Political News

Pence Reaches Out to Evangelicals. Not All of Them Reach Back.

Posted June 13, 2018 10:08 p.m. EDT

WASHINGTON — In the latest sign of the Trump administration’s outreach to religious conservatives ahead of a critical midterm election, Vice President Mike Pence told a large gathering of pastors Wednesday that the White House would continue to fight for evangelical priorities. He appealed for the community’s continued support, even as his appearance led to complaints that a religious event was being used for political gain.

“This is a pivotal year in the life of our nation,” Pence told the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention, where nearly 10,000 evangelical pastors gathered in Dallas. “Be assured of this, President Trump and I are going to continue to fight for what we know is right.”

Pence recited a list of Trump administration actions that appealed to the conservative evangelical community, which constitutes one of the president’s biggest blocs of supporters. Among the accomplishments he cited were the nomination of Judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court; advancing anti-abortion priorities across the government; opening an American embassy in Jerusalem; passing tax reform; and freeing Christian hostages from North Korea.

“This progress,” Pence said, “is the result of the support of men and women like so many of you, who supported our president not only in 2016 but every day since.”

The Southern Baptist Convention’s annual gathering in June draws thousands of evangelical influencers from across the country, presenting a rich opportunity for the administration to reach one of its most supportive voter bases. More than 80 percent of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump and Pence in 2016, and Southern Baptist churches have more than 15 million members.

While the convention has at times had Republican leaders speak, its stated purpose is to focus on evangelism and missionary work. But Pence mentioned “the president” more than three dozen times in his 30-minute speech.

“There is only one way you can sum up this administration,” he said. “It has been 500 days of promises made and promises kept.”

Pence was not originally on the convention’s schedule, but his office reached out to the group’s leadership to express interest in participating, and he was announced as a speaker earlier this week. A White House official said that his appearance was first discussed several weeks ago.

Last week, Pence addressed the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s Road to Majority conference, and he has addressed the March for Life twice since taking office. On Thursday morning, he is scheduled to speak to the Nation Hispanic Prayer Breakfast and Conference in Washington.

But the Trump presidency does not inspire lockstep allegiance among evangelicals, and that divide was evident this week in Dallas. On Tuesday, open protest over Pence’s participation broke out on the convention floor, when some pastors made several motions to prevent the vice president from addressing the group. Some were especially concerned about the administration’s stance on immigration and race, and Pence’s allegiance to a president who has been accused of multiple instances of sexual misconduct.

Garrett Kell, a pastor from Alexandria, Virginia, proposed using the time allotted to Pence for a prayer session, to avoid sending a signal that evangelical faith is aligned with the Trump administration. The measure failed to pass, but, significantly, a third of the attendees voted to support his proposal.

Some pastors decided to not attend the vice president’s speech in protest and said they would pray instead. Cam Triggs, a pastor in Orlando, Florida, who started the Grace Alive church last year and who supported a resolution at the convention on racial reconciliation, said several factors prompted him to skip the vice president’s speech.

“As a minority, I definitely feel hurt by this particular allowance for him to speak at the convention, by the insensitivity of remarks by the administration,” Triggs, 30, said in an interview, alluding to topics like immigration. For some people, he added, “It can appear as campaign mobilization.”

Dean Inserra, who leads City Church in Tallahassee, Florida, a 1,000-person congregation comprising mostly young people, said that much of the pushback on Pence’s appearance came from nonwhite pastors. “Right now, the reputation we have is an organization of Trump supporters,” he said in an interview. “It shows the world that we are more of a voting bloc for the GOP, and that is really unfortunate.”

But the majority of attendees supported Pence’s participation. He received several standing ovations, and someone even called out, “Four more years!” as he started to speak. “That says so much about this administration, that he would want to come and express his appreciation to us for all that we do,” Brandon Park, who leads Connection Point Church in Raytown, Missouri, said in an interview.

Evangelicals hear what they want to about the Trump administration, he said, adding “It’s like Yanny versus Laurel.”