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When Ben Carson on March 11, 2016, endorsed Donald Trump and praised him as “very cerebral,” they formed one of the most unlikely political marriages in American history.
Trump had called Carson “a liar” with a “pathological temper.” But that didn’t keep Carson from the Trump endorsement in March: He said he wanted to be “practical.” Trump in turn called Carson a “great man,” “a special person,” and “well-respected.” The retired neurosurgeon now sits in Trump’s Cabinet as secretary of Housing and Urban Development.
But the political bonding had a caveat. Carson wanted to endorse Trump to avoid a brokered convention but decided to strike a deal first: He would endorse Trump if the likely GOP nominee agreed to meet with Texas televangelist James Robison for at least one hour. Carson thought Robison’s forceful evangelism could influence Trump—and Trump welcomed Robison to the Trump Tower on April 13, 2016.
“I felt that James was a person who could really get through to him and give him perspective on the faith community,” Carson told me. “James was somebody very much respected.”
Robison specified to me that Trump descended to the lobby to meet him, that the meeting in Trump’s 26th floor office lasted not 60 but 90 minutes, and that Robison did most of the talking. Robison also said he met often with President Ronald Reagan and both President Bushes, and has now “prayed with Donald Trump more times than I can count and he’s woken me up more than once.”
Now six months into his presidency, Trump doesn’t make early morning calls to Robison as the evangelist says Trump did in 2016. Robison noted that he spent time with Trump on May 4 (when the president signed a religious liberty executive order) and was onstage at Liberty University for Trump’s commencement speech nine days later.
Some evangelicals who hesitated to praise Trump early on—Family Research Council President Tony Perkins, Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, Faith & Freedom Coalition Chairman Ralph Reed, and evangelist Franklin Graham—have also spoken of their closeness to him now. So have some early supporters: Florida megachurch pastor Paula White, Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr., and Southern Baptist pastors Robert Jeffress and Jack Graham. Falwell recently declared on Fox News, “I think evangelicals have found their dream president.”
Perkins told Fox News he went back and forth with the Trump administration for weeks leading up to the religious liberty executive order. Even though some evangelicals, including Perkins, thought it was too watered down, he said Trump’s outreach to Christians has been “music to our ears.”
Trump has also solidified support from some pro-life leaders. Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, said Trump has invited her to the White House seven times. Trump signed a letter last September pledging support for four pro-life hopes: Nominating pro-life justices to the U.S. Supreme Court, signing into law legislation banning late-term abortions, defunding Planned Parenthood, and making the Hyde Amendment permanent law to protect taxpayers from funding abortions. Neil Gorsuch is now on the Supreme Court. The rest require congressional action.
Carson told me it’s fine if Trump doesn’t sound like a Christian as long as he continues to welcome input from Christians and his policies reflect their values.
In May, Franklin Graham and Vice President Mike Pence teamed up for a Washington, D.C., event raising awareness for persecuted Christians. Pence said he, his family, and Trump pray for oppressed Christians around the world. The next day, a tired Graham sat in a mustard-yellow chair in a Mayflower Hotel conference room and said, “I try to avoid this city as much as possible.” I asked Graham about Trump’s faith: “Do you believe Mike Pence when he said Trump prays for persecuted Christians?” Graham responded, “If the vice president said it, I believe it.” He then added regarding Trump, “You’ve asked me about his prayer life. I can’t answer that.”
Twenty years ago, the year before the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke, WORLD interviewed President Bill Clinton’s spiritual advisers and concluded that he “craves acceptance and is spiritually needy, but at the same time is big into self-justification.” Trump has a similar reputation, but Tony Campolo 20 years ago said regarding Clinton, “The idea that someone has to tell him what the gospel is about, is silly.” It’s common for evangelicals, though, to say they have to tell Trump what the gospel is about. Robison said Trump has “a childlike spirit.”
WORLD’s article 20 years ago also quoted ABC’s Peggy Wehmeyer on the political effects of publicized meetings: “Courting the evangelicals can only help Clinton politically. He also gets the gratification of knowing some accept him as a man of faith.” Trump is more dependent politically on evangelicals and displays psychological bonds as well. In June he told the Faith & Freedom Coalition, “We’re under siege.”