About 100 evangelical leaders were invited to dinner at the White House Monday night for what was a prayer-filled event that's been compared to a church camp meeting and a campaign rally.
Dubbed a "state dinner" for evangelical leaders, the event was held specifically in the "honor of evangelical leadership." The dinner was attended by dozens of evangelical pastors, evangelists and activists who've been involved in informally advising the administration including well-known figures like Franklin Graham, James Dobson, and Greg Laurie.
The dinner was also attended by Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of Homeland Security Ben Carson, Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services Alex Azar and Ambassador at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback. The event was officially hosted by first lady Melania Trump.
"We are here today to celebrate America's heritage of faith, family and freedom," Trump told the crowd. "As you know in recent years, the government tried to undermine religious freedom but the attacks on communities of faith are over. We've ended it."
Trump continued by boasting about the promises his administration has kept to a conservative evangelical base that played a large role in helping him win the 2016 presidential election.
The president went on about how his administration has taken several steps to protect religious liberty for conservatives who object to things like abortion or gay marriage, his administration's pro-life victories and how the administration has spoken out about worldwide religious persecution.
Trump even took a moment to recognize Dobson and his wife, Shirley on their 58th wedding anniversary. Trump concluded by telling the crowd that they are "very special people."
"The support you have given me has been incredible but I really don't feel guilty because I have given you a lot back — just about everything I promised," Trump said. "As one of our great pastors just said, 'Actually, you have given us much more than you have promised.' And I think that is true."
Before the dinner, Trump met privately with a small handful of evangelical leaders and their wives including Texas megachurch pastor Jack Graham, Franklin Graham, Jerry Falwell Jr. and the American Association of Christian Counselors' Tim Clinton. Florida televangelist Paula White and her son also reportedly joined the small gathering.
Jack Graham, the senior pastor at Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas, who has served as president of the Southern Baptist Convention, told The Christian Post that Trump opened up the mic during dinner to allow evangelical leaders in the room to speak their minds.
What ensued, Graham said, was about 35 to 40 minutes of pastors expressing their appreciation for what the Trump administration has been able to do to progress a socially conservative agenda in the last 18 months. While Christians are often called to speak "truth to power," Graham said the leaders in the room felt called to speak "love to power."
"They were getting up and saying what we appreciate and care about, expressing our faith and our love. It was very similar to a meeting that you would have at a church," Graham said, adding that it was like a testimony meeting. "With that many preachers and Christian leaders in the room, we believe the spirit of God was very present. Scripture was shared, verses were given to the president. The truth was delivered and love was delivered."
However, some who spoke during the open mic session warned that evangelicals must keep up the "vigilance" because a negative outcome in the 2018 midterm elections could put the gains of Trump's first 18 months in jeopardy.
"We need to maintain our vigilance in the upcoming days. The concern is that this is a spiritual warfare, this is a battle and ultimately battle is won on our knees," Graham said. "It is very clear, we voiced to the president that we need to pray, pray for him, pray for our country."
Graham noted that many prayers were offered throughout the night.
In a statement provided to CP, Dr. James Dobson, the founder of Focus on the Family and Family Talk radio, said the dinner was "wonderful" and unlike any event he has attended at the White House before.
"I have served five presidents in the past 38 years and this was perhaps the most exciting event in that time," Dobson said. "The president spoke first and thanked us generously for the support we have given to him and his Administration since his inauguration. At least 15 ministers and leaders then rose to thank Mr. Trump for keeping his promises during the campaign and since his inauguration."
"Great appreciation was expressed for defending the sanctity of human life, for preserving religious liberty, for the quality of judges appointed, for his defense of Israel, for his support of the military, for ending the Johnson Amendment that had denied the church freedom of speech, and many other issues for which we are grateful," Dobson added.
"Many in attendance pledged their intention to help get out the vote for the midterm elections. There were heartfelt prayers for the president and the first lady, and also for Vice President Mike Pence and his wife, Karen, who were also in attendance. It was a moving and encouraging gathering, I think for the invitees and also for our president."
Dallas megachurch Pastor Robert Jeffress, one of Trump's staunchest evangelical supporters, told Fox News that the event almost turned into a bit of a "campaign rally."
"Leader after leader stood up and started talking about why they supported President Trump," Jeffress said.
Other notable evangelicals who attended the meeting include Family Research Council President Tony Perkins, conservative radio host Eric Metaxas, televangelist Kenneth Copeland, megachurch Pastor Jentezen Franklin, Faith & Freedom Coalition's Ralph Reed, Maryland Bishop Harry Jackson, San Diego megachurch Pastor Jim Garlow, former Southern Baptist Convention President Ronnie Floyd and Hispanic evangelical leader the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez.
Other notable attendees from the administration include White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders, Trump's daughter and senior adviser Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner, who is also a senior White House adviser. Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway was also present.
The meeting comes after a similar dinner involving about 40 to 50 evangelical leaders was held at the White House last May before the National Day of Prayer.
The difference between Monday's dinner and last May's dinner, Graham said, is Monday's dinner was far less structured and allowed for more of a "conversation" between the leaders and the president.
"It was basically like a state dinner in the way that it was organized with the president, vice president, members of the cabinet and so on," Graham explained. "It was the first time that anyone knows about ... a sitting president of the United States that has gathered evangelicals at a state-type dinner."
Of course, the meeting drew the ire of some left-leaning Christian critics. Some have claimed that the event was nothing more than another attempt by Trump to pander to his evangelical base.
"We have prayed for an opportunity to speak to the president of the United States and we would have a voice and an open door to express our views. We have a president now who wants to hear from us," Graham, who has been very active in his informal involvement with the administration, said. "The answer to anyone who says it is just pandering is: he is keeping his promises."
"If it was just photo-ops and pandering, then nothing would happen," he added. "But all these things are happening and we are amazed that we are seeing these things accomplished in the two years or so."
Some might argue that the evangelical dinner is an attempt to distract from the troubling news last week of Trump's lawyer Michael Cohen pleading guilty to campaign finance violations and claiming that Trump ordered him to arrange a hush payment to porn star Stormy Daniels to keep her quiet over an earlier affair she had with Trump during the 2016 election.
Graham explained that he received an invitation for the event at least six weeks ago.
"I know some are saying that given the events of last week, the president is just trying to get his boys together. This has been planned for a minimum of six weeks," Graham said, admitting that the event was "timely" given the "very tough week last week."
"In providence in the plan of God, this was planned weeks ago," Graham said. "Tonight was the night and it was a very special night with a very special leader and his wife with some great people in that room who are working hard for our churches and our communities."