After President Donald Trump rescinded an Obama-era executive order that offers work permits to undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children, many religious communities responded with resounding disapproval. In addition to faith-based groups that physically protested the move, a staggering number of faith groups from across the theological spectrum issued statements condemning the decision, arguing it did not reflect a religious call to compassion and describing it as “immoral,” “reprehensible,” or “cruel.”
Members of Trump’s own evangelical advisory board — a loose band of more than 20 conservative Christian pastors and advocates who have advised the president since his campaign days — took a decidedly different stance.
Rev. Tony Suarez, a vice president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference (NHCLC) and a member of the board, said Trump’s announcement was actually a victory for faith-based advocacy. He pointed to the president’s inclusion of a six-month window allowing recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program to apply for an extension as evidence the White House had been convinced to moderate its stance on immigration policy.
“[The DACA decision] is a major win for the faith advisory council,” Suarez told ThinkProgress over the phone. “I thought it was vindication.”
The DACA decision was “a major win for the faith advisory council…I thought it was vindication.”
The yawning ideological gap between Trump’s faith advisers and the rest of the American religious community has been widening for some time. Pastors who publicly advised Trump’s campaign told ThinkProgress they have endured near-constant calls to step down from their consulting positions for months. Some reported a flood of angry emails and phone calls last month after the president compared white supremacists to counter-protesters who marched in Charlottesville, Virginia. One described being heckled at baseball games. Nonetheless, only one board member has officially resigned.
Why have so few religious advisers abandoned Trump? While the loyalty of some faith leaders can be traced to the belief that America should be restored as a “Christian nation,” many board members cite a far more practical reason: unprecedented access to a notoriously independent president.
The precise list of faith leaders who serve on the board is unclear even to participants. But advisers who spoke to ThinkProgress paint a complicated picture of Trump’s inner circle of religious confidantes, where conservative evangelical faith leaders vie for the attention of the president and his staff.
Layers of access to the president
Trump’s faith board is technically unofficial. Whereas the lists of people serving on the real estate mogul’s various business councils were made public — and some CEOs made news for publicly resigning from their posts after Charlottesville — the faith board exists largely outside of official government structures.
Richard Painter, chief ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush, told ThinkProgress this informal status is likely an attempt to avoid violating the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits the establishment of any state religion.
“I don’t think the [faith] council could have any official role in the U.S. government consistent with the First Amendment of the Constitution,” Painter said, referring to the fact that the board is entirely evangelical.
Nevertheless, board members have managed to carve out a considerable level of access to the president and his staff.
“Some people like politics, I don’t,” the advisory group’s de facto spokesman, Johnnie Moore, told ThinkProgress in an email. “I love people, and — unfortunately — politics is the only way to influence the systems that effect people.”
Moore doesn’t carry the name recognition of some conservative Christian megapastors on the board. But the 33-year-old is well-known in evangelical circles, where he has built a pedigree that includes stints as a vice president at the right-wing Liberty University, an advocate for persecuted Christians abroad, and a faith adviser to Dr. Ben Carson’s campaign for president. His involvement with Trump’s evangelical advisory board dates back to its inception in 2016, when campaign officials asked him to help organize it.
Since then, the scope of the board’s potential influence on policy decisions has become strikingly broad. In addition to serving several officials in a ministerial capacity, groups of pastors have met with representatives and policy experts from the White House, State Department, and the National Security Council, among other government groups. Moore said these conversations can be exhaustive.
“Some have lasted an hour and one lasted seven hours,” Moore said, referring to a meeting with the White House Public Liaison office. “In each meeting certain staff members from the executive office of the president have attended, addressed the group, or taken questions.”
The board’s wide reach reflects Trump’s longstanding reliance on evangelical Christians to shore up his coalition. Faith-based resistance to Trump was common before and after his rise to power, but many conservative Christian leaders stood by him despite numerous controversies that dogged his campaign. Some even endorsed Trump after a tape emerged of him bragging about sexual assault, and roughly 80 percent of white evangelical Protestants ultimately backed Trump on Election Day in 2016.
That support has been reciprocal.
