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In May, Robert Jeffress, a Southern Baptist preacher from Texas perhaps best known for attacking Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith, stood among a host of Christian ministers in the White House Blue Room and addressed President Trump.
“Mr. President, we’re going to be your most loyal friends,” Jeffress said then.
That prediction was accurate. At some of Trump’s lowest moments over the past few months, conservative religious leaders have materialized at the White House to literally lay hands on him in prayer.
The photos of these moments have a powerful resonance for many American Christians who are steeped in a fundamentalist form of the faith that is individualistic, populist and places a high value on outward forms of religiosity. Their faith practice is characterized by a fascination with emotional experience and with big, dramatic gestures and story lines. The extraordinary is often valued over the ordinary, novelty over tradition, speaking in tongues over creeds, prophecy over liturgy.
And Trump, who spoke Friday at a gathering of religious conservatives in Washington, D.C., called the Values Voters Summit, has been eager to harness that emotional energy on his own behalf, especially at low points in his presidency.
When the damaging news broke in July that Donald Trump Jr. had met during the campaign with a Kremlin-connected Russian lawyer and had been eager to receive information about Hillary Clinton from the Russian government, a group of evangelicals prayed over Trump that very evening in the Oval Office.
“Such an honor to pray within the Oval Office for @POTUS & @VP,” tweeted Johnnie Moore, a former aide to Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr.
Moore now runs a public relations and advocacy business and is a major player at the intersection of conservative evangelical Christianity, politics and entertainment. But when it comes to convening these groups of leaders, it is Jeffress; Paula White, a Florida prosperity mega-church pastor who’s been called “a heretic” by other Christian leaders; and Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Council, who take the lead, according to people who are familiar with the inner workings of the group.
Moore attached to his tweet a photo shot from behind Trump that showed six or seven hands on the president’s back, a common gesture among evangelicals during prayer for another person. Many believe the laying on of hands channels spiritual power to the person being prayed for.
“The laying on of hands in the Old Testament signified transfer (of sins to the scapegoat, for instance) and of the Holy Spirit from one person to another (anointing),” Michael Horton, a prominent evangelical author and a professor of theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in California, wrote in an email. “Jesus sometimes healed in analogous ways, placing his hands on people, but not necessarily. The apostles laid hands on some people for healing as well. So the idea is biblical.”
But, Horton cautioned, “what people are doing with it today is closer to magic, it seems to me.”
Harry Jackson, a Pentecostal pastor from the Maryland suburbs outside D.C. who was one of the ministers who prayed for Trump in the Oval Office, said that “if people don’t understand the faith dimension involved, they would say that it’s superstitious.”
“We believe there is a transfer — a potential transfer — of spiritual power and the Holy Spirit’s influence to a willing and believing recipient,” Jackson said in an interview. “The recipient has got to be in a place where his faith and his character can allow God to impart grace to him. … If there was true humility on the part of the president, God can give him these bursts and downloads of wisdom.”
“And the question is, if you don’t stay in that humble place, you can have bursts of wisdom but not wisdom in another moment,” Jackson added. “We understand the president is really by nature a fighter and protector, but the role America needs now is more of a father and a healer as well.”
The ministers who visited with Trump that day didn’t just pray for him. Some also took up his cause of criticizing the media and encouraged their followers to disregard press reports, which that day would have been about Trump Jr.’s meetings with Russians during the campaign. For example, Jeffress took a photo of himself in the Oval Office, beaming into the camera, with Trump seated at his desk in the background. “Ultimate selfie! Always an honor to visit with our great@POTUS! Forget#FakeNewsMedia.@realDonaldTrumpis energized & determined to#MAGA!” the preacher tweeted.
Later that month, Trump rewarded his prayer cohort, abruptly announcing via Twitter, without consulting Pentagon leadership, that the U.S. military would not “accept or allow transgender individuals to serve in any capacity.” Many of the same leaders who’d been invited to the White House in May and July praised the decision.
