(Not) Telling Caesar How to Run Rome: President Trump’s Evangelical Advisory Board

By Elizabeth Oldmixon

During the 2016 presidential election campaign, candidate Trump established an evangelical advisory board, ostensibly to provide him with spiritual guidance if and when he became president, and presumably to garner support from evangelical Christians. The board membership includes veteran activists such as Michele Bachman, Robert Jeffress, Richard Land, James Dobson, Jerry Falwell, Jr., and Ralph Reed, as well as religious leaders lacking a well-established political profile. One year into the Trump Administration, it’s interesting to reflect on the board’s standing. It has ingratiated itself at the highest level of government, but at what cost?

Board members have come under scrutiny for aligning with a president who lacks religious literacy and whose personal history evidences certain character issues. Their relationship with the president is especially notable given the way some evangelical leaders banged the “character counts” drum in the 1990s.[1] Irony being dead, however, they support the president. A case in point: after the president’s reaction to the August 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, VA, board member A.R. Bernard resigned, citing “a deepening conflict in values between myself and the administration.” The others board members remained loyal, offering oblique criticism, keeping silent, or expressing outright support. Jerry Falwell, Jr., called the president’s “Very Fine People on Both Sides” statement “bold” and “truthful.”

Johnnie Moore explained the importance of continued access to the administration:

As faith leaders, we have been given an opportunity to speak directly to various members of the administration, to provide not just policy counsel but personal counsel. We’re personally involved in the lives of all these people, praying for all these people, and answering their questions.

Board member Tony Suarez received “a thousand phone calls and emails” regarding the president’s Charlottesville response, but he decided to stay on and wants to work with the president in the same way the prophet Nathan worked with an imperfect King David:

I think there’s this perception that we’re just the amen corner to President Trump. This is a group made up of people with pastoral hearts that will share praise, … but they’ll also share concern…. I don’t see Nathan saying, ‘Oh, you slept with Bathsheba? We’re done, bud. We’re done with you.’ But I do see him call (David) out and say, ‘Thou art the man.’[2]

In light of this, sociologists Khari and Ronald Brown consider the board’s political role and compare it with the role played by civil rights leaders two generations earlier. Does it chiefly provide moral cover for the president’s agenda, or does it lend a prophetic voice to the president’s inner circle? Board members have demurred from challenging the president on issues such as the border “wall” and CHIP funding. Dr. Martin Luther King, by contrast, encouraged religious leaders to “push political leaders to enact policies that respect the dignity of all, as all persons, as children of God, are worthy of such,” even when this meant challenging entrenched political power.

Drs. Brown suggest that the board’s preferences may not reflect evangelical opinion specifically or religious opinion more generally. Even so, I wonder if the Unknownboard’s implicit calculation is that while the president is an imperfect vehicle, he’s a vehicle nonetheless for their policy objectives, narrow though they may be. There’s no doubt that the president has delivered in key areas, including judicial appointments, recognition of Jerusalem (which I’ve written about here and here), and tax reform.

It remains to be seen whether the board will be able to leverage its access to the president into long-term influence over policy. The difficulty is that organized religious interests tend to take principled stands regardless of the political fallout. That gives their efforts weight. Conversely, the board members are engaged in insider transactional politics. At least as far as we know, there’s not much speaking truth to power à la Dr. King. Falwell went so far as to observe that Jesus “never told Caesar how to run Rome.” That’s fair play as far as it goes, but I can’t help but think of de Tocqueville’s observation that:

if [religion] be mixed up with the bitter passions of the world, it may be constrained to defend allies whom its interests, and not the principle of love, have given to it…. The Church cannot share the temporal power of the state without being the object of a portion of that animosity which the latter receives.

In other words, aligning closely with the president may be instrumentally useful, but it can require sacrificing one’s principles. If and when the president’s popularity wanes, the status of the board and its values may be diminished in the eyes of the public. If the board’s hope is to secure broad, enduring influence over American culture and politics, it might do well to remember that.                       

(The original post has been edited to correct a minor typographical error.)

Notes

[1] For example, see Dr. James Dobson’s 1998 letter to his followers on the Clinton Lewinsky scandal.
[2] It’s in this spirit, I guess, that we can interpret Tony Perkins’ suggestion that evangelicals gave President Trump “a mulligan” vis-à-vis his reported affair with Stormy Daniels. Josh Marshall more precisely calls this a “sex mulligan.”


Elizabeth A. Oldmixon is professor of political science at the University of North Texas and editor-in-chief of Politics and Religion. She can be contacted via Twitter. Further information can be found on her personal website.  

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