Trump’s Religious-Right Backers Get Millions in COVID​-19 Relief

Pastor Robert Jeffress of First Baptist Church in Dallas is one of President Donald Trump's most zealous supporters. (Image from video of appearance at National Quartet Convention)

Conservative evangelical churches and advocacy groups led by vocal boosters of President Donald Trump have received millions of dollars in coronavirus relief funds, marking a new milestone in the religious​ right’s long campaign to take a wrecking ball to the wall separating church and state.

The Paycheck Protection Program included in coronavirus relief legislation was designed to help small businesses and other organizations stay afloat and keep people working during the pandemic. Religious-right leaders worked with​ ​their allies in Congress and the ​Trump administration to make sure that churches would be able to receive direct government funding to support clergy salaries and other operational expenses. The program is administered by the Small Business Administration, which waived normal requirements that participants in its loan program abide by nondiscrimination standards.

On June 22, the SBA hosted a “Recovery & Resilience for Faith Based Communities tele-townhall” for leaders of churches and religious nonprofits to urge them to participate in the program by applying before the June 30 deadline—and to lavish praise on Trump for supporting the program. The call was promoted by the White House and religious-right figures like Gary Bauer.

Paula White, who oversees the Trump administration’s faith-based outreach from her perch at the White House, began the call by praying for the president. “Put a hedge and wall of fire around him that no weapon formed against him would be able to prosper,” White prayed.

White praised Trump and his administration’s extensively, saying​, “it has always been his heart to make sure that houses of worship and people of faith have been protected.” She continued:

You heard that from way back, he was saying, ‘We’re going to put Merry back in Christmas,’ or talking about the Johnson Amendment. But he’s done so much to accomplish that. Things with religious freedom, like removing restrictions on grants. The PPP is one way that we begin to see this. There are so many others, but there are departments everywhere that have grants, and for years and decades, they’ve had restrictions that people of faith have had very, very difficult time. Well, our president made sure to remove those restrictions on grants, ensuring faith-based has equal access to capital, equal access to grant money.

White’s own City of Destiny church got between $150,000 and $350,000 in PPP funds, according to SBA records​.

To overcome the skepticism some conservative Christian leaders might have about getting directly involved with the federal government, officials invited several prominent religious-right leaders to praise the program. While PPP funds could be a lifeline to smaller congregations and nonprofits, it turns out that staying afloat has not been a problem for some megachurches that had online worship and fundraising abilities​. Instead, some of those megachurches have used money freed up by paycheck protection to expand their influence in their local communities.​

Jentezen Franklin, a member of Trump’s Evangelical Advisory Board, is pastor of the multi-campus Free Chapel megachurch, based in Gainesville, Georgia. Franklin was effusive on the SBA call​, marveling that his church received a “tremendous amount of money” within three weeks of applying for it. Data released by the SBA Monday make it clearer how “tremendous” that amount was—in the $1​ million to $2 million range. With payroll covered by government funds and the ability to “catch up online,” Franklin said his church distributed $340,000 to small churches in his community.

Franklin has urged evangelicals to help reelect Trump or​ be prepared to face tragic consequences. Trump publicly announced that he was watching Franklin’s worship service on March 15, which Trump had declared a national day of prayer.

Samuel Rodriguez, a pastor who prayed at Trump’s inauguration and president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, said PPP money​ was “like manna in the desert of this pandemic.” Rodiguez said the church was “made for this hour,” adding that “for this administration to recognize the church and the faith community as essential is a game​ changer.”

Rodriguez’s New Season ​Church in Sacramento​, California, received between $150,000 and $350,000. He said the money has helped his own church not just survive but help other churches and expand community outreach. Rodriguez, who recently denounced the Democratic Party as “hostile to our Christian worldview,” ​called the program a “powerful resource” and a “blessing.”

“This is Uncle Sam helping us do the will of our heavenly father,” Rodriguez said. “So the PPP enabled us to cover payroll for our staff that is right now praying for interceding for the needs of our community, not just physical, spiritual, but in mental and emotional needs, literally saving lives.”

Also on the SBA call was another member of Trump’s evangelical advisory board, James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family and longtime opponent of reproductive choice and LGBTQ equality. Dobson said that his organization, the James Dobson Family Institute, “has literally been kept solvent this spring and summer by the Paycheck Protection Plan.” Dobson said that thanks to the money his organization had received, ​adding, “We have not asked for a cent from anybody in six months.”

Other Trump-supporting leaders and organizations have done quite well. Here’s a sampling, drawn from our own research and other reporting on the SBA records:

  • First Baptist Church of Dallas, Texas, led by Trump cheerleader Robert Jeffress, was among the megachurches listed as having received​ between $2 million and $5 million. Another was Guillermo Maldonado’s King Jesus International Ministry, which hosted an Evangelicals for Trump campaign launch last year.
  • The American Center for Law and Justice, part of the lucrative legal empire of Trump lawyer Jay Sekulow and his family, got between $1 million and $2 million.
  • The anti-LGBTQ advocates at Liberty Counsel received between $350,000 and $1 million.
  • ​End Times pastor Jim Bakker’s Morningside Church got between $350,000 and $1 million.
  • Televangelist Rick Joyner’s Morningstar Church got between $350,000 and $1 million.

Initially, the idea of tax dollars directly supporting clergy and church operations was defended as an extraordinary response to the unique situation caused by the pandemic. But on a phone call organized by Paul​a White’s One Voice Prayer Movement in May, former Rep. Randy Forbes ​of Virginia, founder of the Congressional Prayer Caucus, celebrated ​that​ “precedents for religious freedom” that ​are​ being set during the pandemic—specifically the unprecedented use of federal tax dollars to directly fund clergy and churches—“are going to endure long after this coronavirus has gone.”

Marcus Harris, director of faith and community initiatives in the office of Entrepreneurial Development at the SBA, told people in the call, “One thing I’m able to say in my role as the faith-based leader here at SBA is that I know for many of you this is your first interaction with SBA, but we do not want this to be your last,” a sentiment that was repeated by SBA Administrator Jovita Carranza.