As Israel has shot to the top of President Trump’s agenda, world leaders have looked for the perspective of one of Trump’s biggest and most reliable voting blocs. And Johnnie Moore, the White House’s evangelical gatekeeper, has been there to provide it.
Moore, a wunderkind PR executive, has served through the Trump candidacy and presidency as the shepherd for many conversations between Trump aides and conservative evangelical leaders who, like Moore, consider the Jewish state — and the status of Jerusalem in particular — to be at the top of their priority list. At 34, Moore has been consulted about the topic at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. and at private meetings with Arab leaders. He was in the Oval Office a few weeks ago for a private ceremony honoring Trump for saying the United States officially considers Jerusalem the capital of Israel.
For evangelicals, “those who bless Israel will be blessed,” Moore said he tells White House officials.
President Trump said Dec. 6 that the U.S. would recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move the U.S. Embassy there. Here are key moments from that speech. (The Washington Post)
Asked how America recognizing contested Jerusalem as Israel’s capital furthers peace, Moore responded with a long pause and then a short answer: “There are better people to ask that question.” And after Trump recently threatened to pull U.S. funding for the Palestinians? “I’m not tracking that closely because I just got back” from vacation, he said.
This is classic Moore: Pushing and maneuvering passionately for his goals and then deflecting or going silent on matters he views as peripheral to them. With a pragmatism he learned years ago at the knee of Moral Majority icon the Rev. Jerry Falwell Sr., he goes for the priorities he thinks he can achieve and leaves the rest alone.
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The Senate race in Alabama and Christian nationalist Roy Moore? “I’m not involved.” Trump’s penchant for lying? “I don’t want to get into it. Because I don’t focus on those things.” The GOP tax law that bitterly divided religious leaders? “I don’t think there’s an answer.”
“For me, that’s all noise,” he said. “It’s not that it isn’t important, but I don’t have time for all that. . . If I did dig into it, I might have stronger opinions, and that would be a distraction for me.”
Moore sees his approach as savvy pragmatism; others see it as opportunism. Either way, it explains a lot about the rapid upward trajectory of his career. In just a few years, the cheery former youth pastor rocketed from a young competitive debater in rural Virginia to a protege of Falwell, then to chief of staff for reality TV mogul and Christian activist Mark Burnett, and now to adviser to Trump. As the point man for evangelicals seeking White House access, Moore is often the one who picks which leaders get to participate on the advisory council, an unofficial and loosely organized group of conservative evangelicals that is the only significant pipeline of religious feedback into the White House.
To some, Moore’s pragmatism is overdue, and also shrewd — a ditching of Religious Right-era litmus tests combined with a Trumpian willingness to make deals. To others, however, Moore’s calculations symbolize the disintegration of Christian witness and a willingness to let the churches stand for nothing as much as political power. It also reflects an era when religious institutions have lost influence, making way for the Christian power broker who has no clear constituency — no church, nonprofit or television audience — but one of the thickest Rolodexes in conservative Christianity.
“Johnnie is walking a line,” said Chris Seiple, a longtime evangelical advocate and government adviser on international religious freedom who once worked with Moore and Burnett. “He might say, ‘Hey I’m called to love everyone,’ and that public condemnation [of Trump] doesn’t do anything. But there are thresholds of public integrity. Right now, it’s only evangelicals that have access, and it makes people say, ‘Those damn evangelicals, all they do is worship at the altar of political access and expediency.’ ”
A group of evangelical leaders met with President Trump on July 10, 2017, and laid their hands on him as he bowed in prayer in the Oval Office. (Rodney Howard-Browne)
(That characterization lacks nuance. While white evangelical voters overwhelmingly support Trump, many prominent conservative evangelical leaders, especially millennial ones, have stayed away or condemned the president for lying, targeting immigrants and refugees, and bragging about sexual abuse, among other things. Trump’s recent decision on Jerusalem, for example, was divisive even among evangelicals.)