“After the strong support of evangelicals during the campaign, the White House surely pays a great deal of attention to what issues evangelicals are passionate about,” Suarez said. “We found that when we can voice our praise or concern directly to the president, he certainly considers it, takes it to heart, and takes it to prayer.”
“If we were in relationship and I was your pastor… I could call you, or you could call me.”
Getting things “directly to the president” isn’t always easy. Most board meetings are with administration officials, not the president himself. But at least one member is understood to have special access to Trump: Florida-based megapastor Paula White.
Sometimes referred to as the president’s “God whisperer,” White often recounts how Trump called her on a whim roughly 15 years ago after seeing her on a Christian television show, telling her she was “fantastic.” White, who stumped for Trump on the campaign and prayed at his inauguration, says the two have been close ever since, and right-wing pastor Jim Bakker recently declared that White can walk into the White House “anytime she wants.”
The claim seemed audacious. But when asked by reporters at the 2017 Religion News Association (RNA) conference about the quip, White did not dispel the notion that she has special access to the president, reiterating that she has a “long-term relationship” with Trump.
Later, White privately insisted to ThinkProgress that her advisory role is the product of a genuine connection with the president — and one rooted in ministry.
“Obviously there are many times [I advise the president] in person. Many times there are phone calls,” White said. “If we were in relationship and I was your pastor… I could call you, or you could call me.”
Using the DACA fight to test lobbying muscles
In the aftermath of tensions in Charlottesville and controversy over how the president responded to the events there, the fight over DACA turned out to be a key moment for the evangelical board to flex its muscle and win back some good favor with the public.
According to polling firm PRRI, a majority of evangelicals—including white evangelicals—support policies similar to DACA. Members of Trump’s advisory board, particularly Latino evangelicals, were already vocal supporters of the program.
So after Texas and several other states threatened to sue the Trump administration if it did not end DACA by September 5, and the White House signaled that Trump planned to acquiesce, Suarez reportedly worked with other faith leaders — including NHCLC head Samuel Rodriguez, Georgia megapastor Jentezen Franklin, and Paula White — to press Trump into rethinking his pledge to abolish the program.
Most details of these discussions with Trump have not been divulged, but board members claim in-person conversations between the president and advisers were key to steering him towards a less hardline position.
“The DACA issue proved what Rev. Rodriguez said, which is ‘Access leads to conversations which leads to conviction which leads to compassion; with God’s Spirit, hearts and minds can be changed.’”
Meanwhile, Suarez and Rodriguez also used their positions to lift up more traditional forms of activism. Suarez told ThinkProgress the two pastors made sure administration officials were aware of letters signed in defense of DACA by thousands of faith leaders organized by groups such as the Evangelical Immigration Table and the NHCLC.
Taken together, Suarez says the team was able to convince the White House to include the six-month delay that allows Congress time to pass a legislative solution for DACA recipients, often called DREAMers.
“The DACA issue proved what Rev. Rodriguez said, which is ‘Access leads to conversations which leads to conviction which leads to compassion; with God’s Spirit, hearts and minds can be changed,’” Suarez said. “We were able to humanize the plight of these DREAMers, and the president’s reaction was that of a father and grandfather. And he showed great compassion.”
But the moment also shows the profound limits of the faith board’s ability to persuade Trump.
At the end of the day, DACA was still rescinded—a deeply unpopular decision that puts hundreds of thousands of DREAMers in jeopardy—and Franklin couldn’t even assure the Washington Post that Trump would sign a DACA-like bill if Congress ends up passing one.
Faith advisers were also hardly the only voice demanding that Trump maintain DACA, as they were joined by a chorus of activists and even GOP lawmakers who encouraged the president to keep the policy in place.
What happens when agendas clash?
Although virtually all members of the loose board are evangelicals, they hail from different and sometimes competing faith traditions, and often have conflicting priorities when it comes to domestic and foreign policy.
The board is not unanimous when it comes to DACA, for instance. While speaking to reporters at the RNA conference, Moore noted there were “people who agree, people who disagree” on the issue.
Trump’s decision to ban transgender Americans from the military represents another policy clash. The New York Times reported in September that Tony Perkins, the head of the right-wing Family Research Council, was one of the driving forces behind Trump’s decision to announce this ban. Perkins’ relationship to the board, like many others who attend their meetings, is somewhat amorphous. But he reportedly broached the topic of the ban in a meeting of faith advisory board members just days before Trump announced the change on Twitter. Other members of the board such as Liberty University President Jerry Falwell, Jr., Robert Jeffress, and James Dobson publicly praised the transgender ban.
