The first part of this post is a roundup of information including a partial list of which "evangelical leaders" attended a meeting with Trump at the White House, and the second part of this post is a theological reflection on whether a Christian should attend such a meeting.
Summary of what happened and who attended
Last night Donald Trump met with some "evangelical leaders" at the White House. Many of those who attended have been vocal Trump boosters. Those include especially Franklin Graham, Jerry Falwell Jr., Robert Jeffress, Eric Metaxas, and Paula White.
We see at the end of the transcript that there was a presentation by Paula White of a Bible signed by a number of pastors and with a flattering inscription for the president. (J.D. Greear reports that he did not know about this, nor sign it).
The Christian Post interviewed Jack Graham and James Dobson about what occurred during the open mic time.
Jack Graham, the senior pastor at Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas, who has served as president of the Southern Baptist Convention, told The Christian Post that Trump opened up the mic during dinner to allow evangelical leaders in the room to speak their minds.
What ensued, Graham said, was about 35 to 40 minutes of pastors expressing their appreciation for what the Trump administration has been able to do to progress a socially conservative agenda in the last 18 months. While Christians are often called to speak "truth to power," Graham said the leaders in the room felt called to speak "love to power."
"They were getting up and saying what we appreciate and care about, expressing our faith and our love. It was very similar to a meeting that you would have at a church," Graham said, adding that it was like a testimony meeting. "With that many preachers and Christian leaders in the room, we believe the spirit of God was very present. Scripture was shared, verses were given to the president. The truth was delivered and love was delivered."
However, some who spoke during the open mic session warned that evangelicals must keep up the "vigilance" because a negative outcome in the 2018 midterm elections could put the gains of Trump's first 18 months in jeopardy.
"We need to maintain our vigilance in the upcoming days. The concern is that this is a spiritual warfare, this is a battle and ultimately battle is won on our knees," Graham said. "It is very clear, we voiced to the president that we need to pray, pray for him, pray for our country."
Graham noted that many prayers were offered throughout the night.
In a statement provided to CP, Dr. James Dobson, the founder of Focus on the Family and Family Talk radio, said the dinner was "wonderful" and unlike any event he has attended at the White House before.
"I have served five presidents in the past 38 years and this was perhaps the most exciting event in that time," Dobson said. "The president spoke first and thanked us generously for the support we have given to him and his Administration since his inauguration. At least 15 ministers and leaders then rose to thank Mr. Trump for keeping his promises during the campaign and since his inauguration."
Franklin Graham was photographed at the podium so he seems to have spoken.
Greg Laurie says he gave the final prayer.
On the afternoon of the day after the dinner, there were reports from the New York Times and NBC News about a leaked recording of Trump speaking to the group after the media left. Robert Jeffress responded.
Here is an attempt at a partial list of who attended based on photos and reports
"Before the dinner, Trump met privately with a small handful of evangelical leaders and their wives." These people are listed first in bold.
- Jack Graham
- (and Deb)
- Franklin Graham
- (who attended with daughter Cissie Graham Lynch)
- Jerry Falwell Jr.
- (Becki Falwell)
- Tim Clinton
- Paula White-Cain
- son of Paula White
- Robert Jeffress
- Greg Laurie
- (and Cathe)
- Eric Metaxas
- J. D. Greear
- Ronnie Floyd
- Samuel Rodriguez
- Kenneth Copeland
- (and Gloria)
- Jim Garlow
- Darrell Scott
- (Belinda Scott)
- Malachi O'Brien
- Jentezen Franklin
- Robert Morris,
- (and Debbie)
- James Robison
- (and Betty)
- Marcus Lamb
- Joni Lamb
- Darryl Strawberry
- (Traci Strawberry)
- Harry Jackson
- David Crank
- Timothy M. Hill
- James Dobson
- (and Shirley)
- Johnnie Moore
- Ralph Reed
- (and Jo Anne)
- Gary L Bauer
- Tony Perkins
- Kelly Shackelford
- Tim Wildmon
- Michele Bachmann
- Alveda King
- Lester Warner
- Donald Trump
- Melania Trump
- Ivanka Trump
- Jared Cushner
- Ivanka Trump
- Mike Pence
- Karen Pence
- Sarah Sanders
- Kellyanne Conway
- Ben Carson
- Alex Azar
- Sam Brownback
Corrections and additions welcome. See photos linked to below to identify additional people.
Sources for attendance:
- See White House photos and FLOTUS photos These photos are high quality and you can see a lot of the people who I do not recognize.