Moore’s pragmatism appeals to Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Jewish human rights group. Cooper has become tight with Moore since Moore moved with his family from Virginia to Orange County, Calif., a couple of years ago. Now the pair travel together to places that include D.C. and Bahrain to promote religious tolerance, particularly of Jews and Christians.
These days, Cooper said, alliances are shifting — anti-Semitism is rising in Europe and on U.S. college campuses, he says, and sometimes new partners emerge, even in places you might not expect.
“With Johnnie, he has access [to power] and is also a doer, is fair, doesn’t have an ax to grind. . . . I’m looking for more Johnnie Moores, and wherever we find them, we will work with them.”
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At Falwell Sr.’s knee
Moore was a champion high school debater in Lynchburg, Va., when he says a debate judge penalized him after he advocated for the Ten Commandments in his public school classes. Moore passed the incident on to his local pastor — Falwell, a famous televangelist and conservative activist at the time. A bond grew between them, and a couple of years later, when Moore was just 20, Falwell made him campus pastor at Liberty University, then head of communications for the giant school, then head of it global outreach program. In the latter position, Moore took hundreds of Liberty students to countries from India to Tunisia.
But the position that most made Moore was when Falwell charged him with picking speakers for convocation, Liberty’s weekly student gathering. In recent years, convocation has gone from a massive chapel service to a high-profile weekly talk before thousands that has featured nearly every GOP presidential candidate — as well as some Democratic ones, including Bernie Sanders. (Moore says most Democrats turned Liberty down.)
At first, Moore wasn’t interested in bringing politicians, and chose more pastor-type speakers. But in 2008 he saw how Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee shot up in the polls after appearing at a Liberty convocation.
“I was like: Wow, we are of national consequence,” he said.
Falwell taught Moore about pragmatism, he says. “The greatest lesson I learned from him was: Don’t worry about what you disagree about, worry about what you agree about and work on those things” with others, he says.
Moore’s focus on Mideast Christians began randomly, in 2013, when he was traveling with megachurch pastor Rick Warren, a mentor (and now Moore’s pastor at Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif.), and wound up in Jordan. Moore was struck, and humbled, by how little he knew about Christianity in the Middle East — overwhelmingly Orthodox and Catholic — the birthplace of his faith.
Within a year or two, Moore began reading and writing about violence and persecution of Middle East Christians, primarily by Sunni Islamic extremists who target all opponents, from Shiites to Yazidis to Kurds, and who have dramatically decreased religious diversity in the region. At lightning speed, Moore became a kind of de facto celeb-spokesman.
That’s because, longtime activists said, so few U.S. evangelicals were publicly taking up the issue, and even fewer who had the public charm and communications skills of Moore, who wears an easy smile and a chic suit and who brings the emotional, accessible, preaching style of your typical American evangelical megachurch to the dense topic of Middle Eastern religion.
Some longtime activists on Mideast religious tensions say Moore has no role in shaping policy or even advising on it, and rather serves as a kind of passionate, extremely well-connected advocate.
The difference between Moore and some others is “to be frank, a lot of them don’t leave the Beltway. . . . There are a lot of people who do the work, but you also need people who seek and attain a public platform,” said Andrew Doran, vice president of the board of the advocacy group In Defense of Christians, which has honored Moore.
Johnnie Moore, de facto spokesman for the Trump evangelical advisory board, walks to a meeting in Washington in December. (Photo by Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)
Moore describes his whole life changing as he delved deeper into his Middle East work, a feeling of understanding Christianity for the first time — through persecution. In his latest book, “The Martyr’s Oath,” which was published in the fall, he holds up Christians whose lives are at risk as the real believers and lambastes American Christians as “self-medicating on religion so we don’t feel quite so bad about our total self-centeredness.”
“I don’t think you can fully understand Christianity if you’re not persecuted or helping people who are persecuted,” he said during a recent interview in Washington.
