President Trump’s evangelical advisers are planning a meeting between him and as many as 1,000 evangelical pastors later this spring, according to one of the leading advisers, Johnnie Moore, and several other people involved. The meeting will fall at a time when some prominent evangelical leaders are nervous that a dramatically lower number of conservative Christian voters will turn out for this fall’s midterm elections, as a president embraced by evangelical voters is enmeshed in a high-profile sex scandal.
The group organizing the pastors’ meeting with Trump consists primarily of white evangelicals, who have had regular access to the White House during Trump’s term unlike other U.S. faith groups. The details of the gathering, which was first reported by NPR, aren’t nailed down, but several people who have had discussions about attending the event say that the Trump International Hotel in June has been proposed as a venue and time.
Most of the pastors who would be invited are supporters of Trump’s positions on abortion, Israel and churches’ ability to endorse political candidates. But some of these evangelical leaders say that recent implications of sexual immorality have cast a shadow among “values voters” over the administration’s policy achievements — especially the claim by porn star Stormy Daniels that she was paid off by Trump’s lawyer to keep quiet about her alleged affair with Trump.
Florida megachurch pastor Paula White, one of the organizers of the summit, said the plan is to celebrate the president’s accomplishments and identify priorities for the future. White said in a text message that there has been “zero talk” about Daniels.
Moore, a spokesman for the unofficial group of evangelical advisers who visit Trump at the White House, said he has sat in on several meetings about planning the gathering. “I’m certain there wouldn’t be this quizzing of the president on various things. If anything, I think it would be a celebration of the various policy achievements of this administration,” he said. “The administration, from the perspective of religious liberty and the sanctity of human life, has achieved so much, so quickly.”
The meeting appears to be an effort to keep the bond close between Trump and this particular slice of U.S. evangelical leadership – to show him deference and praise while reminding him of their priorities, and to make a public splash the way a similar meeting did in early 2016, ostensibly to remind American Christians that there are hundreds of pastors who say Trump deserves their vote.
At the 2016 gathering, when Trump met with pastors in New York City, he promised he would end a ban on churches’ ability to endorse candidates and would appoint antiabortion Supreme Court justices. During that meeting, pastors had a chance to ask the then-candidate questions.
There is a range of opinions among participating pastors about what should take place during this meeting. Some said the meeting is mainly about praising the president and thanking him, and there are no plans to mention the words “Stormy Daniels.” Others said Christian conservatives behind the scenes are panicked that evangelical voters, discouraged by sex scandal stories, will lose enthusiasm for voting in the 2018 midterm elections.
Bob Vander Plaats, the president of conservative group the Family Leader in Iowa, who has been asked to serve on a committee for the meeting, said Trump has done more for evangelicals than any other administration in recent history. But news events threaten to cloud Trump’s accomplishments and cause people “angst,” he said. He listed stories about Daniels, former Playboy model Karen McDougal’s allegations of an affair with the president and the ongoing Russia investigation. He also criticized Trump’s profanity in his recent comments railing against the mainstream media, when the president called NBC’s “Meet the Press” host Chuck Todd a “sleeping son of a b—h.”
“We’re in this environment of unease, definitely among evangelicals. But it’s broader than that,” he said, saying he thinks it could affect the midterm elections.
He said if Trump were to confess to an affair and say he’s sorry if he’s guilty, the country would be forgiving.
“As people of faith, we should cheer him on when he does right,” he said. “But when he goes outside the boundaries, when he needs a voice of accountability, we also need to be a voice of accountability. We can walk and chew gum at the same time.”
White evangelicals have been among Trump’s most loyal voters, and polls suggest they continue to strongly support him. According to a Pew Research Center survey conducted March 7 to 14, 78 percent of them approve of his job performance, about double what Americans as a whole say of the president’s job performance.
Moore said that Daniels’s allegations have not changed evangelicals’ strongly positive approval of Trump and his presidency. He declined to say if any evangelical leaders have discussed the affair with Trump in their pastoral capacity, but he said that in their role as political advisers, he is not aware that any of them have brought it up on their frequent visits to the White House.
Trump’s evangelical supporters are not surprised by any licentiousness in his past, Moore said. “There wasn’t any kind of illusion of piety,” he said. “[The evangelical vote] was a conversation about policy priorities that they thought were moral and were righteous.”
Evangelical leaders have praised Trump for several moves they had hoped for, including appointing Neil M. Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, nominating conservative judges to appeals courts and announcing that he would move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.
Penny Young Nance, president of Concerned Women for America, who has participated in organizing meetings for the gathering, said there might be some “sidebar conversations” about the president’s alleged affairs, but it would not be the focus of the gathering.
Nance said that when the Access Hollywood tapes came out, showing Trump describing his attempt to seduce a married women and speaking in crude terms, she thought he was going to lose the election. But voters knew what they were getting and still elected him.
“In a weird way, that [tape] helps him,” she said. “It’s not the shock and awe you’d expect because so much came out in advance. … He’s not a Bible-banging evangelical. He doesn’t pretend to be one of us. People appreciate that.”
Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Dallas, said that the evangelicals he’s speaking with are not talking about the president’s sex life. Instead, he said, people are upset with Congress for continuing to fund Planned Parenthood and not providing funding for the border wall.
“The fact that Trump has a past was already baked into the equation when people voted in November,” he said.
But some evangelical leaders do say the recent focus on Trump’s alleged affairs could be damaging in the upcoming election.
“I think seeing pornographic actresses being with the president could indeed suppress the evangelical vote,” said Ed Stetzer, executive director of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College. “In my circles, people want to live in a world where the president and a porn star are not on the news every night. I really don’t want to explain again to my middle-school daughter what spanking and the president have to do with one another.”
Chad Connelly, who led faith engagement for the Republican Party for five years, said that many evangelicals believe the media failed to investigate President Bill Clinton’s indiscretions as vigorously as they have pursued Trump’s past. “They see hypocrisy, and it makes them want to defend the guy,” he said.
But Connelly, who runs the ministry Faith Wins that aims to get Christians to participate in politics, is concerned about the midterm elections, where he sees enthusiasm lacking among conservative voters. “The enthusiasm gap is very real,” he said. “We take people for granted.”
Evangelical voters made up about a quarter of the electorate in the 2016 election, and David Lane, who does get-out-the-vote activism among conservative Christian voters, said he believes that number could be cut by at least half this year. But he said that the Daniels story doesn’t dissuade voters because it happened 12 years ago. “If he were to do something stupid and sinful and we find out he’s pulling that stuff in the White House? It’s over,” he said.
Ahead of the midterms, Lane said he’s focused on states where Trump performed well: Missouri, Indiana, North Dakota, Montana and West Virginia. Recently he helped organize a pastors’ gathering in Missouri that featured popular Christian speakers Eric Metaxas, Os Guinness and David Barton.
“With evangelicals, you don’t have to tell them how to vote,” he said. “They’re conservatives — they know how to vote. The problem is getting them out.”