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Trump hosts evangelicals to celebrate faith, freedom

WASHINGTON (BP) — Some 100 evangelicals, including Southern Baptists, attended a White House dinner Aug. 27 to celebrate what President Trump called “America’s heritage of faith, family and freedom.”

The event included remarks by Trump, prayer and an opportunity for attendees to reflect publicly on the Trump administration. Vice President Mike Pence also was in attendance. Among Southern Baptist attendees were Southern Baptist Convention President J.D. Greear, former SBC Presidents Ronnie Floyd and Jack Graham and former SBC Second Vice President Malachi O’Brien.

Greear, pastor of The Summit Church in Raleigh-Durham, N.C., said in a statement released on Twitter, “I received an invitation from the White House to attend a dinner in which the administration would address faith leaders. I weigh every decision carefully and consulted with a number of leaders across the political spectrum. In this case, I chose to attend in order to listen and meet other leaders and offer perspective where asked.

“Witness in the public square requires some presence in it, but I’m just as committed as ever to decoupling the church from partisan politics, and my desire for the SBC remains what it always has been — promoting a culture in which the gospel is above all,” Greear said. “Sometimes we have to step out of our comfort zones for the sake of the gospel.”

Greear said he did not sign a Bible presented to Trump by Florida pastor Paula White, signed by some attendees and inscribed, “History will record the greatness that you have brought for generations.” Greear said he was not asked to sign and “was not aware it was being given.”

Other Southern Baptists at the dinner included Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University; Jonathan Falwell, pastor of Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va.; Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas; David Jeremiah, pastor of Shadow Mountain Community Church in El Cajon, Calif.; Jerry Johnson, president of the National Religious Broadcasters; Richard Land, former president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission; Greg Laurie, pastor of Harvest Christian Fellowship in Riverside, Calif.; Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council; and Jay Strack, president of Student Leadership University.

Trump said in brief remarks, “America is a nation of believers. And tonight we’re joined by faith leaders from across the country who believe in the dignity of life, the glory of God and the power of prayer.” The dinner was given “to celebrate America’s heritage of faith, family and freedom.”

The president extended condolences to the family of late Sen. John McCain and the victims of an Aug. 26 mass shooting at a Jacksonville, Fla., video game tournament. Trump also recounted the administration’s accomplishments related to the sanctity of life, religious liberty, Israel, prison reform and combating religious persecution.

“Every day, we’re standing for religious believers,” Trump said, “because we know that faith and family, not government and bureaucracy, are the center of American life. And we know that freedom is a gift from our Creator.”

O’Brien, associate pastor of prayer and church revitalization at First Baptist Church in Raytown, Mo., told Baptist Press he was among those who spoke when the floor was opened for comments. He recalled saying, “In this room is unbelievable unity — racially, probably very much theologically, denominationally. This room is an answer to prayer in the fact there’s unity here [and] we’re celebrating what God is doing in our nation.”

Floyd, pastor of Cross Church in northwest Arkansas, told BP via email, “The purpose of the event was to celebrate the contribution of evangelicals in the administration as well as the advancement of so many things Christians care about deeply. The president and his cabinet have been so committed to being: pro-life, pro-religious liberty, and [he] has made pro-conservative judicial appointments.”

In related news, the White House convened in late July a meeting of about 100 evangelical leaders under age 40. Among Southern Baptist attendees were O’Brien; Nathan Lorick, executive director of the Colorado Baptist General Convention; Shane Pruitt, evangelism director for the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention; and Eric Fuller, high school pastor at First Baptist Church in Woodstock, Ga.

The young leaders met with Trump advisers Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump and Jason Greenblatt and discussed, among other issues, the tax-exempt status of churches, the ministerial housing allowance and prayer at public school events, Pruitt said in an Aug. 3 interview with KBAP radio in Dallas.

“It [was] almost like an invite to speak into what is going on in the administration, and the topic was ‘the role of faith in the future of the nation,'” Pruitt said. “And it was great.”

Pruitt said he has received a follow-up email inviting the young leaders to have ongoing dialogue with the administration.