Trump's religious dealmaking pays dividends

Nine days before the election, Donald Trump was backstage at a rally in Warren, Michigan, listening to a fiery South Carolina preacher-turned-top surrogate prayerfully predicting victory.

After pastor Mark Burns finished relaying religiously hued reassurances in a private conversation ahead of Trump’s speech, the then-candidate turned to Burns’ wife and offered his own, classically Trumpian expression of faith: He handed her a crucifix necklace made, in typical Trump style, of gold.

“We don’t need a religious president,” said Burns, who was touched by the gift and recounted the story in a recent interview. “We need a president who can build relationships with people.”

And for the New York businessman who prides himself on deal-making aptitude, building relationships — often by making policy promises that go well beyond what previous, more traditionally conservative candidates have pledged — has defined his outreach to the network of previously wary Christian leaders who helped him win the presidency. And now, that transactional cycle seems likely to shape his White House agenda on issues of interest to the religious right.

It’s a strikingly different approach from that of the most recent Republican president, George W. Bush, himself a born-again Christian who wore his faith on his sleeve and communicated about religion far more fluently than Trump does.

But as much as religious conservative leaders respected Bush’s personal evangelical bona fides, they say that Trump — a man who has struggled to articulate his faith principles and is unapologetic about his tabloid-worthy personal life — has made more concrete commitments. They range from his pledge to appoint only Supreme Court justices who oppose abortion rights — a commitment Bush wouldn’t make — to his vow to defund Planned Parenthood.

Trump offered those promises as he sought to shore up more support from the evangelical community during the campaign, and it worked: He ultimately won the support of nearly every politically prominent Christian leader and landed 81 percent of the evangelical vote, a higher percentage than Bush netted in 2004.

“I think that he understood that his best and likely only chance to win the nomination and ultimately the presidency was to compete for and win the support of voters of faith,” said Ralph Reed, chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, who says he considers Trump a friend.

As Trump heads to the White House, the leaders who helped guide his policy promises, lending him credibility with evangelical voters in the process, say he is still keeping them in his orbit as the transition process unfolds, aware of the role their community played in getting him to the presidency in the first place.

The first sign that these leaders will continue to have influence after helping him win: He is keeping intact his evangelical advisory board, according to several members of the group, who say that there continues to be a weekly conference call, facilitated by Pam Pryor, a member of Trump’s transition team with a background in conservative politics, including a stint with Sarah Palin. She was not made available for an interview, and the Trump transition team didn’t respond to detailed requests for comment.

“Mr. Trump evidently told his staff he wanted to keep the advisory board intact, he wanted us to continue to meet, to give him advice, and I will tell you, I have been surprised at the level to which the transition team has solicited our input on personnel,” said Richard Land, a longtime leader in Southern Baptist politics, who said top Trump aide Kellyanne Conway has also checked in with the group since the election.

Members of the board are already making plans to be in Washington for the National Prayer Breakfast, slated for Feb. 2 — less than two weeks after Trump’s inauguration, and likely the first high-profile faith event of Trump’s presidency. There are discussions underway for the board to meet in person in Washington. And they have already been asked by the transition team to provide names for key slots in the administration, including for faith-based offices.

“I will say, having been involved with administrations from Reagan’s forward, this is the most solicitous that any incoming administration has been for input from evangelicals concerning personnel decisions that I’ve experienced,” Land said, going on to add, “It’s come from Pam’s office, and she has said, ‘He’s very grateful for the faith community, he wants your input.’ That didn’t even happen under George W. Bush. They were willing to take our recommendations, but they didn’t actively solicit them three times before inauguration.”

What Trump himself believes, and how he will practice, is a more open question, and one he doesn’t spend much time addressing publicly — and while his evangelical advisers hope he goes to church, they aren’t stressing the issue right now.

Trump has attended church since the election, making a stop at a Presbyterian church in Bedminster, New Jersey, near Trump National Golf Club, late last month. Trump is a Presbyterian, and speculation is already underway over whether, and where, he might go to church regularly in Washington.

He has not yet reached out to National Presbyterian Church, which has a rich political history — Ronald Reagan attended services there, Dwight D. Eisenhower laid a cornerstone there — though the Rev. David Renwick, the senior pastor there, said that while the congregation is politically diverse, theologically the church would align well with the views of many of the conservative members of Trump’s evangelical advisory board.

Marble Collegiate Church, the Manhattan church Trump’s family attended growing up, was more progressive — and Norman Vincent Peale, its pastor for more than 50 years, embraced the same transactional approach Trump has applied to his business, political and religiously political dealings alike, said Gwenda Blair, a prominent biographer of the Trump family.

“I think Norman Vincent Peale is the definition of a kind of transactional religion where it’s all about getting ahead,” said Blair, who has also written about Peale’s effect on the Trumps.

Trump, though no longer a member of Marble Collegiate Church, has repeatedly pointed to Peale — who died in 1993 — as an important part of his spiritual life.

“Norman Vincent Peale’s message was, do whatever it takes to be successful, everything is transactional,” Blair said. “Trump, in more recent times, his appearing in public and holding a Bible and very occasionally saying he’s a man of faith and a churchgoer… it’s been expedient. It may be true, but those have certainly been statements that have been presented pretty transparently, in an expedient way. Everything from obvious unfamiliarity with the Bible to deploying these [displays of faith] only in circumstances considered to be advantageous … only when appearing in front of an audience where that would be especially useful.”

Members of the evangelical advisory board certainly don’t question Trump’s faith, but they tend to be more voluble in describing his policy promises than in the particulars of what he believes. And to them, that’s what matters most.

“I’ve discovered over the last 18 months that President-elect Trump’s faith is very important to him but is also very personal with him, which is why I don’t discuss it publicly,” said Robert Jeffress, the pastor at First Baptist Church in Dallas and another member of Trump’s advisory board. “Like many faith leaders, I’m very encouraged by President-elect Trump’s strong commitment to protecting the religious liberties of Christians, as well as people of all faiths.”

Trump has had deeper conversations about his faith with retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, his pick to head the Department of Housing and Urban Development, sources say (Carson wasn’t available for an interview). But aside from Peale, the other major spiritual influence most frequently cited has been Paula White, a televangelist Trump discovered when he saw her on television. She has been associated with “prosperity gospel,” a controversial doctrine that echoes the transactional nature of Peale’s preaching in emphasizing the belief that God wants people to be successful — and, in the case of prosperity gospel, specifically, rich.

Members of Trump’s evangelical advisory board pointed to White, both during the campaign and recently, when asked about his religious influences. She is also on the council.

“God is not new to Mr. Trump,” she said in an interview with POLITICO over the summer (she wasn’t reachable for a follow-up conversation this week), as she also distanced herself from the “prosperity gospel” label. “He absolutely has a heart and a hunger and a relationship with God.”

Still, publicly, Trump has certainly struggled to express what that relationship looks like. One of his first major perceived gaffes, in the eyes of evangelical leaders, came in the summer of 2015, when at a Christian confab in Iowa he said he had never asked God for forgiveness. At the beginning of this year, he botched the pronunciation of a key Bible verse.

And during a call with his evangelical advisory council, he drew rebukes from members of the board when he got transactional — about going to heaven.

“He said, ‘the only way I’m going to get to heaven is by repealing the Johnson amendment,’” which restricts tax-exempt churches from engaging in political activity, Land recalled. “Immediately, one of our people on the call said, ‘No, sir, the only way you’re going to get to heaven is by trusting Jesus Christ as your personal savior.’ Mr. Trump said, ‘Thank you for reminding me.’”