President Donald Trump’s evangelical backers want to meet with him this summer—but not to address any recent scandals, according to most of the organizers of the meeting who have so far talked about the proposed gathering. The meeting date isn’t set, and the president hasn’t agreed to come. But after the year he’s had, just the idea of Trump sitting in a room with a bunch of pastors has caused a stir.
Last week, NPR quoted an anonymous organizer of the meeting who was concerned about the effect the president’s recent legal troubles might have on turnout in the midterm elections. Tony Perkins, director of the Family Research Council and a loyal Trump supporter, shot back on his blog, insisting the meeting would not address any scandalous accusations. It would instead pose a discussion on “what has happened on the shared issues of concern since January of last year.” Perkins recently told Politico that in his opinion, Trump could have a “mulligan” on an alleged affair with an adult film actress.
Penny Nance, leader of Concerned Women for America and a strong supporter of Trump, described the meeting as something like a pep rally.
“The point is to thank him for following through on every single one of his promises to conservative Christians … to encourage him to continue with all the judicial appointments,” she told me.
This is not the first time Trump’s evangelical supporters have gathered large numbers of pastors to meet with the president. In a show of support prior to the 2016 election, the same group invited pastors and other prominent evangelicals to a meeting with Trump in New York City.
So why ask 1,000 pastors to fly in from across the country to give the president a large, public “thank you,” rather than focus that time on Capitol Hill lobbying efforts?
“We’ll do both,” said Nance. “But you have to work in coordination with the White House. Congress has to get the message from both the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue and the grassroots. The president is a very strong ally with the grassroots on these issues.”
But that hasn’t translated into any legislative victories. Although the president’s party controls both chambers of Congress, lawmakers recently passed an omnibus spending bill that continues to fund abortion giant Planned Parenthood, prompting harsh criticism from conservatives and evangelical Christians.
Despite strong support for the president among Republican voters, party leaders are worried about the president’s future should the Democrats regain control of the House. Another meeting organizer told NPR that Trump’s evangelical backers would encourage pastors to push their congregations to vote in the midterm elections.
“The issue for the House is impeachment of the president,” Nance said. “If we support the president, we support his policies, we believe him to be the bodyguard for conservative Christians, then we need to support him.” Nance isn’t the only one bringing up impeachment. The New York Times recently reported on ways Republicans are using the idea as a campaign tool, a looming threat to motivate the base in a year when Trump is not on the ballot.
But many evangelicals still want the church to push back on Trump’s moral lapses. Conservative activist Bob Vander Plaats told The Washington Post that people of faith could cheer the president on for doing the right thing while still keeping him accountable—that they can “walk and chew gum at the same time.”
Trump’s approval rating among Republicans remains sky-high—85 percent in March. But his overall approval hovers at 41 percent. Historically, anything less than 40 percent spells trouble for a president’s party in midterm elections. —L.F.