David Brody, Christian Broadcasting Network’s chief political correspondent, is riding Trump’s presidency to stardom.

The Christian Broadcasting Network’s Chief Political Correspondent Is Riding Trump’s Presidency to Stardom

The Christian Broadcasting Network’s Chief Political Correspondent Is Riding Trump’s Presidency to Stardom

Religion, spirituality, and sacrilege.
Jan. 4 2018 5:55 AM

Bless His Heart

David Brody, chief political correspondent for the Christian Broadcasting Network, guessed early on that white evangelicals would go for Trump.

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David Brody appears on Meet the Press, in Washington, on Sept. 17.

William B. Plowman/NBC/NBC NewsWire via Getty Images

Two days before Sean Spicer abruptly resigned as White House press secretary in July, he beamed into a Christian Broadcasting Network studio for what turned out to be his last on-camera interview in the job. The spokesman was sweating profusely in the midday heat of the White House lawn, but the conversation itself must have felt like a cool breeze to him. Faith Nation hosts David Brody and Jenna Browder nodded encouragingly as Spicer made his way through White House talking points on health care legislation and tax reform, with Browder lamenting that the mainstream media wants “to talk about Russia all day long.” At the end of the interview, Brody passed along a question from CBN’s viewers. “We get a question all the time on Facebook to you specifically,” he said. “They want to know how they can pray for you.”

Ruth Graham Ruth Graham

Ruth Graham is a regular Slate contributor. She lives in New Hampshire.

The hapless Spicer somehow fumbled the answer, stammering about how “some people like to say a rosary or recite a prayer and some people want to talk in their own personal way.” But the appearance overall was a rare success for Spicer, a chance to portray the White House as stable and policy-oriented, and to bring that message to the conservative evangelicals who form a core element of Trump’s base. It was a win for the then-brand-new program Faith Nation, too, which got to boast a top White House staffer as its first-ever guest. “We’ve got tremendous access at the White House,” Brody had told CBN founder Pat Robertson earlier in a promotional interview for Faith Nation on the Christian talk show The 700 Club. “It is a new day in D.C.”

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Brody is CBN’s chief political correspondent, and for the past year he has been doing his best to take advantage of every hour of this “new day.” Trump granted the correspondent one of his first sit-down interviews at the White House, just days after the inauguration. Soon afterward, the president called on Brody first during a White House press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, ruffling feathers among mainstream reporters. In April, Adweek named him one of 15 influential “political power players” in the media, along with Maggie Haberman, David Fahrenthold, and Tucker Carlson. Now, Brody is co-writing a “spiritual biography” of Trump that will be published in February by an imprint of HarperCollins.

Brody’s rising profile is a reflection of President Trump’s uncannily successful courting of white evangelicals, and also of Brody’s own foresight. Early in primary season, when many pastors and other evangelical leaders were still deeply wary of the thrice-married casino mogul, Brody was gushing about Trump’s “common bond” with ordinary Christians. “David Brody had a read on evangelicals in this election,” Michael Wear, director of faith outreach for Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign, told me. “If mainstream reporters, and even evangelicals who were more skeptical, listened to David, they would have had a much better read on how this election turned out.” Understanding David Brody feels like a way into understanding Trump’s strangely chameleonic appeal—specifically, the pull he exerts on some of his most devoted and unlikely supporters.

Brody grew up on the Upper West Side of New York City in a family of Reformed Jews, studying Hebrew to prepare for his bar mitzvah and celebrating the High Holy Days every year. He converted to Christianity in his 20s thanks to the patient evangelism of his now-wife, Lisette. Shortly after they started dating, she invited him to a large church that met in a former Broadway theater near Times Square. Brody soaked up the preaching of the church’s founder, David Wilkerson, a charismatic evangelist known for The Cross and the Switchblade, a best-selling 1962 memoir-turned-movie about his ministry to young gang members. These days, “my liberal Jewish mother watches The 700 Club so she can see her son on television,” Brody told me recently. “I figure God must have a sense of humor.”

David and Lisette married in 1988 and moved to Colorado and then to Washington, pursuing his career as a local television news producer. They had three children, and Lisette worked in the public school system and later pursued a master’s degree from a seminary affiliated with a D.C.-area Bible college. The family now attends McLean Bible Church, a large nondenominational church with five locations in the D.C. area. Like Brody, the church’s senior pastor, Lon Solomon, also converted to evangelicalism from Judaism in his early 20s. Brody likes that; he calls himself “a completed Jew,” alluding to the Christian principle that Jesus’ life fulfilled the messianic prophesies of Jewish scriptures. Jesus, Brody said, is “the ultimate Jew, so I’m just following the ultimate.”

