Press sec­re­tary views pol­i­tics as out­sider, ac­tive evan­gel­i­cal

The Buffalo News - - WASHINGTON NEWS - By Michelle Boorstein WASH­ING­TON POST

WASH­ING­TON – This is the world as seen through the eyes of White House press sec­re­tary Sarah Huck­abee San­ders:

As a girl, she watched her fa­ther, South­ern Bap­tist pas­tor-turned-GOP­gov­er­nor Mike Huck­abee, side­lined con­stantly. Arkansas Democrats lit­er­ally nailed his of­fice door shut.

In the years af­ter, she saw con­ser­va­tive Chris­tians – like her fam­ily, like most ev­ery­one she knew – ridiculed in Amer­i­can pop cul­ture.

As a young wo­man, she moved to Wash­ing­ton for a govern­ment job, and no­ticed right away that peo­ple in the na­tion’s cap­i­tal care more about your job than who you are. “Cer­tainly not like where I’m from,” she says.

San­ders de­scribed this per­pet­ual in­ter­loper ex­pe­ri­ence from her other world: an el­e­gant, well-ap­pointed of­fice at the White House, where re­porters from places such as the New York Times and CNN metaphor­i­cally pros­trate them­selves at her door day in and out, where she can push aside her cur­tain to see the pres­i­dent’s he­li­copter land, and from where she can re­ceive guid­ance on the phone ev­ery day from her fa­ther, long a po­lit­i­cal dar­ling of con­ser­va­tive Chris­tians, a TV celebrity now worth mil­lions.

As the pub­lic face of the U.S. pres­i­dent, San­ders is a fit­ting sym­bol for her fel­low re­li­gious con­ser­va­tives, who are both in­sider and out­sider, pow­er­ful and pow­er­less.

Re­li­gious con­ser­va­tives “aren’t out­siders in this White House, but gen­er­ally speak­ing, they are,” the 35-yearold said re­cently in an in­ter­view in her West Wing of­fice.

San­ders’ podium per­sona is all busi­ness, even a bit short at times. She so of­ten says she doesn’t know the an­swer to a ques­tion or will have to get back to the ques­tioner that it has be­come a crit­ics’ meme. “Satur­day Night Live” fea­tured a spoof of her on its sea­son opener last week­end, with faux San­ders telling Pres­i­dent Trump that her suc­cess lies in the fact that “I’m no-non­sense, but I’m all non­sense.”

One on one, how­ever, she comes across as re­laxed and open, even when she’s on the of­fense.

“If some­one says some­thing about an­other faith, par­tic­u­larly lib­er­als come to their de­fense in a rag­ing mo­tion, but if some­one at­tacks a Chris­tian, it’s per­fectly fine. At some point we be­came a cul­ture that said that was OK.”

For many con­ser­va­tive Chris­tians, defending their faith is now tied tightly to defending Trump. For San­ders, that meant be­com­ing a head­line her­self the day be­fore this in­ter­view af­ter she told re­porters dur­ing a briefing that an ESPN host who called Trump a “white su­prem­a­cist” should be fired. The com­ment about Jemele Hill set off an im­me­di­ate firestorm.

To pre­pare for that briefing, San­ders that day had opened her leather­bound daily de­vo­tional, as she al­ways does be­fore head­ing out to the podium. The one she uses is the best-sell­ing “Je­sus Call­ing: En­joy­ing Peace in His Pres­ence.”

In her of­fice, she read this to her­self: “Come to me and rest. Give your mind a rest from its ha­bit­ual judg­ing.”

Fac­ing judg­ment is part of be­ing Sarah Huck­abee San­ders, per­haps the most vis­i­ble evan­gel­i­cal in U.S. po­lit­i­cal life (aside from Mike Pence, but San­ders is on the news ev­ery day). But un­like her fa­ther, San­ders never in­tended to be the face of any­thing; un­til a few months ago, she was known as a be­hind-thescenes tal­ented po­lit­i­cal or­ga­nizer.

Since she as­sumed the job of press sec­re­tary in July, San­ders has trig­gered dis­cus­sions about, among other things, the place of re­li­gious con­ser­va­tive women in power pol­i­tics (she’s the first mom in that job, and just the third wo­man), and whether her pres­ence helps or hurts the evan­gel­i­cal wit­ness.

Rick Tyler, a con­ser­va­tive Chris­tian strate­gist who served as spokesman for Newt Gin­grich and Ted Cruz, is one of sev­eral lead­ing GOP op­er­a­tives who worry about the White House’s ap­proach to evan­gel­i­cals. He thinks the much-cov­ered Trump evan­gel­i­cal ad­vi­sory board – the only faith group with reg­u­lar ac­cess th­ese days to the White House – is made up mostly of out­liers, peo­ple with no real con­stituen­cies who can’t move votes. A com­mon anal­y­sis is that the power in the GOP now rests with lib­er­tar­ian and tea party types.

“In terms of po­lit­i­cal power, (Chris­tian con­ser­va­tives) don’t have any. I think Sarah gets that,” said Tyler, long an out­spo­ken Trump critic. “The eth­i­cal chal­lenges of her job are amaz­ing ... The con­sis­tent false­hoods, lies (from Trump) are un­be­liev­able.”

