This past Friday afternoon over lunch, a group of evangelical leaders met with former President Donald Trump at his private Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach, Fla.
The meeting, organized by Trump’s informal spiritual adviser and televangelist Paula White-Cain, was described by Trump advisers as a routine drop-in visit for the former president who has opened up his private resort to a parade of political meetings and fundraisers with GOP candidates, consultants and deep-pocketed donors.
“It’s very informal, and they talk and they pray,” one adviser said of the meeting. “It’s not something he broadcasts.”
But as Trump teases a 2024 run, his continued contact with white evangelical Christian leaders in phone calls and regular meetings at Mar-a-Lago is evidence that he is committed to keeping the coalition that first delivered him to the White House intact.
It’s a group that Trump recognized early on would be critical for his political trajectory — not just because a cosmopolitan, thrice married, former Playboy cover star who curses and throws out cruel insults to his political enemies lacked a certain appeal to that crowd, but because that crowd is the bedrock of modern Republican politics. Since leaving office, that relationship hasn’t changed.
Unlike other politicians, who need Trump’s endorsement or money, it is Trump who likely needs the support of evangelicals should he mount another campaign for president — especially as questions mount over whether the former president’s influence in broader GOP circles is waning.
“I wouldn’t say President Trump has a lock on the support of the evangelical community,” said Tony Perkins, the evangelical president of the Family Research Council who has remained in contact with Trump since he left the White House. “I think he has a strong platform to run on — on what he has done — but I still think people are going to be looking for a vision for the future, so he will have to do that alongside the other candidates vying for their support.”
According to an attendee, Friday’s meeting was organized by the National Faith Advisory Board, led by White, which aims to continue the work of the Trump White House’s Faith and Opportunity Initiative. Neither White nor a spokesperson for the group responded to a request for comment. Attendees at the intimate Mar-a-Lago meeting on Friday included influential evangelical leaders like pastor Jack Graham, James Dobson and Ralph Reed, chair of the Faith and Freedom Coalition.
The focus of the meeting wasn’t specifically on the 2024 election, according to the attendee, though Trump has strongly signaled in private and public that he will run again. Instead, Trump’s remarks to the group were mostly about his administration’s record with the faith community and his complaints about President Joe Biden. While the gathering had no set agenda, it did come across as a signal to those there that Trump is serious about keeping them in the fold.
White evangelical voters helped deliver Trump the White House in 2016 and came out in droves to support him again four years later. According to polling data, approximately 80 percent of that community voted for Trump in 2016 and in 2020. The numbers led to a steady stream of criticism that evangelical leaders were acting unprincipled for backing a candidate with such a flimsy, if not nonexistent, history on their issues. But those leaders say that both they and Trump are being either misunderstood or misrepresented.
“I think people think evangelicals have been duped by President Trump, Evangelicals are not morons. They understand that he might not pray six hours a day or be able to quote the Bible backward and forward but they do believe he’s a man who loves our country and he’s embraced policies that are in keeping with the truth of God’s word and that’s why they selected him,” said Robert Jeffress, pastor at First Baptist in Dallas.
Jeffress, a close ally of Trump, said he invited the former president to visit his church in December while he was on tour with former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly in Dallas, and Trump was met with standing ovations.
But as Trump seeks to keep his evangelical followers in the fold for a potential 2024 bid, other leading Republicans are also attempting to make inroads with the historically powerful voting bloc. Former Vice President Mike Pence, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo all have deep ties in the evangelical community and have also met with evangelical Christian power players in early voting states like Iowa. Jeffress is also on the advisory board for Pence’s political group, Advancing American Freedom, and like the others interviewed for this story, said he remains in contact with a swath of potential Republican 2024 contenders.
“[Trump] opened up a divide in the Evangelical community. It was a split that was always there and we didn’t recognize it before but he opened up a chasm,” said Napp Nazworth, an expert in religion and politics and executive director of American Values Coalition which is working to push back against misinformation from right wing media sources.
Evangelist and president of Samaritan’s Purse Franklin Graham said he has visited Mar-a-Lago since Trump left the White House and has remained in contact with Trump and others. But Graham, a former Republican turned independent and the son of famed evangelist Billy Graham, does not plan to offer any endorsements until a field is set.
“I don’t speak for evangelical Christians — they’re all over the place politically and a lot of them didn’t support president Trump, and that’s fine. But I think the majority did, and I think they will continue to support him. It’s his policies that benefited all of us,” said Graham.