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After a stint at Focus on the Family Radio, Brody joined CBN in 2003, reporting on the Capitol Hill beat. He’s been at CBN ever since, covering the 2008 presidential campaign and serving as White House correspondent for the first two years of the Obama presidency. At 52, Brody’s on-camera vibe could be described as “grandmother-approved nice young man”: earnest, friendly, quick to flash an encouraging smile. His interlocutory approach is gentle, meandering, even bumbling. He often throws out multiple broad questions at a time, like a tennis ball machine spewing pompoms. Interviewing Pence recently about sexual harassment for The 700 Club, his first question was actually six: “So many people want to know, what’s the solution? What’s the answer? Where’s the morality in all of this in terms of what can be done? Do you legislate it? Is it a cultural issue? Can you help folks with some answers here about what’s been—a light has been shined on this topic, on this very important issue.”

Brody is proud of the fact that he has interviewed many Democrats for CBN over the years, including several interviews with Obama during the 2008 campaign. Josh Earnest, the former White House press secretary (currently an analyst for NBC News), said Brody aggressively pursued the first interview, explaining that he wanted to give Obama a chance to talk about his personal faith and his views on issues important to evangelicals. “He was true to his word,” Earnest told me by email. “It wasn’t a groundbreaking interview as I recall, but David gave then–Sen. Obama a fair venue for a discussion like this, something few conservative outlets would have done.” Earnest himself has appeared as a guest on Faith Nation.

CBN is still best known for The 700 Club, its flagship talk show hosted by the 87-year Robertson from a studio in his home base of Virginia Beach, Virginia. But the network opened up a Washington bureau in the 1980s and has been steadily expanding its newsgathering capabilities. After Obama took office, CBN was granted a seat in the White House briefing room for the first time.

Brody’s journalistic tactics seemed to shift in parallel. “I saw a major in change in David after Sarah Palin was nominated as VP, and the treatment she received,” said Wear, an evangelical who worked for the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships during Obama’s first term. Palin attended a Pentecostal church for many years, and her “persecution” by the mainstream media became a major theme in conservative Christian circles. “I think David saw a cultural divide emerging, and seemed to decide he needed to take sides,” Wear added. He explained that as a political strategist, he would find it difficult to advise a Democratic politician to sit down with Brody these days. Brody denies letting political bias affect his work, but said he starting making an effort to be “a little bit more bold” in his analysis around that time.

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Meanwhile, Brody’s style has remained corny and avuncular; he always seems to be having fun. When Republican politicians want to reach a conservative Christian audience, they go to Brody knowing they will find a cheerful, sympathetic ear. Gearing up for a primary campaign in 2011, thrice-married Newt Gingrich told Brody that he had sought forgiveness from God for things in his life that “were not appropriate.” Herman Cain’s notorious “Uzbeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan” moment came in response to a Brody softball that used “Uzbekistan” as a stand-in for “crazy things the unreasonable media might expect you to know about”: “Are you ready for the ‘gotcha’ questions that are coming from the media and others on foreign policy?” Brody asked the then-candidate. “Like, who’s the president of Uzbekistan?” Brody calls his interlocutory approach “ ‘Bless your heart’ style.” “If you give them a little bit more ‘bless your heart,’ they’re going to talk more,” he said.

Brody first interviewed Trump in 2011, when the businessman was toying with a run for president. That interview ended up playing a role in the 2016 campaign, because it included Trump’s clearest articulation of why he’d changed his mind on the abortion issue. Brody remembers that first conversation fondly. He was waiting in an office in Trump Tower, and Trump came in carrying a photograph of his childhood confirmation at a Presbyterian church in Queens. “David, take a look at this,” he said. “You might want to use this for your story.” The anecdote struck me as meaningless at best, and unflattering to both of them at worst; committed believers don’t tend to walk around bragging that they attended church one time many decades ago, but Brody was clearly charmed by the interaction. “That was so Trump,” he told me with a fond chuckle. “He’s like, ‘Take a look, I’ve got photo evidence here of me in church.’ ”

At their first meeting, Brody recalls that Trump seemed like a “genuine, no-nonsense, throw-political-correctness-out-the-window guy.” Trump, meanwhile, clearly trusts Brody, and is drawn to the Pentecostal strain of evangelicalism that CBN represents, which tends toward flashy aesthetics, blunt rhetorical style, and easy forgiveness of leaders who “stumble.” Faith Nation, which he co-hosts on Facebook Live with news correspondent Browder, was designed to take advantage of CBN’s new status in the Washington in-crowd. The weekly Faith Nation is in every way a splashier production than Brody’s previous news show, The Brody File, which broadcast its last episode almost a year ago. The light-filled Faith Nation studio near Dupont Circle is all glossy surfaces and screens, with a social-media correspondent monitoring viewer feedback in real time. Since its launch in July, Brody and Browder have interviewed Spicer, Mike Pence, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Sebastian Gorka, and Jeff Sessions.

