Donald Trump was a billionaire developer entranced with televangelists when he tuned into a show featuring a Florida preacher who used the Bible to offer business tips. He was so impressed that he called her up.
“You’ve got the ‘It’ factor,” Paula White recalled Trump telling her, and he invited her to come visit him in New York.
This spring, President Trump called on White again to help arrange a White House dinner for 40 evangelical leaders before the National Day of Prayer. White invited some seasoned operatives of the Christian right and other religious leaders she thought Trump would click with — entrepreneurs, entertainers and believers in the prosperity gospel, which emphasizes financial success and is widely rejected by mainstream evangelicals.
On that relaxed early May evening in the Blue Room, their differences did not seem to matter.
“It felt like a family dinner,” White recently recalled.
Trump has sought counsel from evangelical voices since the campaign, when White led an advisory group of about two dozen preachers. The president has been criticized for giving conservative Christian groups unusual access, hearing their views on everything from sex trafficking to prison restructuring. They scored victories with the nomination of Supreme Court Justice Neil M. Gorsuch and with Trump’s decision to impose contraception coverage limits under the Affordable Care Act.
Now, some of the advisers say, Trump intends to establish an official presidential faith initiative, more along the lines of the office created by President George W. Bush and continued under the Obama administration, which would formalize White House relationships with a broader variety of religious groups.
Frank Page, president of the Southern Baptist Convention executive committee, said Trump had benefited from evangelical support and recognized he could build on that momentum “as any good politician would.”
The timeline for the effort is uncertain, and the White House declined to comment. Johnnie Moore, the evangelical group’s coordinator, described it as “a moving target.”
Moore said some pastors who took Trump’s personal cellphone number during the campaign now have the White House on “speed dial.”
Trump’s early alliance with evangelicals did not seem like a natural fit. Several said Trump’s multiple marriages, tabloid lifestyle and intemperate tweeting made them reluctant to meet him.
But throughout his career, Trump drew upon lessons taught by Norman Vincent Peale, the pastor at his boyhood church who preached the “power of positive thinking.”
Trump’s fascination with Christian broadcasting dates back at least to the start of his own foray into the entertainment business in 2004 with the launch of “The Apprentice.”
As ratings for his reality show soared, Trump jetted off to give speeches, filling convention halls with crowds eager to hear his vision for personal success. Trump seemed to adopt some of the televangelists’ speaking strategies, using a soothing cadence that builds to a roar. “It was like a cult,” recalled Jim Dowd, who sometimes traveled with Trump.
“I was awestruck to see him go up on the podium with no script and to be able to deliver his sermon — Trumpology,” Dowd recalled in a 2015 interview. Dowd, who died in 2016, worked on publicity for the show before starting his own company, with Trump as a client.
Trump also reached out to pastors with influential — and often lucrative — TV ministries. Dallas pastor Robert Jeffress described in an interview how Trump called after seeing him on Fox News. In 2013, Trump stopped by Madison Square Garden to hear San Diego megachurch pastor and TV personality David Jeremiah as he launched his new annotated Bible.
Trump’s name was floated among evangelicals as a possible presidential candidate as early as 2011, when Christiane Amanpour interviewed Franklin Graham, Billy Graham’s son and chief executive of a Christian relief group.
“She asked me about [Trump] on camera,” Graham said in an interview. “He called me. He just thanked me for the nice things I said.”
Moore, then a vice president at Liberty University, a private Christian university in Lynchburg, Va., invited Trump to speak to students at a 2012 convocation. Trump called himself “a Christian, and a very proud Christian and a real Christian,” telling students that they, too, could all be “winners.”
As Trump wound up, Jerry Falwell, Jr., Liberty’s president, joined him onstage and asked, “It’s not too late to get back into the presidential race, is it?”
Four years later, when Trump trained his sights on the White House, he arranged a New York meeting in June 2016 to hear the concerns of evangelicals, inviting many of the pastors he had admired on television.
“He was recognizing faces. That was a treat,” said Mark Burns, co-founder of the NOW Television Network, which does Christian programming.
Jentezen Franklin, pastor of a Georgia megachurch, said Trump recalled Norman Vincent Peale’s influence on his early life.
“[Trump] remembered as a kid sitting there and listening to what a great orator [Peale] was,” Franklin recalled.
Trump also shared a political observation about the evangelical world.
“I don’t get you guys,” Franklin recalled Trump saying. “You’ve got the biggest voting bloc, and you guys don’t get together for nothing.”
About one-third of the members of the informal advisory group White helped assemble are from the burgeoning Pentecostal or charismatic movements, which take an emotional rather than intellectual approach to worship.
Some have promoted controversial messages such as the prosperity gospel, which encourages abundant giving to religious causes and teaches that God blesses the faithful with health and wealth.
They “would have been excluded” from previous administrations’ faith groups, said Page, who also served on President Barack Obama’s faith council where the focus, he said, was on “major mainline faith groups.”
Among them are independent Internet-era televangelists such as White, whose marketing reach has been magnified by social media, podcasts and live-streaming.
In their meetings, where the pastors have hammered out stances on issues such as criminal justice and immigration, they say their doctrinal differences scarcely surface.
Burns, whose prominence has soared since he became a Trump campaign surrogate, described in an interview why he thinks the prosperity gospel’s message is key to overcoming political challenges such as social and racial inequalities.
“The way to destroy issues dealing with the color of skin is to overshadow it with the color of green,” said Burns, who is African American. “Money. Money. Prosperity!”
The advisers also say they have come to know a more reflective, curious Trump in private than the boastful public persona familiar from tweets and TV speeches.
White, who rarely gives interviews, said she has seen Trump’s spiritual side and regularly prays with him.
Trump was confirmed a Presbyterian, White said, and “clearly understands salvation and clearly calls himself a believer and a Christian.”
“Was there a point in time when our president prayed and received the Lord as his savior? Yes,” White said.
Trump’s evangelical alliance has not been totally smooth. Ed Stetzer, who holds the Billy Graham Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College, said he declined to join Trump’s original advisory group. “I don’t know that it was helpful for what God was calling me to do,” he said.
Two members left in the wake of public outcries about Trump’s behavior. Chicago-area megachurch pastor James MacDonald resigned before the election, describing Trump as “lecherous and worthless” in a letter to the other members after tapes were released showing Trump bragging about grabbing women’s genitals. New York megachurch pastor A.R. Bernard quit over Trump’s handling of the white supremacist riots in Charlottesville. In an interview, Bernard decried Trump’s lack of “moral compass.”
Some see a Faustian bargain in the ongoing willingness of some of the religious leaders to turn a blind eye to Trump’s flaws. “We must conclude theirs is not just blindness, but a willful blindness to their own seduction,” said Richard Cizik, president of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good.
But James Robison, a televangelist and founder of the inspirational website The Stream, said he has advised the president privately on spiritual matters and described Trump in an interview as “a man who is trying to learn how to love God.”
Critics of Trump’s evangelical board do not all say that creating a formal faith initiative will necessarily broaden the range of views that Trump hears.
“Trump may bring people together who appear to be religiously diverse but are politically monolithic,” said Christopher Leighton, founding director of the Institute for Islamic, Christian & Jewish Studies. The Jewish tradition shows that the best teachers are often people we disagree with, he said. But Trump, he said, may pick leaders who put politics first: “Trump will bring in Orthodox Jews or conservative Roman Catholics who will line up and be willing to place their political loyalties over a broader concern for the integrity and coherence of their theological traditions.”
Board members of any new faith outreach program will have to ask themselves the question that is hanging over the president’s evangelical advisers, Stetzer said:
“Is it helpful or hurtful to be this close to President Trump?”