In mid-August, Trump blamed “both sides” after a terrorist attack by a white supremacist in Charlottesville that killed one woman and injured dozens more. After coming under intense criticism, Trump was forced to give a more forceful denunciation of the neo-Nazis and KKK members who had marched in broad daylight. Yet he still insisted there were some “fine people” among a group that marched around a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee chanting “blood and soil!” and “Jews will not replace us!”
A week later Trump pardoned former Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who had been convicted by a federal judge of violating an order to stop detaining people based only on the suspicion they might be undocumented immigrants. Arpaio had long been criticized for mistreating the Latino community in Maricopa County.
Despite this, one week after the Arpaio pardon, religious leaders including Jeffress, Moore, White, Jackson, Ralph Reed and others gathered once again in the Oval Office to proclaim Trump as a unifying figure. They stood with Vice President Mike Pence as the president signed an order making Sept. 3 a national day of prayer on behalf of those affected by Hurricane Harvey.
Trump solicited praise from several of the leaders, and then called on Jeffress to pray. Jeffress’s prayer was a paean to Trump.
“This country has been bitterly divided for decades upon decades, and now you have given us a gift, President Donald Trump, who wants to bring healing to this country,” Jeffress said. “And he is bringing healing to this country.”
As summer turned to fall, Trump’s most significant accomplishment on behalf of conservatives remained his appointment, back in January, of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. His attempts to help Congress pass a repeal and replacement of Obamacare had been erratic and often more unhelpful than helpful. And a tax reform bill was a long way off, with an uncertain future.
In the midst of all this, Trump broke publicly with Republican leaders in Congress during a meeting at the White House, and agreed to a Democratic proposal on extending the debt ceiling. Trump also said that day that he wanted to work with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to avoid the deportation of young undocumented men and women brought to this country when they were children by their parents, known as DREAMers. Democrats struck a deal a week later.
A few days after that first meeting where Trump aligned himself with Democrats, the White House released a photo of the president and his Cabinet at Camp David during a meeting to discuss Hurricane Irma. Everyone at the table had their head bowed and eyes closed. Energy Secretary Rick Perry’s head was buried in his arms on the table in front of him.
“What that [photo] tells me is he is trying to hedge his bets with the right, particularly the religious right, in order to get them used to the notion that he might be moving closer to bipartisan dealmaking,” Glenn Thrush, a White House reporter for the New York Times, said on his newspaper’s podcast, the Daily.
Trump, since he first entered presidential politics in 2015, has participated in overt displays of religiosity that are at odds with his long-established personal reputation for philandering, greed, anger and arrogance. White evangelicals under previous administrations, notably Bill Clinton’s, considered an impeccable personal life a bedrock qualification for the presidency. They haven’t changed their opinions of Trump in response to disclosures about his behavior and language; instead, they have flipped their views on the importance of morality.
After Trump nominated Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, the White House released a photo of the president, his two oldest sons, Pence and his wife, Karen, and a few others praying with Gorsuch and his wife, Marie Louise, heads bowed and eyes closed.
Religious displays by politicians are nothing new. Richard Nixon, for example, used appearances with Billy Graham to curry favor and attract support from religious conservatives. What has distinguished Trump’s displays, however, is their highly Pentecostal flavor. This style of religiosity often comes across, both to those who are not familiar with it and to Christians who don’t favor it, as ostentatious and over the top.
At Trump’s very first meeting with religious leaders at Trump Tower, in September 2015, Kirt Schneider, a Jewish convert to Christianity who styles himself a “Messianic rabbi,” reached across Jeffress to lay his left hand on Trump’s left temple. Trump, holding a Bible with both hands, tried to adapt to what appeared to be an unfamiliar situation, and turned his face toward Schneider’s hand so that it covered his entire face.
Photos of religious leaders laying hands on Trump occurred several more times in 2016. Understandably, many looked at these photos and — given Trump’s personal life and his obvious unfamiliarity with basic norms of Christian culture and teaching — wondered if it was all just for show.
The explanation by James Dobson, former leader of Focus on the Family, is that Trump had recently experienced a genuine conversion to the faith.
“He’s a baby Christian,” Dobson said, in June of last year.
