James Dobson. Richard Land. Ralph Reed. The ’90s are back in Trumpland, and the old-guard religious right is making its return. After Trump spoke at a meeting of more than 1,000 evangelicals and some Catholics on Tuesday, his campaign announced his appointment of an “evangelical executive advisory board” to lead a larger “Faith and Cultural Advisory Committee” that will be announced later in June.
The list reads like a who’s who of conservative Christian leaders. Ronnie Floyd just ended his term as president of the Southern Baptist Convention. Jerry Falwell Jr. heads Liberty University. Reed and Dobson each founded highly influential Christian lobbying groups—the Faith and Freedom Coalition and Focus on the Family, respectively. Many of these figures are household-names among Christian families in America, having either started or inherited empire-sized talk-radio networks and organizations.
But the list also hints at the very real tensions over Donald Trump among conservative evangelicals. Richard Land was the head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s political organization, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, until 2013, when he was pushed out over remarks he made about Trayvon Martin’s death. His successor, Russell Moore, has been a vocal opponent of Trump’s, and he was not at the Tuesday meeting in New York. Given the strong position Moore has taken against Trump, Land’s appointment seems like a snub. Similarly, Tony Suarez, another member of Trump’s board, is the executive vice president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference. The president of the NHCLC, Samuel Rodriguez, has said he is “very opposed to his rhetoric on most issues … At the top of the list, his rhetoric on immigrants, on immigration, is unacceptable.”
Only three women made the cut on the list of 25 names: Paula White, the pastor at New Destiny Christian Center in Florida; Michele Bachmann, the former congresswoman; and Gloria Copeland, who’s listed with her husband as the founder of Kenneth Copeland Ministries. (“God delights in your prosperity!” their website reads.) Most of the members are white mega-church pastors or televangelists, although four men of color were included, along with a couple of lawyers and the head of the American Association of Christian Counselors. One-third of the board members run churches or organizations that have campuses in Texas or California. Perhaps the Trump campaign is looking ahead to general-election math.
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And that’s what makes the creation of this board striking: It’s a very campaign-like move. As David Graham wrote earlier today, Trump’s camp is nearly penniless; it posted dismal fundraising numbers earlier this week. Trump has continued his roll of off-the-cuff remarks about everyone from Muslims to Mexicans, and he fired his controversial campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, on Monday. Bringing on a crew of conservative evangelical advisors is a totally by-the-book play for what has so far been a totally unconventional campaign.
The next round of faith leaders he brings on is sure to be less predictable—who’s going to represent Muslims on his faith advisory committee, for example? But while Trump is trying to follow in the path of the Republican politicians who allied with conservative Christians for decades, it’s still not clear that he’s going to win those voters.