- Emily McFarlan Miller's Twitter moment.
- John Fea, who coined the term "court evangelicals," and profiled many of them in his new book Believe Me also identified some attenders.
- David Brody's reporting.
- Others tweeted photos from the evening
- Warren Throckmorton helped me add some more (Added 8/31/2018).
- Tim Wildmon Facebook (Added 8/31/2018).
- Here is an RNS January 2018 article about people who were involved in similar meetings with Trump. I don't know if any of them were at this meeting: Jennifer Korn, Mac Brunson, Skip Heitzig, Tony Suarez, Rodney Howard-Browne, Frank Page, Mark Burns, Jordan Easley, A.R. Bernard, Eric Thomas, Gary Frazier, Mac Brunson, Danny Forshee, Jay Strack, Michael Brown, David McKinley, Stephen Rummage, Dave Stone.
- Someone would be welcome to look up the position / title, education, organization / church, denomination, and location for each person and I would add it to the above names. There are a lot of SBC (Southern Baptist Convention) people and people from independent churches.
See also this Twitter thread by Jack Jenkins the following day for additional things he thinks are important to note.
Reflection on whether someone should go to a meeting like this between evangelicals and Trump
I share the information above because there has been much dialogue on Twitter today about whether or not someone should accept an invitation to the White House. Many Christians say, "Yes! We can be a good influence in the meeting and speak up stating our concerns. What's wrong with going to a meeting? We want our leaders to be using their positions to use their influence." However, there are a couple of questions to be put to this.
(1) Will there really be dialogue and discussion? The person responds, "Yes, while they were chatting and mingling, I'm sure they raised important issues with the president and with one another. There was an open mic time too." But, by watching the video and seeing the Twitter photos and learning about the president's remarks and hearing that all of the 15 remarks during the open mic time were what Jack Graham called an appreciation for what the Trump administration has accomplished, there are no traces of vigorous discussion. Moreover, there are troubling things that the president and Paula White said that a Christian likely would want to probe further if this was a meeting that was designed for discussion. I know people have trouble imagining turning down an invitation to the White House but note that some sports teams have done just that because they did not want to endorse or associate with the president and there would not be opportunity for a give-and-take discussion. It is an honor to be asked to share your opinion in a meeting with the president; it is another to be invited to be a prop giving him a standing ovation or praying with him.
(2) A second question to ask is "Who is coming and what does that tell us about the nature of the meeting?" It is important to note that this meeting was not designed for religious leaders, Republican religious leaders, Democratic and Republican evangelical leaders, Roman Catholic and Protestant Christian leaders, Republican evangelical leaders. This is not the National Prayer Breakfast. This is rather some of the only pastors who have been publicly supportive of Donald Trump--along with some other religious right activists. There are many evangelical leaders who are publicly non-partisan or even Republican who were not invited because they have at some point spoken up against things President Trump has done. Surely there are others who decided that one week after Michael Cohen testified under oath that he paid off porn stars at the direction of Trump, it would be inappropriate to accept Trump's offer of a gift of a party thrown on behalf of evangelicals. Though this was planned months ago, clearly the plan was to solidify Donald Trump's support with "the evangelicals" for political purposes. This became absolutely clear when the leaked audio of the private time with the leaders was released. The president made clear in his remarks to the leaders to ignore traditional restrictions about advocating for specific candidates from the pulpit and to urge the election of Republicans because if the Democrats were to take over "violence" would occur.
It should also be noted at this point that the figures present at the White House do not represent evangelicals. Few who were present have ever been thought of as a nation-wide evangelical leader. Franklin Graham for awhile was respected for his organization Samaritan's Purse but his consistent advocacy for Republican ideology has weakened that respect in other parts of evangelicalism. James Dobson was once an influential voice on parenting matters as the founder of Focus on the Family but he has been retired for a number of years. (Samuel Rodriguez is another possible national leader but I have investigated his background in this thread in May when he last appeared at the White House and have some questions. May 27, 2019: I see he is no longer on the Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary despite his bio though he is still on Christianity Today's and NAE's. See also a new thread from July 2019 about Samuel Rodriguez). J. D. Greear is legitimately an influential leader as the head of the Southern Baptist Convention but he has distanced himself from the meeting today. Ronnie Floyd and Jack Graham are also past SBC presidents. Jack Graham, Floyd, Greear, along with Jeffress and Garlow are the only ones I saw with a seminary degree. This is subjective but the other figures that we have heard about thus far are not well-known, respected voices in evangelicalism. These are not writers of influential books, leaders of large congregations, denominational officials, people who sit on boards of respected institutions, professors, publishers, editors, and people with a respected educational background. Some like Robert Jeffress, Jerry Falwell Jr., and Paula White have become famous through their association with Trump rather than being well-known before it. Typically respected leaders within evangelicalism do not latch on to campaigning for a specific candidate or even to a specific party. Rather, they criticize and praise both Republican and Democratic politicians. The most obvious example of this is the National Association of Evangelicals which literally advocates on issues around which there is an evangelical consensus. The people invited were not invited because they were recognized as a highly respected leader by evangelicals. Rather, they were invited because they have expressed support for Trump.