John Mark Reynolds, a prominent evangelical thinker and author who is a senior fellow at the Kings College in New York City, said, “There’s a widespread belief that Trump had a religious experience during the campaign.”
Many evangelicals, Reynolds said, “are pretty willing to ignore stuff from 30 years ago if they think you’re sorry and you’re too alpha male to get around to saying it.”
The “Access Hollywood” tape of Trump boasting about forcing himself on women dates from 2005. Trump had sold most of his interests in casinos by 2009, although his name was on the Taj Mahal in Atlantic City as late as 2016.
Reynolds also said that photos of the president praying with religious leaders pay political dividends. “I do think those things work,” he said.
But Gary Bauer, a veteran religious right activist whom Trump has invited to the White House on a few occasions, said that “when others see these things and think that it’s contrived, it’s just another example of the Trump derangement syndrome.”
“I’ve seen photos that were not intended to get out from the campaign in which people were behind closed doors and so forth, and everybody prayed,” Bauer said. “There was no attempt to get those photos out publicly. … It all seems very sincere.”
And Bauer argued that Trump has delivered concrete wins for religious conservatives. The Gorsuch appointment to the Supreme Court is at the top of that list, even though Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who stalled President Barack Obama’s nominee for most of last year, is arguably as responsible for that win as the president, if not more so.
But Bauer also pointed to Trump’s reinstatement of a ban on federal funding through foreign aid for organizations outside the U.S. that conduct abortions, known as the Mexico City policy. President Ronald Reagan first imposed that restriction. It was rescinded under both Democratic presidents since then, and reinstated under George W. Bush and now Trump.
Bauer also said he and other Christian leaders are pleased that under Trump, more Christian refugees than Muslims have been admitted to the U.S. It’s not clear why this is the case, since explicit language prioritizing Christian refugees was removed from Trump’s initial travel ban. Many evangelical Christian leaders, in an ecumenical spirit, have also condemned discrimination against refugees based on their faith.
Last Friday, even some of Trump’s most frequent evangelical critics praised two separate actions. The department of Health and Human Services rolled back a provision of the Obama health care law that required employers to provide insurance plans that covered contraception, and the Justice Department issued guidelines that protected the rights of religious organizations and business owners to act on their beliefs about sexual orientation.
“This [DOJ] legal memo reminds all federal agencies that people of faith do not have to leave their deeply held beliefs at the door when entering their job or public marketplace,” said the Southern Baptist Convention’s public policy arm, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. “This guidance also further enhances our churches’ legal standing if they are treated differently than other organizations by city ordinances when seeking building space and other government services.”
The Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest gay rights organization, said the DOJ’s legal guidance “will enable systematic, government-wide discrimination that will have a devastating impact on LGBTQ people and their families.”
The Supreme Court is set to hear arguments this winter in a key case featuring the argument between the religious liberty argument and gay rights: Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission.
But there are dissenters among evangelicals, even conservative ones.
“It is hard to see these meetings apart from a lust for power,” said John Fea, history department chairman at Messiah College, a Christian college in Pennsylvania. He has written extensively about the roots of American Christianity and the debate over whether America is a “Christian nation,” and he has referred to religious conservatives around Trump as “court evangelicals.”
“They are like the religious members of the King’s Court during the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance who sought power and worldly approval by flattering the king rather than speaking truth to power,” Fea said in an email.
Pete Wehner, a former White House adviser to George W. Bush who is now a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, also homed in on the blind allegiance many religious conservatives have given to Trump.
“If evangelicals were not courtiers of Trump, they would call him out, at least now and then, on his malicious comments and actions, on his pathological lies, on his dehumanizing tactics, and on his indifference to objective truth,” Wehner said. “But many prominent evangelical leaders simply refuse to do so.”
“The fact that so many evangelical Christians are so unwavering in their support of Trump means they are complicit in the debasement of American culture and politics. This is discrediting, and yet they refuse to acknowledge it,” Wehner said. “The net effect is that these evangelical Christians are presenting a disfigured and deformed view of Christianity to the world. They look like any other special interest group, but more easily seduced by power than most others.”
“I’ll go out on a limb and say this is not quite what Jesus had in mind,” he added.
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