Evangelical Christians did not initially seem like a natural constituency for a crude New Yorker who said on the campaign trail that he’s never asked for forgiveness from God. But white evangelicals voted overwhelmingly for Trump last fall, and although their support has slipped, 66 percent of them still approved of his job performance in late October, even as his popularity among the general public slumped to historic lows. Brody attributes the connection in part to a “psychological kinship”: Evangelicals see the world in terms of absolutes, he said, and so does Trump. Brody also sees a shared affinity for the politics of grievance, though he doesn’t phrase it that way. “A lot of people love to trash Trump for being so outspoken on certain issues,” he said. “Evangelicals are ridiculed all the time for their being outspoken about their faith in public. They felt a bond, a connection with Trump, that he was getting beat up by the media, and they’ve been beat up by the media.”

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He also points out that older Christians in particular appreciate Trump’s nostalgia for the 1950s, “an America that had prayer in school and had Bible reading in school, where people actually dressed up and went to church and didn’t come to church in baggy pants and sandals,” as Brody puts it, taking care to emphasize that he’s not referring to the era’s “racial relations.” (CBN’s audience is racially mixed, per statistics provided by the network, and so is its roster of on-air hosts, reporters, and guests.) Wear agrees that capitalizing on nostalgia is one of the president’s strengths. Trump “isn’t able to quote from scripture and isn’t able to give a compelling testimony,” he said. “But he is able to tell stories of American values and how he’s going to fight for them and make sure they don’t have to be scared to live in their own country anymore.” The fact that this version of “American values” has been so widely embraced by religious Christians reflects the sprawling definition of contemporary American Christianity that CBN helped craft.

Brody has a special knack for channeling his base’s gut instincts about the state of the country. When I asked him what exactly evangelicals thought had gone so terribly for the country in the last four to eight years, one of the first things he mentioned was the White House having rainbow lights projected onto it after the Supreme Court ruling in favor of gay marriage—something that never even would have occurred to me. As a journalist he doesn’t say “I’m personally outraged by this,” but he has an instinctual sense for the kinds of cultural moments that galvanize the people he’s speaking to.

And now his forthcoming book, The Faith of Donald J. Trump: A Spiritual Biography, will give him more room to square Trump’s version of Christianity with his own and his audience’s. The book will include new interviews with Trump, along with Vice President Pence, Kellyanne Conway, and others in the president’s inner circle. “David is a very friendly person who has developed deep networks,” said Brody’s co-author, Scott Lamb, a Baptist minister and Mike Huckabee biographer. “A real strength of the book is he can get just about anybody on the phone.” The first half of the book will focus on Trump’s religious influences and his “worldview,” and the second half will address his relationship with the faith community. (Brody’s wife, meanwhile, has a book due out the same month on “archeological discoveries that prove the Bible,” with blurbs from Huckabee and Trump lawyer Jay Sekulow.)

Through a tumultuous year, Brody’s faith in the president has remained seemingly unwavering. After the violent weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia, surrounding a white supremacist rally in August, he tweeted to “crazy white neo-Nazis” that Trump “has Jewish grandchildren,” and that the president “wants to ‘Make America Great Again’ not make America white again.” He opened the next Faith Nation with a sober statement about how white supremacy has “no place in true Biblical Christianity.” He sounded unusually shaken as he tried to square Trump’s disastrous “both sides” press conference with his own belief in the man’s essential goodness. “Trump is not a politician,” he said at one point. “It’s tough.”

When Brody and I last spoke near the end of the year, what I really wanted to know was whether he was concerned about the Trump administration’s apparent crisis point: indictments, internal chaos, plummeting approval ratings. He brushed the question off, and circled back to praising the way Trump has fulfilled his promises to evangelicals. Trump had delivered a Supreme Court justice and a booming economy, he said, and was about to declare Jerusalem the capitol of Israel. It was only later that I realized I’d asked him almost the exact same question in August, dozens of hypothetical “crisis points” ago.

The real chaos, as Brody and his viewers see it, is happening in the culture outside the walls of the White House. Brody might be right that most white evangelicals will remain loyal to Trump no matter what; he has certainly been right before. What he can’t bring himself to see, it seems to me, is the reality of where white evangelicals’ support of Trump has led them. In pursuit of an imagined 1950s gentility, they have allied themselves with a man who brags about grabbing women’s genitals, mocks the disabled, ridicules war heroes, and effectively endorses white supremacy. But Brody is willing to cheerfully overlook it all. The past year, for him, “has been an exciting whirlwind, a lot of perspiration on the forehead but a lot of smiles,” he said. “It’s nice to be respected.”