The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump faith advisers condemn insurrection, but say benefits of presidency will last longer than ‘controversies’

Evangelical leaders pray with President Trump in the Oval Office in September 2017. (Evan Vucci/AP)
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Faith advisers to President Trump are condemning this week’s riot at the U.S. Capitol, but few were willing to blame the president for inciting it, saying their partnership with him over the past four years was worth it despite the president’s flaws.

By Friday, with the growing numbers of members of Trump’s Cabinet quitting and former staffers calling for his removal, some prominent conservative evangelicals outside the Trump advisory group were criticizing the president in unusually sharp terms.

“Mr. President, people are dead. The Capitol is ransacked. There are 12 dangerous days for our country left. Could you please step down and let our country heal?” tweeted Russell Moore, head of the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention. Southern Baptists, the country’s largest Protestant denomination, overwhelmingly lean conservative and voted for Trump.

Jason Allen, president of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary — one of the convention’s six seminaries — tweeted that Wednesday’s riot was not comparable to Black Lives Matter-related disobedience last year. This was instigated, he wrote, by the president and mingled nooses and Confederate flags with crosses. “God help us.”

But members of Trump’s advisory group, who won unprecedented evangelical access to the White House, said they didn’t regret putting a Christian imprimatur on his administration.

Ralph Reed, a longtime Christian conservative activist who was part of the loosely organized faith group, tweeted Wednesday that the Capitol scene “does not represent our movement or the cause of Christ.” Asked if the president was responsible, Reed said Trump’s subsequent call for peace and civil order and a peaceful transition speak for themselves.

Influential Dallas mega-preacher Robert Jeffress, one of Trump’s early prominent evangelical backers and a member of his advisory group, tweeted Wednesday that “disobeying and assaulting police is a sin, whether it’s done by Antifa or angry Republicans.”

In an interview Thursday, he said leaders who support Trump have a responsibility to separate and condemn the nationalistic messages that are common at Trump events. “Storming the Capitol and doing so with ‘Jesus Saves’ signs is blasphemy. It is despicable and has nothing to do with the gospel.”

But when asked about Trump’s role in the riot, Jeffress swerved: “I think there is election fraud in every election. Was there enough in this election to sway it to Biden? I don’t know enough. I try to stay with what I know about.”

Despite the events of Wednesday, both Jeffress and Reed were unequivocal in their praise of Trump’s presidency overall. Jeffress said: “No conservative president has done more than Donald Trump to champion Christian values. He has done more in the pro-life, pro-religious liberty, pro-Israel with moving the Embassy — no one has been more vocal. … I don’t regret for one minute supporting him.”

“Did LBJ’s mistakes in Vietnam delegitimize the historic civil rights achievements he made with Martin Luther King? Should King have not worked with LBJ because he was a profane man and a philanderer? I think not. King spoke truth to power and he worked with unlikely allies to advance his cause. It led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, which changed race relations more than anything since Reconstruction,” Reed said in an interview Thursday. “Presidents, politics and even policies will come and go. They are transitory. But the values and achievements and aspirations of a social reform movement are lasting and enduring.”

To the White evangelicals who advised Trump, their blessing of his presidency is just part of a decades-long movement to secure social conservatism’s legal place and power. Along the way, in their mind, they have dealt with flawed politicians in a system they see as inherently amoral. A transactional approach that focuses on laws and policies — rather than a broad prophetic one that includes other crucial scriptural issues such as poverty, immigration and honesty — is justified, some of them said.

“Most conservative evangelicals, the things they care about [when it comes to the presidency] are all things that arose in the past 50 years out of the judiciary: the legalization of abortion, the redefinition of marriage,” Jeffress said. “And the common element of his successes has been the promise of a conservative judiciary. We believe policies influence the direction, both moral and spiritual, of the country, and he has succeeded in fulfilling those promises.”

Jeffress and Reed don’t think American Christianity paid a moral cost, even as other evangelical leaders — such as Russell Moore, who was not an adviser to Trump — spoke out in unusually forceful words. The vast majority of White evangelicals voted for Trump, though no prominent faith leaders — including members of Trump’s advisory group — appeared at rallies in D.C. this week for the president.

“I don’t think he’s done anything to change the witness of Christians. Our message has remained the same. It’s not about pro-life policies, it’s about the gospel,” Jeffress said.

Reed said the advisers’ wins are moral — such as Trump’s creation of a team at the Department of Health and Human Services that expanded conscience exemptions for religious conservatives opposed to supporting contraception or LGBTQ equality. The advisers hope the judges Trump selected will revisit or overturn Roe v. Wade.

“Should the Supreme Court revisit Roe v. Wade, it will only be because of Trump’s picks, and that will be of lasting historical significance and transcends personality and politics. I’m playing the long game, as any smart social reformer does,” Reed said.

The past four years have also given White evangelicals — including segments unaccustomed to political power, such as charismatic and Pentecostal figures like Paula White — credibility by placing them up and down the administration ladder, from Vice President Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson and former education secretary Betsy DeVos to sub-Cabinet appointees and senior staff.

That may be the most substantial gain, Reed said, for a group that has been working since Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson in the 1970s to attain cultural and political influence.

Reed said: “Ironically, a president without a history of working with evangelicals ended up being the vehicle to both credential and empower more conservative Christian policymakers. Those individuals are now credentialed and will be ready to serve future Republican presidents.”

The attempted insurrection at the Capitol seemed to give at least one Trump faith adviser real pause — or a kind of pause. Mike Evans, an author and Zionist activist, on Friday said evangelicals are in a “Dietrich Bonhoeffer moment,” referring to a German Lutheran pastor and Nazi critic who was executed in the 1940s for anti-Hitler activism. Evans said he wasn’t equating Trump with Hitler, but rather was thinking of the German icon who said Christianity requires speaking truth to power.

Evans cited Bonhoeffer’s famed quote: “Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession.”

Evans feels Trump changed the Middle East for the better by moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and moving along detentes between Israel and Gulf states. He voted for Trump in hopes the president would help get Roe v. Wade overturned in a second term. Working with him was “absolutely” worth it, he said.

Over the years, he said, the “moral dilemmas started to become a tsunami,” with Wednesday as its peak. The Capitol riot, which Evans said Trump incited through spreading untruths about election cheating, is in another category because “it struck at the heart of democracy.”

“We evangelicals are in a painful predicament. On the one hand, we think the world of the president and his policies because he’s been astonishingly good to us. On the other hand, we have based our own whole life on truth and the word of God,” Evans said. “He gave us a seat at the table. He honored us like we’ve never been honored, so I have nothing but gratitude for that. But [Wednesday] has put us in a moral dilemma.”

Johnnie Moore, an author and religious freedom advocate who served as the unofficial spokesman for the advisers, said the events at the Capitol were “inexcusable and in some cases criminal,” and that he had told the White House of “my dissatisfaction with the President’s role in it.”

However, Moore wrote in an email to The Post, his appreciation for Trump and his administration’s achievements isn’t changed.

“I think of unprecedented efforts to promote religious freedom abroad, the sanctioning of countless human rights abusers in countries like China and Iran, the First Step Act here and the Abraham Accords in the Middle East,” he said.

Engaging with presidents is a “mixed bag,” Moore wrote, but it’s a responsibility — a “moral duty.”

“I’m well aware that it may be misunderstood. I’m just fine with that,” he wrote.