Donald Trump greeted about 1,000 Christian pastors and leaders in New York City on Tuesday to make the pitch for why Christians should vote for him in November.
The event sparked a frenzy of media coverage, leading some to complain about the usage of terms like “evangelical” and “endorsement.”
At the close of the meeting, Trump’s campaign announced its “evangelical executive advisory board” of Christian leaders who will advise the campaign as they seek to win votes.
Despite the use of the word “evangelical” in the title, the list includes several individuals outside the traditional evangelical orbit like ‘prosperity gospel’ televangelists Kenneth and Gloria Copeland, Mark Burns and Paula White.
Others – like strong Trump proponents Jerry Falwell Jr. of Liberty University and Robert Jeffress of First Baptist Church of Dallas – could more accurately be labeled as “fundamentalists.”
Other individuals on Trump’s advisory board include former Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) presidents Ronnie Floyd and Jack Graham, former SBC Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) head Richard Land, former U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, James Dobson, evangelist James Robison and former Christian Coalition head Ralph Reed.
Media coverage of the event echoed Trump’s campaign in using the term “evangelical” as synonymous with “conservative Christian” or even just “Christian.”
Religion News Service referred to those there as “top evangelicals” and then “Christian conservatives.”
The Washington Post flipped between “evangelicals,” “Christian conservatives” and “Christian Right” as if all evangelicals are conservative.
NPR offered a bit more nuance by referring to attendees as “evangelicals and conservative Catholics,” thus noting a key conservative Christian demographic beyond evangelicals.
Not only does the term “evangelical” not fit everyone at the meeting, but also many evangelicals offered their opposition to Trump and his meeting with many conservative Christians.
Eric Teetsel, who served as the faith advisor for Sen. Marco Rubio’s failed presidential campaign, stood outside the meeting with a handmade sign condemning Trump’s policies.
“Torture is not pro-life,” his sign declared. “Racism is not pro-life. Misogyny is not pro-life. Murdering the children of terrorists is not pro-life. Proverbs 29:2.”
Other faith leaders held a rally nearby to protest Trump and declare “faith trumps fear.”
Playing into the “evangelical” narrative and confusion, a leader of the interfaith protest went so far as to call the event proof “evangelical leaders challenge Trump’s values.”
Some conservative evangelicals who did not attend Trump’s meeting took to Twitter to criticize those at the meeting, especially after Falwell tweeted a photo that features him and Trump both grinning and giving a “thumbs up” while a framed cover of Trump on a Playboy magazine hangs on the wall behind them.
“History remembers Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego,” argued Erick Erickson, a prominent conservative pundit who recently entered seminary. “History does not remember the names of their colleagues who wanted seats at the table.
Some commentators noted the group meeting with Trump represented an older generation, not younger evangelical leaders.
Alan Noble, a professor at Oklahoma Baptist University, referred to the group as “the old religious right,” adding it “sells out and burns down” with Trump support.
Russell Moore, who succeeded Land at the SBC’s ERLC, similarly noted those with Trump mostly represented “the old guard Religious Right,” adding that efforts like aligning with Trump are driving away “younger, theological, gospel-centered evangelicals.”
As the meeting occurred, he reposted a column from earlier this year about “why this election makes me hate the word ‘evangelical.'”
For those attending Trump’s gathering Tuesday, another definitional issue arose regarding “endorsement.”
Many present openly support Trump, including former presidential candidates Ben Carson and Mike Huckabee, Falwell, Jeffress and Reed. Some remain uncommitted, even after the event.
Others, however, signal their clear support for Trump even while insisting they are not endorsing him.
The Trump campaign’s release about its new “evangelical” advisory board notes members were not asked to endorse Trump, even though the purpose of the board remains to help Trump win the presidency.
Land, who strongly criticized Trump during the primaries as “a scam,” insisted after the meeting, “I have not endorsed Donald Trump.” By that declaration, Land must only mean he has not yet used the word “endorsed.”
After Trump became the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, Land announced he will “vote against Hillary Clinton and I don’t believe in third party candidates.”
“Frankly, I think we’re dealing with a choice between a lesser evil and a greater evil, and Mrs. Clinton is the greater evil,” Land said on another occasion. “That’s my personal opinion, and if we don’t help the lesser evil prevail over the greater evil, we become responsible morally for helping the greater evil to prevail.”
Land frequently used this strategy in the past to signal support for candidates while avoiding using the word “endorse.”
He did, however, break his promise to the ERLC to announce an endorsement of Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney in 2012.
As Land urges votes for the twice-divorced Trump, it conflicts with a line he used in the past to urge votes against candidates.
“[T]hree wives is one too many for most evangelical voters,” Land said about Rudy Giuliani in 2008.
“Two ex-wives is one ex-wife too many for most evangelicals,” Land said about Newt Gingrich in 2012.
Like Land, Graham also publicly backs Trump while claiming to not “endorse.”
The former SBC president, who made his preference for Trump clear last week during the SBC annual meeting, penned a Fox News column after the Trump meeting to insist he is not endorsing Trump. The rest of the piece explains why he will vote for Trump and hopes other Christians will as well.
Brian Kaylor is editor and president of Word&Way, associate director of Churchnet, and a contributing editor for EthicsDaily.com.