Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee for president, has announced the members of what he’s calling an “evangelical executive advisory board.”
What’s that? Well, it’s a list of names.
Lists of names like this are a fixture of the white evangelical subculture. This is what we have instead of ecclesiology or church polity. Some would say this is because evangelicals don’t have bishops or popes, but really it’s the opposite problem — we have more bishops and popes than we know what to do with. But these unofficial officials aren’t ordained by elders or elected by congregations. Their investiture as bishops and archbishops is based on book sales, income, radio outlets and — above all — the size and ROI of their direct-mail fundraising lists. It’s a hell of a way to run a church.
What that means in practice is that anyone who wants to mobilize large numbers of white evangelicals for any reason has to make a list of names. That’s true whether the cause is something benign, like promoting Bible reading, or something disgraceful, like trying to get a racist, misogynist, predatory authoritarian elected president. Recruiting white evangelical support always means giving those evangelicals permission to support your cause by listing the names of various celebrity gatekeepers who may have their trust. Hopefully, the folks whose support you’re seeking will see some name on your list of names that will allow them to believe they have permission to support you as well.
Here’s Donald Trump’s list of celebrity bishops offering him their imprimatur:
• Michele Bachmann — former U.S. House member
• A.R. Bernard — senior pastor and CEO, Christian Cultural Center
• Mark Burns — pastor, Harvest Praise and Worship Center
• Tim Clinton — president, American Association of Christian Counselors
• Kenneth and Gloria Copeland — founders, Kenneth Copeland Ministries
• James Dobson — author, psychologist and host, “My Family Talk”
• Jerry Falwell Jr. — president, Liberty University
• Ronnie Floyd — senior pastor, Cross Church
• Jentezen Franklin — senior pastor, Free Chapel
• Jack Graham — senior pastor, Prestonwood Baptist Church
• Harry Jackson — senior pastor, Hope Christian Church
• Robert Jeffress — senior pastor, First Baptist Church of Dallas
• David Jeremiah — senior pastor, Shadow Mountain Community Church
• Richard Land — president, Southern Evangelical Seminary
• James MacDonald — founder and senior pastor, Harvest Bible Chapel
• Johnnie Moore — author, president of The KAIROS Company
• Robert Morris — senior pastor, Gateway Church
• Tom Mullins — senior pastor, Christ Fellowship
• Ralph Reed — founder, Faith and Freedom Coalition
• James Robison — founder, Life OUTREACH International
• Tony Suarez — executive vice president, National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference
• Jay Strack — president, Student Leadership University
• Paula White — senior pastor, New Destiny Christian Center
• Tom Winters — attorney, Winters and King Inc.
• Sealy Yates — attorney, Yates and Yates
The list of names Donald Trump has come up with is interesting both for who it includes and who it doesn’t. I’m not talking about the conservative white* evangelicals who have, commendably, been fierce critics of Trump, but about the absence of the names of some prominent white evangelical Trump-supporters and GOP-before-GOD culture-warriors. My sense is that this is all about who gets top-billing — about who is hitching their wagon to whose star. That’s why this “executive advisory board” is something of a B-list of second-tier religious right figures along with a handful of peaked-long-ago relics like James Dobson, Richard Land and Ralph Reed. These folks are hoping that association with Trump will elevate their profile. By endorsing him, they’re hoping he will thereby endorse them, making their names ring out (or, in the case of Dobson, Bachmann, Land and Reed, restoring a bit of their long-tarnished celebrity).
The bigger named religious-right celebrities are hedging their bets. They may be supporting Trump and working to get him elected, but they don’t want to risk chaining their fortunes to his electoral prospects. Guys like Franklin H.P. Graham and The Liar Tony Perkins probably calculate that they could do more for Trump than he could do for them. The prospect of a woman president terrifies them as much as the prospect of a black president did, so they’re going to vote for Trump and encourage all their followers to do the same, but they seem to view Trump as the weaker partner in that alliance and they’re reluctant to let him drag them down.
Thus Tony Suarez allows himself to be listed because he hopes that hitching himself to Trump’s rising star might turn him into Sammy Rodriguez. But Sammy Rodriguez avoids the list because he fears association with Trump will drag him down and turn him into Tony Suarez. Richard Land signs on because he’s hoping it will restore him to the good old days when he was a bigger deal than Al Mohler. But Al Mohler doesn’t touch this thing because he realizes it could make him look like a cartoon racist dinosaur — you know … someone like Richard Land.
– – – – – – – – – – – –
* Not all of these folks are white people, but they all come from the world of white evangelicalism. That is the white-bounded, white-defined religious subculture in which these folks hope to raise their profiles. Why? For the same reason that Willie Sutton robbed banks: ‘Cause that’s where the money is. And also, less cynically, because that’s their theology — based on the snow-white American hermeneutic of biblical inerrancy/literalism that evolved here to defend and support white supremacy and still does so because that’s what it was made for in the first place. Flip through the pages of Charisma magazine and you’ll find an impressively diverse array of faces, but no diversity at all in the theology on display, which is fiercely white white white.