WASHINGTON (RNS) — A long-simmering debate between liberal and conservative Christian faith leaders came to a head during a panel session at a Religion News Association conference on Thursday (April 22), with a former Obama White House faith adviser blaming an evangelical Christian adviser to former President Donald Trump for quickening the rise of Christian nationalism and setting the stage for the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.
The online panel, titled “Unpacking the Role of a Faith Adviser,” was for most of its hour a discussion of religious liberty policy and practice among the Rev. Johnnie Moore, a member of Trump’s informal group of evangelical advisers; Joshua DuBois, who worked for former President Barack Obama; former Bush administration official Tevi Troy; and Melissa Rogers, the current head of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
“I think the one thing we absolutely fundamentally agree upon is the central role of religion in American life — and it has to be fought to be preserved,” said Moore, who holds a seat on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and is a former vice president at Liberty University, as the session seemed to be wrapping up.
But the panel suddenly shifted gears, escalating into a passionate — and atypical — debate between Moore and DuBois over the impact of the Trump era and the moral role of a faith adviser.
In between moments of heated cross-talk, DuBois delivered a blistering litany of critiques, arguing that by supporting Trump, Moore helped to perpetuate a political and religious culture that makes people of color unsafe.
DuBois argued that the “hateful rhetoric” of the Trump era was different from previous Republican administrations, and he suggested it fueled the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, where many insurrectionists invoked the Christian faith while assailing the cradle of American democracy.
“I think we saw that … explode in public view on Jan. 6,” he said. “I think we saw the rise in … communities around the country, and then I think we saw religious leaders, religious activists, religious consultants, all of those folks, justify all of that.”
The exchange, which took place before a group of religion journalists, was unusual: Although prominent religious advisers to both presidents have criticized each other in the past, the leaders rarely debate in public.
DuBois’ critiques have been flung by liberal-leaning faith leaders at Trump’s faith advisers and Trump himself throughout his presidency.
DuBois, an African American man, described going on fishing trips with his son to rural Maryland, where Trump flags are plentiful, and the “climate of hate and anxiety in my soul” he felt there.
Moore largely disputed DuBois’ “judgments and conclusions,” calling for the civility the group had extolled minutes before, and characterized his exchange with DuBois as “shadowboxing.”
Moore also tried to turn DuBois’ denunciations aside by relating how he attempted to reach out to religious critics, particularly after the 2017 “Unite the Right” march in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a white supremacist sympathizer drove a car into a crowd of those protesting the march. Trump was criticized at the time for what detractors said was a failure to adequately excoriate the crime or the marchers.
Moore later forwarded emails to Religion News Service showing exchanges with DuBois in 2017, asking for a meeting in response to DuBois’ criticisms of the events the day of the march. DuBois, who also forwarded the emails to RNS, declined to meet after initially suggesting to Moore that he should “repent” or “at least stop giving cover” to Trump.
But DuBois continued to press Moore on Thursday, suggesting that his support for Trump — which included organizing faith leaders during his 2016 presidential campaign — helped perpetuate the kind of religious beliefs on display during the insurrection.
“It’s not passive, Johnnie,” he said. “It’s not you just … answering the phone. You’re organizing. You’re active in supporting this thing which is causing Jan. 6. It’s causing insane people to go into the Capitol — and people died there.”
Moore noted he was quick to condemn the Jan. 6 attack, as well as when members of the chauvinist Proud Boys burned Black Lives Matter signs belonging to churches in Washington weeks prior.
Moore also defended the Trump administration, highlighting achievements such as passing criminal justice reform or the signing of the Abraham Accords, which normalized relations between Israel and several countries in the Middle East.
DuBois argued Moore “can’t pick and choose” and pressured Moore to answer whether he would advise Trump again if asked.
“Johnnie: You organized, politically, domestic faith-based constituencies to vote for this man,” DuBois said in another exchange, referring to Trump. “It’s on the table that you would do it again. And as a result … communities of color are more unsafe — and you’re going to dip in and dip out? That doesn’t fly — at least not with me.”
Moore explained he would have a “moral obligation” to fill a similar role for President Joe Biden if approached. In an exchange that followed, it was not immediately clear whether Moore said he would be willing to advise Biden’s re-election or Trump’s, but he later confirmed to RNS that he would be willing to advise either.
DuBois lamented that the evangelical alliance with Trump altered the public’s view not only of evangelicals but of Christianity at large.
“Jerry Falwell Jr. … Paula White, etc. — we see them held out,” DuBois said. “People are looking on, folks who are curious about this faith that I love. I’m a very lowly associate campus pastor at a local church, so I talk to people in my faith about Jesus, and those people are telling me ‘But isn’t this the Jerry Falwell Jr. thing? Isn’t this the Donald Trump thing? Isn’t this the thing that these people are marching into the Capitol talking about?’”
He concluded: “The chickens came home to roost on Jan. 6. So the biggest impact on religious liberty is the fact that the voices who would fight for religious liberty don’t have any credibility anymore. I think that’s going to take years to rebuild that.”
This article has been updated.