U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue and former Rep. Michele Bachmann were the featured speakers at a Tuesday evening fundraising dinner for Capitol Ministries, the group that sponsors weekly Bible studies for members of the House and Senate and President Donald Trump’s Cabinet. Also offering testimony on behalf of this “special type of ministry” was Rep. Jeff Denham, whose relationship with the group goes back to his days in the California legislature. The show was emceed by Frank Sontag, a Los Angeles-based Christian radio host who voices the audio versions of the written Bible studies that Capitol Ministries publishes every week.
Hundreds of people packed an event tent at the massive World Ag Expo in Tulare, California, the heart of the state’s agriculture industry, to hear Perdue, Bachmann and Capitol Ministries’ founder and leader Ralph Drollinger. Tulare is a reliably Republican area of the state, now represented in the U.S. Congress by Rep. Devin Nunes, a local boy from a farm family. At the event, tables were sponsored by wealthy farming families and an array of agriculture-related businesses, along with Bank of America and local branches of Wells Fargo.
During the pre-dinner reception, video screens alternated between slides acknowledging event sponsors and endorsements of Capitol Ministries by state and national politicians, including Energy Secretary Rick Perry and Republican U.S. Sens. John Thune of South Dakota, Steve Daines of Montana, Joni Ernst of Iowa, and Bill Cassidy of Louisiana.
Some sponsors may be supporters of Capitol Ministries’ mission of encouraging public officials to embrace conservative Christianity. Some may have bought tables based on personal and professional connections to Capitol Ministries board member and event host Rob Hilarides, who heads a dairy operation in the area. Some may appreciate Drollinger’s teachings that “God is a capitalist” and that because of excessive environmental regulations in the U.S., “the economic benefits God intends from private property ownership have been greatly diminished.” And some may have given to express support for the Trump administration’s rollbacks of regulations governing their industry.
Perdue told Capitol Ministries’ sponsors that he is “the beneficiary” of their “investment,” saying he hoped the Capitol Ministries fundraiser would become an annual event. Perdue talked about how God had guided his life and career moves, from the time God told him to give up his veterinary practice and go into agribusiness to his election as Georgia’s first Republican governor. Like Bachmann, Perdue gave an altar-call-like pitch for people to give their lives to God.
Perdue has been hosting the Wednesday morning Bible studies for members of Trump’s Cabinet at the Department of Agriculture—Bachmann said 11 of the 15 Cabinet members participate—though Drollinger has said they will move into the White House for security reasons, making it easier for Vice President Mike Pence to attend and Trump to drop by.
Drollinger is on a mission to recruit public officials at all levels of government to his conservative version of Christianity and his particular fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible. Part of Drollinger’s pitch for his ministry is that Religious Right groups have spent too much time lobbying public officials to change laws. Capitol Ministries focuses instead on “the most influential component in the legislative process: the people who make the decisions and create the statutes.”
Drollinger says he doesn’t lobby, but he does instruct public officials that the Bible mandates adherence to right-wing policy positions on a wide range of issues, including environmental regulation, the death penalty, abortion, LGBTQ equality and more. He says it is the government’s job to quell evil and punish sin. He teaches that care for the poor is meant to be a job for the family and church, not the government, and that entitlement programs have no “biblical authority.” And he says that once “righteous” people hold positions of power in government, they should hire only other “righteous” people.
Drollinger, whose height hints at his time as a college and professional basketball player, cites as inspiration the network of ministries that have focused on evangelizing athletes. And he grounds his target-the-leaders strategy theologically in the example of the apostle Paul, who he says preached in regional capitals and sought to convert political leaders because of the number of people they can influence.
Capitol Ministries is intensifying its efforts to reach state and local officials in the U.S., a project they’ve dubbed CivicReach. Its goal is to partner with local churches to identify and train local leaders “to build discipleship Bible studies to reach everyone from municipal judges and mayors to city and county commissioners to dog catchers.” Bachmann, who is now a member of Capitol Ministries’ board, said that many local leaders will want to move into higher office, and Capitol Ministries hopes they’ll take the group’s worldview with them.
Capitol Ministries is also expanding its reach around the globe, an effort that made up a big part of Drollinger’s and Bachmann’s pitches for more financial support. Drollinger said that the group has ministry leaders in 24 foreign capitals, and that the eight regional directors now in place around the world are moving “faster than we can keep up.” He talked about preparing to start a new Bible study in the European Parliament as a way to open doors throughout Eastern and Western Europe, and said the group is even looking into Baghdad, “enemy territory, spiritually speaking.”
Bachmann, who closed out the evening, did what a board member is meant to do in that situation, making a hard pitch for contributions to support the group’s work at state and local levels, in Washington, D.C., and globally. “There are huge doors that are about to be opened internationally,” she said, urging the audience to pray with their spouses about how much they can give.
Speakers at the event were thrilled about having Trump and Pence in the White House. Bachmann called it “a new day in Washington, D.C.” Even the evening’s entertainer, Christian singer Lincoln Brewster, gushed about how grateful he is that “Jesus has not been uninvited to the White House, but that he’s in fact being asked to be there, and to really be the true leader of this great nation.”
Drollinger, who shares Trump’s tendency to refer to critical news articles as “fake news,” told a reporter that Trump reads his written Bible studies and sends him trademark Sharpie-written notes praising the studies, adding, “I just love the guy.” At the California event, Drollinger told attendees how his ministry started in Sacramento and moved to Washington, D.C., about eight years ago with a Bible study for members of the House of Representatives. When some of the group members were elected to the Senate, he started a study there as well. And then, Drollinger told dinner attendees, another door opened:
And then, all of a sudden Trump got elected, and Pence chose the best out of our House and our Senate Bible studies, to where we had 12, I think now, 12 of the Cabinet members are strong believers, and they said, come with us, we’d like to start a ministry in the White House Cabinet.
At the fundraiser, Bachmann talked about the importance of public officials having their faith and worldview shaped by Drollinger’s teaching:
We are grateful for every man and woman who comes to Christ, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that their mind has been fully transformed and knowledgeable about the issues, and that’s where Ralph and Danielle [Drollinger, Ralph’s wife] come in. The teaching is deep, the teaching is consistent, the teaching is solid. And I can tell you from personal experience: Members of the House, members of the Senate, members of the Cabinet, are transformed by this work.
Those personal transformations, said Bachmann, will lead to a “transformed nation.”
It’s worth pausing for a moment to note that Bachmann and other speakers refer to Drollinger and his wife in a way that could suggest to a casual listener that they are partners in teaching the Bible studies. But Drollinger interprets the Bible to say that women should not teach men, which is why the leaders being recruited and trained to teach Bible studies to public officials at local, state and international levels are all men.
Drollinger is not particularly open to other interpretations of scripture. He has called Roman Catholicism “one of the primary false religions in the world.” He has written that liberal Christians are “simpletons.” In a September 2017 Bible study, he wrote that the Social Gospel, a major strain of American Christianity in the 20th century, is a “perversion” or “corruption” of biblical teaching, and “not Christianity whatsoever.” As for Christians in Congress who do not share his conservative theology and right-wing politics, Drollinger wrote, “I believe the biggest deception on the Hill today is this: the religion of the Social Gospel proffers itself as being ‘Christian’ when it isn’t even close to being biblical.”
Last July, Drollinger warned public officials, “Do not be deceived by syncretistic ‘prayer breakfasts’: God only hears the prayers of leaders and citizens who are upright, who live righteously through faith in Jesus Christ.”