WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump's closeness to his evangelical base seems to be exposing a rift, pitting evangelical against evangelical.
This week's White House appreciation dinner for religious leaders highlights the division.
"This is a president who holds a lot of views that are deeply divisive, not just among Americans, but among Christians," Jonathan Merritt, a religion, politics, and culture critic, told CBN News. "Even conservative Christians have sort of been fractured over his views on immigration [and] people who perceive his views as coddling white supremacists."
Well-known figures like Dr. James Dobson, author Eric Metaxas, televangelist Paula White, and Rev. Franklin Graham were among the president's guests. Mr. Trump used the opportunity to remind the crowd that his agenda can't move forward without the votes of people of faith in the upcoming midterm elections.
"The support you've given me has been incredible, but I really don't feel guilty because I have given you a lot back," Trump said to laughter from the crowd.
Some guests, like Robert Jeffress, a staunch Trump supporter and pastor of Dallas' First Baptist Church, acknowledged the political clout the evangelical community carries.
"They are facing the possibility of a Democrat Congress that if they take control of the legislature will either impeach this president from office or at least paralyze him while he is in office, and I think they rightly know evangelicals don't want either of those to happen," Pastor Jeffress said.
But Merritt believes the political talk crossed a line.
"It was kind of a traditional 'whip up the base' kind of dinner," explained Merritt, who also co-hosts "The Faith Angle" podcast, which explores topics of faith in "Trump's America."
"A lot of folks say this is not good behavior for religious leaders who are trying to represent diverse constituencies who may not be comfortable with the president and his policies," he said.
Merritt believes the faith leaders at the White House gathering missed an opportunity in this "exceptional moment in American political history."
"The argument is not that you shouldn't show up but that if you're going to show up in these spaces, maybe it's more helpful to take a prophetic stance to speak up for the least of these who, many would argue, are being trampled on by this administration's policies," he said.
The dividing lines appear to extend beyond politics and into the walls of the church.
According to a recently released Lifeway survey, more than 57 percent of Protestants under 50 years old say they prefer attending church with people of the same political persuasion.
However, the same is not true for those over 50, who say they're less concerned about the political affiliation of others sharing the same pew.