Pastor Jentezen Franklin looked at President Donald Trump across his desk in the Oval Office last week and made an impassioned plea for empathy.
For several minutes, Franklin, leader of a multiethnic megachurch near Atlanta, pressed Trump to understand the plight of the hundreds of thousands of young immigrants who had been brought to the United States illegally by their parents, received legal status under the Obama administration and now feared that Trump would order their deportation.
“I know these kids,” Franklin recalled telling Trump.
“They are good kids?” Trump asked, according to Franklin.
“Yes, sir,” Franklin said he replied. “They are.”
Then the pastor, a father of five, noted the president’s love for his own kids. “I want to see that kind of heart toward these children,” Franklin said he urged.
The extraordinary meeting represented an opportunity for Franklin and a handful of black, Hispanic and white evangelical pastors to describe to the president the racial tensions they know, three weeks after Charlottesville, Virginia, and just days before the president’s anticipated Tuesday announcement of a delayed rollback of the program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. It also illustrates why Franklin and other members of an evangelical advisory board formed during last year’s campaign have decided to remain by Trump’s side despite widespread calls for them to resign after his response to the white supremacist demonstrations.
Some corporate leaders took public stands against Trump and resigned from advisory boards, but the evangelicals have been conspicuous in their choice to stay put. One quit. But, for the most part, the group remains intact — with its members committed to using their direct access to the president to pursue their agendas.
Franklin said he doesn’t think Trump is racist — but he feels that had he resigned in protest over Charlottesville, he would not have been there to make the case for young immigrants.
“If I resign every time [the president] does something I don’t agree with, then I lose the ability to have influence and speak up for the ‘dreamer’ children [and] the minorities that feel offended and hurt by the Charlottesville incident,” he said.
Bishop Harry Jackson, an African-American pastor from Beltsville, Maryland, who has spoken out against abortion and same-sex marriage, said he sees his role on the board partly to influence others on issues such as criminal justice that are important to the black community.
“That is why I am supposed to be there,” said Jackson, who was among the pastors who saw Trump in the Oval Office on Friday. “I believe I am affecting other people on that board.”
Unlike previous presidents’ faith advisers, who often spanned denominations, Trump’s board is exclusively evangelical. It started out as a mix of 25 pastors that included Southern Baptists, prosperity gospel preachers and lobbyists for social conservative causes with different political priorities, but who share opposition to same-sex marriage and abortion. Among them were two women, three African Americans and one Hispanic. Many of them were known to Trump largely because they were fixtures on television.
The group formed after a June 2016 Trump Tower meeting as Trump was seeking to solidify his hold on the GOP’s core supporters.
A few cracks in the board began to become apparent after Charlottesville.
Some of the group’s staunchest Trump backers, such as Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr., stepped forward to defend the president. Many issued statements on social media condemning racism but without mentioning the president.
An African-American member quit. A.R. Bernard, who runs a large church in Brooklyn, New York, said he had been willing, at first, to overlook Trump’s flaws — but that the president failed to grow into his new role.
“I believed he would understand the need to change and to present himself as a leader, to model leadership,” Bernard said of his decision to stay on the board after the release last fall of the tape in which Trump boasted about grabbing women’s genitals. But, if pastors put confidence in politicians that should be placed in God, he said, “we can become guilty of political idolatry.”
In private, some members began to debate how to handle the situation. The group convened a conference call “to make sure we were on the same page” recalled South Carolina televangelist Mark Burns in a recent interview, likening his role to that of a modern-day Daniel — “a voice of God in the ear of the king.”
Some said they felt that remaining on the board was the Christian thing to do — to stick with a man in times of trouble.
“I work with fallen people,” said Jackson, adding that few of his congregants have questioned his decision.
For many, there is a pragmatic reason to stand with Trump. The president won the election with the support of 81 percent of white evangelicals. His victory came during what several board members describe as an “existential crisis” in their communities as social conservatives have seen their influence declining and their values threatened by the public’s embrace of gay rights. Today, they are standing by the man who promised to reverse those trends and took quick steps to do so, first with his pick of religious conservative Mike Pence as vice president, then, after the election, with his nomination of socially conservative Judge Neil Gorsuch for the Supreme Court.
