Hoping to solidify his standing with a slightly ill-fitting constituency, Donald Trump announced on Tuesday the creation of an executive council of evangelical leaders to advise his presidential campaign.
Made up of mostly conservative political and religious figures, the council, on the surface, seemed like an attempt to help sand down the rough edges of a candidate known more for for appearances in the tabloids than in the pew. But Tuesday’s announcement also exposed deep philosophical rifts with the evangelical community that Trump must contend with as he transitions to the general election campaign.
Members of the council made clear, repeatedly, that they were not endorsing Trump’s campaign, and were merely advising the candidate. Many of them remain at odds with Trump on some of his defining issues and on his rhetoric. One member of the group, in fact, had written in November that it was embarrassing to watch fellow clergy members support Trump — a Facebook post that was quickly unearthed after the advisory board announcement.
The author of that passage, the Rev. Tony Suarez, told HuffPost he probably did it out of desperation (it’s now deleted). Suarez, an executive vice president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, supported Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) for president.
Like others who gathered in New York on Wednesday, Suarez said he remained uncommitted to Trump, even after meeting with the candidate. But he said he saw the creation of the board as a positive step, if only for providing him and others a chance to urge Trump to think and talk differently about certain issues.
“I was very frustrated with Mr. Trump in the fall,” Suarez said. “But in the spirit of reconciliation and believing that everyone deserves a second chance, I’m giving Mr. Trump that opportunity. Okay, you’re talking about building bridges, you say you love Latinos, you want us to love you — then okay, let’s come to the table.”
Trump presents one of more uncomfortable tables for the Christian conservative movement to come to in recent politics. It’s not only his personal story that poses problems, filled as it is with unscrupulous business practices, two tumultuous divorces, and prior liberal leanings on topics like abortion. It’s his current policy portfolio, too. The two immovable pillars of Trump’s presidential campaign are opposition to undocumented immigrants and a fierce rejection of refugees from the Middle East. Those happen to be two of the occasional break points between the religious right and the Republican Party.
These fissures were evident in the composition of Trump’s evangelic advisory board. While attendees shared some of Trump’s more hard-edged views — Robert Jeffress, senior pastor at First Baptist Church of Dallas, for example, has made the case it is the Christian position to deny refugees and immigrants entry to the U.S. — many others had more nuanced takes.
A.R. Bernard, senior pastor and CEO of the Christian Cultural Center, has said that “the Republican Party must develop and pass comprehensive immigration reform.” Ronnie Floyd, senior pastor at Cross Church, has talked about need to be humane to children fleeing Central America. He recently finished his term as president of the Southern Baptist Convention, which last week approved a resolutionencouraging churches to help refugees. In April, Floyd urged the same.
“We need to love them, meet their needs compassionately, but also be more than faithful to present to them the Good News of the Gospel of Jesus Christ,” Floyd said.