So, why do some "evangelical leaders" work with President Trump? Evangelicals who support Trump tend to argue quite explicitly that they are using a flawed instrument (Donald Trump) to get what they want done. They may also admit that he is using them. They primarily want conservative judges because they want to slow the drift of cultural norms that permit abortion, gay marriage and adoption, and other GLBTQ rights. They worry that all hell is breaking loose. The more thoughtful Republican concern is with religious freedom where there is fear that society and the government will impose more and more restrictions on Christians practicing their faith how they wish (such as not discriminating against GLBTQ equality in hiring). These Republicans supporters of Trump approve of the way Trump is appointing who he is told to appoint by evangelical and Roman Catholic advisors like Leonard Leo and facilitated by Don McGahn (update: who it was announced 8/29 (two days after the meeting with evangelicals) is leaving the White House). It is for this reason that many evangelicals voted for Donald Trump (in this sense just a generic Republican who would appoint conservative judges) over Hillary Clinton (a generic Democratic appointee who would appoint liberal judges). This group is strongly tempted to embrace an ethic that says: the ends justify the means. They define the ends as conservative judges and any means Trump uses that leads to that end deserves their support and cheers. They may argue that Joseph assisted Pharaoh (though of course eventually Moses protested against a later Pharaoh's brutality and injustice). They may also argue that they are like Esther speaking up to the king though they are certainly only being listened to about one issue (conservative justices).
So what is the critique of Trump-boosters by other evangelicals? Evangelical critics of this approach think that the ends defined here as "conservative justices" are much too narrow or short-sighted and the means being employed are the exact opposite of what Jesus teaches. They argue that the "common good" is a better end. It focuses on the good of everyone rather than retaining white evangelical values of the past in society. They are appalled about the values, behavior, and many other policies of Donald Trump. They are very concerned that "evangelicals" are being associated with these immoral aspects of Donald Trump. They worry about what this pact with Trump is doing to the reputation of evangelicals and Christians. Moreover, it is also possible that utilizing wrong means will do long-term damage to the long-term ends. For example, it is possible that the number of abortions may not be reduced or religious liberty stabilized if one pursues these ends with any means necessary. There is likely to be a vicious backlash.
So does that mean that a Christian never attends a dinner at the White House? It seems to me that one answer is from an obscure passage in 1 Corinthians 10. The apostle Paul writes,
27 If an unbeliever invites you to a meal and you want to go, eat whatever is put before you without raising questions of conscience.28 But if someone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice [to an idol],” then do not eat it, both for the sake of the one who told you and for the sake of conscience.
Christians are to eat with outsiders when there is a sincere exchange of ideas (1 Cor 10:27) but not if the person is trying to get you to celebrate an idol (1 Cor 10:28).
If the person is naive or intrigued about a conversation, when there is a budding friendship, then engage in the dialogue. They can try to persuade you. You can try to persuade them. Yes, Jesus ate with sinners, prostitutes, and tax collectors.
However, if the person is trying to bribe you or use you to cover over corruption, you should decline to participate. First Corinthians 10:28 is a biblical admonition against being a pawn if someone is trying to ceremonially use you. A vivid depiction of this is Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego refusing to bow to the idol in Daniel 3. You assert the truth and what is right like Daniel, Esther, and Nehemiah did. John the Baptist criticized Herod the tetrach's behavior and lost his head for it. We are not to fall for the offer of power and influence.
23 When you sit to dine with a ruler,
note well what is before you,
2 and put a knife to your throat
if you are given to gluttony.
3 Do not crave his delicacies,
for that food is deceptive.
My point is the evangelicals should seek to understand when and how they truly can engage in dialogue and influence the Trump administration. However, they should also make clear that they do not support things that are demonstrably unJesuslike.
See also my more recent post: