(RNS) — For a moment this week, it seemed as if the latest in a long line of President Trump’s political events with evangelical Christian leaders would pass without much notice.
Trump and the first lady hosted an event billed as a celebration of evangelicals’ contributions to our nation. Among the honorees were the Christian leaders who sit on Trump’s unofficial advisory board. What ensued was a political exchange designed to remind an important set of constituents what the president has done for them ahead of the midterm elections.
Normally, when Trump’s evangelical fan club enjoys the perks of presidential access — this occasion was billed as a “state-like dinner” — it hardly merits mention because its unfolding is so predictable: Evangelicals show up to laud the president, who in turn touts his own accomplishments on what supposedly constitutes their political wish list.
But this time the praise session backfired: On Thursday (Aug. 30), Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a watchdog organization, filed a letter asking that the advisory board stop meeting “until it complies with federal sunshine laws.”
“It is clear that the President’s Evangelical Advisory Board is doing substantive work with the Trump administration behind closed doors,” Americans United wrote, “without any sunlight for the public to understand how and why decisions are being made.”
Americans United is alleging, in other words, that what many Americans, including evangelicals, regard as a sin is also against the law.
It’s also a fraud: Many of the gains that Trump reminded his kitchen evangelicals of at dinner on Monday concern religious liberty — a conservative Christian priority in the face of legal and societal embrace of LGBT rights. Even evangelicals dismayed by the president’s appalling behavior and mixed record on international religious freedom have cheered his advocacy on domestic religious liberty protections.
But Trump’s religious outreach seems almost exclusively focused on evangelical Protestants, and especially on those who support him unconditionally. This is problematic in so many ways, but chiefly because it ignores the religious diversity of the nation and the political diversity even within evangelicalism.
It didn’t take Americans United, however, to tell us that Monday’s dinner was transparently a sham. The personage being celebrated, first of all, was not the evangelicals but the president. In remarks before dinner ostensibly about evangelicals’ good works, Trump discussed his own accomplishments between lingering applause for each item he mentioned. Pastor Paula White then gave the Trumps a Bible signed by more than 100 evangelicals, bearing an inscription that read in part, “History will record the greatness that you have brought for generations.”
But after reporters left the room, with the cameras off, Trump reportedly spoke about the upcoming midterm elections. In an audio file leaked to media, Trump is heard asking preachers to use the freedom he has supposedly given them to advocate for Republican candidates from their pulpits.
“I just ask you to go out and make sure all of your people vote. … You’re one election away from losing everything you’ve got.”
To give them courage Trump boasted, as he’s done before, of having stopped the Johnson Amendment, a provision in tax law that forbids congregations from engaging in direct electioneering.
Trump continually misreads the room on the Johnson Amendment. In fact, only an act of Congress can modify or repeal the Johnson Amendment; Trump has only weakened its enforcement. More importantly, few evangelicals are clamoring to endorse candidates from the pulpit.
No matter: In Trump’s mind, this is not a norm that helps protect the integrity of both religion and politics, but rather a power he can restore to a group that can and should use its status as faith leaders to campaign for the Republican Party.
A few in Trump’s evangelical circle seem to have caught on that their access to this White House is a one-way street. Some have privately excused their affiliation with Trump by saying they prefer to ignore the politics and try to help craft better policy when they can, rationalizing that they can do more good with access to the Trump administration than without.
And somewhat to their credit, a few guests evidently recognized the event’s grotesqueness. After all, someone leaked Trump’s private comments to the media.
(Jacob Lupfer, a frequent commentator on religion and politics, is a writer and consultant in Baltimore. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)