Holding court at the Trump hotel
That Moore said this sitting in the luxurious Trump International Hotel lobby, which serves as an unofficial office for him during his frequent trips to the District, while being served hot popovers by the constantly present waitstaff, is exactly the kind of irony his critics note. Moore presents himself as an advocate for religious freedom, they note, even as he serves Trump, who hesitated to criticize Nazis after the violent rally in Charlottesville in August and called for a ban on Muslims coming to America.
This contrast is at the heart of the controversy around Trump’s evangelical advisory group. While informal and ad hoc, it is the president’s only known religious advisory body, and is homogenous in its makeup — no other faith groups are represented. While there was a specific evangelical advisory board of around 25 people during the campaign, since the election its membership has been fluid, and Moore says hundreds of evangelicals have been brought into the White House for group meetings on topics from Israel to mental health.
It’s difficult to gauge the group’s real power, but there is no question that the members have regular access and that their political opinions and friendship are sought by the White House. The leaders are understood to be Moore, Florida megachurch pastor Paula White and Tim Clinton, head of the world’s largest association of Christian mental health counselors.
About seven or eight of the current regulars are clients of the communications firm Moore founded in 2015. The firm, which serves religious clients, is named Kairos, the Greek word for “an opportune moment.”
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As a gatekeeper for the White House, Moore’s supporters say his role is to connect people, to be the guy who can make things happen.
“He’s surfacing the agenda items of others,” said James MacDonald, a Chicago-area megachurch pastor who was on the council in 2016. Robert Jeffress, a Texas megachurch pastor on the council, said Moore’s “value” is being the one who picks specific issues for council members “to see if it’s something we’d like to speak into or not.”
Jerry Falwell Jr., current president of Liberty University and a regular in the White House evangelical group’s conversations, says Moore shows evangelicals they can be “good Christians” and be involved in politics. “His role is less about influencing policy as it has been about influencing evangelicals,” Falwell said. “He’s been a good rebuff to the evangelicals who criticize Trump.”
Moore’s gift is being able to speak to different types of people, to exude warmth and collaborative energy during one of the most divisive periods in modern America.
“I think he makes himself useful in D.C., and in D.C. it’s rare to get emails like: ‘How can I be helpful to you?’ ” said Michael Wear, an evangelical consultant who worked for President Barack Obama.
American evangelical leaders meet at the Egyptian Presidential Palace with President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi in November. The meeting was one of the first of its kind between U.S. evangelicals and Sisi. Half of the U.S. leaders are advisers to Trump, including Johnnie Moore, fourth from the right. (Egyptian government photo)
But Moore’s close affiliation with the divisive president complicates his desired image as a bridge-builder. Moore is a frequent target of Christian Trump critics; they note that he and members of the council are silent on many justice issues roiling evangelicals, such as racism and Trump’s demeaning comments about women, but that some took the time to issue statements defending the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner (when he was being questioned about Russia contacts), and on behalf of Trump’s God-given right to attack North Korea.
Moore seems largely unburdened by the controversy around his work with Trump, possibly because it also allows him to pursue what he views as his larger purpose of combating Christian persecution. Moore sounds proud as he talks about helping to lead a group of evangelical pastors — including a bunch of Trump advisers — earlier this fall for a warm visit with Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, who has been more friendly to Egypt’s Christian minority but whose jails are filled with political prisoners.
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In his own view, he’s just exhibiting pragmatism evocative of Falwell Sr., or Trump — even if it means making compromises to get the job done.
“I’m not ashamed at all of my association with President Trump — not an ounce. In fact, I’m grateful for President Trump, especially the promises he’s fulfilled to our community,” Moore said, citing Trump’s support for religious freedom exemptions. The administration supported a baker who was at the Supreme Court last month defending his refusal to bake for a same-sex couple’s wedding.
Yet at times it appears Moore is quite aware that he is working in the unsteady eye of a cultural and political storm — not the best vantage point from which to see clearly.
“I may look back and be totally wrong in the way I’ve engaged in the public square,” he said. “ If I’m wrong, I’m wrong, but I don’t want to look back and say I wasted the opportunity to help people.”
An earlier version of this incorrectly identified Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. as a member of the clergy.