Moore, meanwhile, insisted to ThinkProgress that board members “weren’t involved in the transgender issue,” saying, “We have been consulted on dozens of issues, and we have spent more time on criminal justice reform and religious liberty issues, for instance, than any social issue.”
Moore later explained to ThinkProgress that the board has almost functioned as a “network,” where a group that is “more than double or maybe triple” the original list is often invited into meetings.
No matter who initiated the conversation, the episode exposes the potential for tension.
“I think everyone has different issues that are their priority. My priority is immigration,” Saurez told ThinkProgress. “Someone else’s battle might not be my priority. That doesn’t mean someone is going to block or work against what someone else is working on, but they might not be an active voice for that issue.”
Paula White, for example, is hardly the ideal champion of the traditional Religious Right priorities long trumpeted by other board members such as Falwell and Faith and Freedom Coalition head Ralph Reed.
Though she has at times tried to distance herself from this characterization, White—along with fellow faith advisers Mark Burns and Gloria and Kenneth Copeland—is widely considered to be a preacher of the so-called “prosperity gospel,” a religious movement that teaches followers they can become wealthy and successful through faith , often by giving money to their church. Other members of the board have been deeply critical of the theology.
Still, board members work to show a united front. In the aftermath of Charlottesville, most of them published statements condemning racism, but stopped short of criticizing Trump — and a few, such as Jerry Falwell, Jr., leaped to his defense. And when New York megapastor A.R. Bernard left the council over the media firestorm, his fellow members were careful not to cast aspersions on their ministerial colleague.
They also often protect and promote each other. Moore, for instance, owns the KAIROS Company, a media relations group that specializes in “elevating reputations and growing circles of influence.” He’s made ample use of his media savvy to help craft the board’s public-facing image: Though the KAIROS website does not list clients, Moore said he represents several evangelical board members, including Robert Jeffress, James Dobson, and Paula White.
Moore’s public relations skills were on full display earlier this month during the RNA conference. The multi-day event included a panel discussion with White, who rarely engages with reporters and who was still reeling from a deeply controversial exchange on the Jim Bakker show. (Many interpreted her on-air remarks as implying that resistance to Trump is an affront to God. She has since worked to clarify her comments, telling ThinkProgress she regretted some of her words.) Moore repeatedly spoke on White’s behalf during exchanges with the press, sometimes amending her comments with his own thoughts.
“[When] she was on the Jim Bakker Show… she wasn’t prepared, she wasn’t thinking through that moment,” Moore said to a gaggle of reporters as White nodded along. “She called me [after the show] and said, ‘I said what?’ And I said, ‘Go watch the video!'”
Members also say differences in opinion are less important than shared ideals.
“I think there is more agreement than disagreement, because everyone realizes the special moment that this is for evangelicals, for faith leaders,” Suarez said. “We’ve come together with the sense that we’re going to make America great again. That group has laid doctrinal differences aside to help the country.”
Access comes at a cost
Even with the evangelical advisory board’s power, it would be a mistake to equate proximity to the president with broad influence over his decision making. As several former White House staffers can attest, access does not always equal desired levels of influence, nor does it guarantee long-term loyalty from Trump.
It’s also possible that short-term “wins” can cost board members access in other places. In the wake of the DACA decision, reports emerged of Rodriguez, Suarez, and other NHCLC members being blocked from White House meetings about Hispanic issues not exclusively tied to faith.
It remains to be seen how the faith council will change over time. The White House has met with a number of faith leaders that have never claimed affiliation with the board since Trump was inaugurated, and key influencers will likely shift depending on what issue is up for debate.
No matter what happens, evangelical faith leaders are unlikely to give up seats at Trump’s table. And Trump, who still needs the support of their followers, is equally unlikely to dismiss their concerns–even if he doesn’t always end up turning them into policy.
For many, a listening ear is what matters most.
“I personally believe Christians have always had an influence on politics,” White told reporters at RNA. She later added: “Our president is…an incredible listener.”