless constitution? the latter.

  • It’s the law upheld by courts every week. it applies to all govt institutions not just the president, they cannot be seen to prefer one religion over others or religion over irreligion. must remain NEUTRAL on religion.

  • Citation please that mandates such a balance. You’re now getting vaguer and vaguer.

    Let’s get crisp when we make assertions.

    Waiting for chapter and verse.

  • There is no requirement that he meet with all religions or none, some religions, any religions, or anyone else.

    The example given, Patrick Carolan, is not a religious leader.

    He’s a left-wing political operative.

  • Thomas, isn’t your statement that not all faiths are equally close to the truth also an example of relativism? It’s one that is based on Christianity.

  • What I meant to say is that the Christian truth is based on a Christian belief system and therefore relative to those beliefs. It is not shared by all and there is no way to prove it is the absolute truth. One can only have faith. Other religions believe they also have the truth. How is one to determine?

  • Actually the Christian interpretation of salvation history squares not just with all of the books of both OT and NT, but it also squares with the development of human reason (Greek thought).

    And so in that sense it gains strength over other religions, and even atheism.

    St Thomas Aquinas reconciled both (both faith and reason) together.

  • How so? I don’t find that salvation history makes much sense. The very notion of a perfect God creating an imperfect being who he will have to later save (in fact he knows before they are already born that they will sin because he is omniscient) by sacrificing himself in the form of Jesus is hard to believe.

  • The president put his hand on the God principled Constitution which allows some of the ill informed respondents whose pens seem to drip with odious poisons me thinks to have the freedom to write what they seem unable to avoid writing.. This freedom is hardly allowed in much of the world who do not have such a “godless” foundational document. Misinformed people report such things as they did in the more recent supreme court hearings. How very very sad. Perhaps they might check out the Federalist Papers for some enlightenment not some later jaded view of a tenured professor so called by some other tenured sorts. Do some real original documentation research please.

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