Some conservative evangelicals revel in ‘unprecedented’ White House access

President Trump, flanked by evangelical leaders Paula White, right, and Jack Graham, in blue suit, speaks during the National Day of Prayer event at the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, D.C., on May 4. (RNS Photo/Courtesy of Reuters/Carlos Barria)

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WASHINGTON (RNS)—Squeezed among two-dozen other evangelical supporters of the president, Southern Baptist Richard Land added his hand to the others reaching to pray for President Trump.

Trump Evangelicals 400 Evangelical supporters place hands on and pray with President Trump in the Oval Office of the White House. (RNS Photo/Courtesy of Johnnie Moore)The July 10 Oval Office prayer session, which has been panned and praised, is just one example of the access Trump and his key aides have given to conservative Christian leaders—from a lengthy May dinner in the White House Blue Room to an all-day meeting in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building next door.

“This is unlike anything we’ve experienced in our career or ministry—unprecedented access, unprecedented solicitation of opinions and viewpoints,” said Land, president of Southern Evangelical Seminary in Matthews, N.C., and former president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

Mainline Protestants, minority religions lack access

But while some religious conservatives are granted such intimate contact with the chief executive that they can literally “lay hands” on him, other faith leaders are kept at arm’s length.

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

Manjit Singh, a co-founder of the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund, called interaction with the White House at a “very limited level to practically nonexistent.”

Minhaj Hassan, a spokesman for Islamic Relief USA, said: “In the first six months of the Trump presidency, there hasn’t been any direct communication with the White House.”

‘Different center of gravity’

Randall Balmer, chair of Dartmouth College’s religion department, calls the political shift in the White House “a whole different center of gravity religiously” from the recent past.

In the 1960s, “representatives of the National Council of Churches could pretty much knock on the door almost any time and be granted access, and now you just don’t have that any longer,” he said.

Melissa Rogers, who was director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships under President Obama, said it was “very common” for various offices to hold briefings for a diverse range of U.S. religious communities.

“That certainly included evangelicals, Catholics, mainline Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs and others,” said Rogers, whose former position still hasn’t been filled by the Trump administration. Rogers is former general counsel with the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty.

In the 1980s, President Reagan welcomed conservative Christian leaders Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell to the White House. But political scientist Paul Kengor called Reagan “a Protestant with a healthy respect for non-Protestant faiths, especially Catholic and Jewish faiths.” Reagan had relationships with Pope John Paul II, Mother Teresa and Cardinal Terence Cooke and “carried in his jacket a list of Soviet Jews held in prison or denied the right to emigrate.”

Religions other than conservative evangelicals have limited communication

Today, some groups outside the fold of conservative Christianity report a limited amount of communication with the 6-month-old Trump administration. They describe connections with Cabinet-level offices, such as Hindus with the Justice Department and Baha’is with the State Department.

Officials of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops “frequently send letters to relevant departments and agencies on vital issues of the day,” said Judy Keane, spokeswoman for the bishops’ conference. Some of those letters differed with the administration on capping the number of refugees and withdrawing from the Paris climate change agreement.

Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, said leaders of the Reform movement have met with administration officials and voiced their concerns about issues such as the two-state solution and religious pluralism in Israel.

“Despite profound disagreements on issues including immigrant justice, access to health care, voting rights and more, members of the administration have heard our concerns with respect,” he said. “Every administration is different, but we have always found a way to make the voices of Reform Judaism heard.”

There have been a few examples of interfaith approaches by the Trump White House, such as when Vice President Mike Pence praised the contributions of Sikhs in a June speech in his home state of Indiana. Days later, he traveled to Colorado to celebrate the 40th anniversary of conservative Christian organization Focus on the Family.

And turbans, habits and an array of other religious attire were seen at the National Day of Prayer ceremony and the National Prayer Service at Washington National Cathedral on the day after the inauguration.

But two very different recent administrations—those of Presidents George W. Bush and Obama—have made more particular efforts to be inclusive, especially in relation to government partnerships with faith groups on social services, said Bob Tuttle, professor of religion and government at George Washington University.

Is Trump seeking ‘seal of approval’ from evangelicals?

So what benefit is there for Trump to emphasize his ties to evangelical leaders? Balmer said they provide Trump a seal of approval.

“Whenever Billy Graham showed up at the side of any politician, it provided some sense that the politician was on the right track or doing the right thing,” Balmer said.

Although he doesn’t consider Trump’s evangelical supporters to have equivalent authority as Graham, “nevertheless they do represent that constituency, a constituency that voted for Trump at 81 percent.”

While it may not be surprising that any president would welcome those with whom he agrees more than others, Carlos Malavé, executive director of Christian Churches Together, says Trump risks losing a channel of communication to an important constituency.

“If the president is interested in listening to the wisdom of American Christians in general, he should be open to give access to a broader representation of these leaders,” said Malavé, who hasn’t been able to get a meeting for himself and other anti-poverty advocates.

Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Sanders, who defended the recent prayers for the president at the White House, called those who attended the July 10 gathering “his Faith Advisory Board” who “meet from time to time to speak about issues that are important to that community.” Johnnie Moore, an evangelical author and advocate for persecuted Christians who was at the Oval Office gathering, noted the only people who attended were evangelicals.

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