Evan­gel­i­cals have been deeply di­vided in re­cent months over is­sues in­clud­ing Trump’s threat to de­port hun­dreds of thou­sands of un­doc­u­mented youth and his com­ments that there were “two sides” to a deadly white su­prem­a­cist rally in Char­lottesville, Va.

Although some say the Trumpe­van­gel­i­cal al­liance harms Chris­tian­ity, it’s com­mon to hear other con­ser­va­tive Chris­tians say that Trump’s un­ex­pected win – down to the elec­toral col­lege – shows that God had a more­de­lib­er­ate-than-usual hand, and has put Trump there for some rea­son.

Brian Kay­lor, a Bap­tist pas­tor and au­thor with a doc­toral de­gree in po­lit­i­cal com­mu­ni­ca­tions, thinks San­ders holds this view of a divine plan and it gives her con­fi­dence at the podium.

“When you have to stand up there and de­fend what­ever he’s done, it’s more than you are defending a politi­cian, or even a pres­i­dent; you are defending God’s cho­sen leader for this time,” he said of Trump’s de­fend­ers.

San­ders doesn’t talk about God pub­licly of­ten – not nearly as much as Trump does th­ese days. Peo­ple who worked with her on cam­paigns say she’d say a pre-event prayer but oth­er­wise was fo­cused on things such as voter strat­egy. Her faith life mir­rors younger evan­gel­i­cals with their move away from de­nom­i­na­tions.

Although she iden­ti­fies as a South­ern Bap­tist – the big­gest, and among the most con­ser­va­tive U.S. af­fil­i­a­tions – the past few churches she has at­tended are more main­stream evan­gel­i­cal. Her hus­band is not only a Catholic, but their three chil­dren were bap­tized as in­fants, a rite manda­tory for Catholics and some other Chris­tians but long con­sid­ered de­viant to tra­di­tional South­ern Bap­tists, who be­lieve bap­tism should be re­served for peo­ple who have de­cided on their own to ac­cept Christ.

A fam­ily friend de­scribes San­ders and her hus­band, Bryan San­ders, as “pro­gres­sive Chris­tians.” In a com­pro­mise, they go to evan­gel­i­cal and Catholic churches ev­ery Sun­day.

To many re­li­gious con­ser­va­tives, San­ders is a source of enor­mous pride. The pres­ence of some­one from her back­ground rep­re­sent­ing the pres­i­dent ev­ery day – not to men­tion the mul­ti­ple other con­ser­va­tive Chris­tians in Trump’s Cabi­net – has huge sym­bolic weight, whether or not she has in­flu­ence or even much con­tact with him and seems to of­ten learn of his con­tro­ver­sial tweets at the same time the pub­lic does.

David Brody, chief po­lit­i­cal cor­re­spon­dent for the Chris­tian net­work CBN, said that when San­ders comes on the net­work’s pro-Trump talk show, “the so­cial me­dia di­rec­tor said he has never seen so many emoji hearts . ... She has a charm about her. She’s feisty but in a bless-your-heart sort of way.”

Brody said his view­ers were wowed by a briefing over the sum­mer, when San­ders was asked whether Trump brought low the of­fice of the pres­i­dent by tweet­ing a crack about tele­vi­sion host Mika Brzezin­ski, whom he called “low IQ, crazy” and whom he said he saw “bleed­ing badly from a face lift.”

“Are you go­ing to tell your kids this be­hav­ior is OK?” a re­porter asked.

“As­aper­son­of­faith,Ithinkweall have one per­fect role model. And when I’m asked that ques­tion, I point to God. I point to my faith. And that’s where I al­ways tell my kids to look.” Brody raved. “I don’t re­mem­ber that com­ing from Repub­li­cans, Democrats – that’s pretty bold in the con­text of a White House briefing,” he said.

Some re­li­gious con­ser­va­tives say one of San­ders’ best at­tributes is that she isn’t Sean Spicer. They just want some­one at the podium who can de­fend Trump some­what ef­fec­tively with­out be­com­ing the story.

San­ders has a leg up per­haps, as pol­i­tics is her fam­ily busi­ness.

While Mike Huck­abee be­gan his po­lit­i­cal ca­reer lit­er­ally locked out, he even­tu­ally be­came a pop­u­lar leader in Arkansas known as a com­pas­sion­ate con­ser­va­tive will­ing to work across par­ti­san bar­ri­ers to solve problems.

He later won the Iowa straw poll for pres­i­dent in 2008 and went on to host a long-run­ning, pop­u­lar show on Fox News Chan­nel.

Huck­abee said that his daugh­ter, the youngest of three chil­dren, was al­ways drawn to pol­i­tics and that there are tales of her as a teenager sort­ing through voter and polling data in the liv­ing room.

Rick Cald­well, a long­time fam­ily friend, said San­ders’ par­ents de­manded that their chil­dren get in­volved. “Her dad al­ways said, ‘Ev­ery­one wants to eat off a clean plate, but not ev­ery­one is will­ing to wash the dishes,’” Cald­well said. “If you want a bet­ter govern­ment, some­one has to be will­ing to en­gage.”

And what does she think about the fact that her chil­dren are watch­ing her serve Trump? San­ders smiled. “Here I am.”

Bloomberg News

Sarah Huck­abee San­ders, White House press sec­re­tary, has be­come the voice of many con­ser­va­tive Chris­tians while defending Pres­i­dent Trump on a daily ba­sis.

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