Tony Suarez, executive vice president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, called Gorsuch a “home run for evangelicals.”
Richard Land, a longtime Southern Baptist leader who said he has worked with every president since Ronald Reagan, said Trump has granted board members “the most access we’ve had to an administration in our lifetime.”
“We are not lemmings,” warned Robert Jeffress, a TV host and pastor of a 13,000-member Dallas church, confirming the transactional nature of the relationship. He will always count Trump as a friend, Jeffress said, but his public alliance rests on the president’s commitment to key policies: “If he ever renounced or returned on these major positions, I think he would see a lot of support evaporate.”
In forming the board last year, organizers looked for “people [Trump] had a preexisting relationship with, or at least some chemistry,” recalled Johnnie Moore, founder of a faith-focused PR company, who recalled building the panel with Paula White, a Florida-based televangelist, Tim Clinton, president of the nearly 50,000-member American Association of Christian Counselors, and politicians Mike Huckabee and Ben Carson.
In many cases, the roots of that relationship were on TV. Trump has long been fascinated by the power of Christian television, recalled Burns. In 2002 – the same year reality TV producer Mark Burnett courted Trump to star in “The Apprentice” — hite said Trump called her after watching her sermons and invited her to New York. She remained in close contact and delivered an invocation at his inauguration.
White did not respond to requests for comment.
The group keeps its eye on big-picture social issues, said Moore, around which members unite, rather than everyday policy decisions where their priorities are more split.
Membership has evolved, and people not listed among the 25 often attended, according to Moore, playing down the significance of Bernard’s departure from a group he describes as “unofficial.”
Several members who say they supported Trump reluctantly now say the president has “exceeded expectations.”
They describe him as attentive and responsive, and tell lively tales of intimate White House visits. After a dinner in May, before Trump signed an executive order designed to ease restrictions on churches’ political influence, the president took some pastors upstairs and offered them a photo op on the Truman balcony.
In July, a day-long working session in the Eisenhower Building was broken up by an impromptu invitation to the Oval Office, after which Moore tweeted a photo of pastors praying over the president.
Burns thinks their “biggest focus is covering the president in prayer and being a moral voice to him.” Not all agree. “We are not spiritual counselors,” said Land. Their role, he said, is to give the president “advice” and “feedback on policies.”
After Charlottesville, some communicated directly with their vast networks, affirming Trump as a president worth fighting for. White appeared with her husband, a former keyboardist for the rock band Journey, on the “Jim Bakker Show,” where she compared the embattled president with the biblical Jewish Queen Esther, whom she described as an unconventional leader who saved her people from persecution. Like Esther, White suggested, God raised Trump into leadership.
“When you are fighting against the plan of God, you’re fighting against the hand of God,” White said.
Some said they have used their proximity to Trump to try to open his eyes on race.
On Friday, the group was at the White House complex discussing Charlottesville and Hurricane Harvey, plus other topics, when an aide arrived to bring a handful of members to the Oval Office. Franklin said the group included black, Hispanic and white pastors.
In the few minutes that the pastors spent in the Oval Office, they tried to tell Trump what the world is really like for blacks and Hispanics.
“Get in the other man’s shoes a little bit,” Franklin said he told Trump.
A White House official said Trump appreciated the pastors’ comments. On DACA, which Trump during the campaign promised to end, the official described the pastor meeting as one of many factors influencing Trump’s thinking.
“He takes the conversations seriously and listens to the individuals,” said the official.
As for the immigrant children, Franklin issued a statement Monday saying he was “concerned to see DACA expire” but expressing gratitude that Trump was granting a “generous six-month extension to dreamer kids” that would put the onus on Congress to act. Franklin called for the affected immigrants to receive a path to citizenship, but said in an interview he does not know what Trump would do if such a bill came to his desk.
Although he said he believed that Trump would sign such a bill, he could not be certain.
“He’s a politician,” Franklin said. “What he does is what he does.”