This is the world as seen through the eyes of White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders:
The day before this interview, she made headlines 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 leather-bound 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.”
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-the-scenes talented political organizer, raised as a conservative Christian.
She watched her father, Southern Baptist pastor-turned-GOP-governor Mike Huckabee, sidelined constantly. Arkansas Democrats literally nailed his office door shut.
She saw conservative Christians — like her family, like most everyone she knew — ridiculed in American pop culture.
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.
She assumed the job of press secretary in July. Since then, 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.
She sits inside 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.
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.
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.
Although some say the Trump-evangelical 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 more-deliberate-than-usual hand, and has put Trump there for some reason.
Brian Kaylor, a Baptist pastor with a PhD in political communications who has written several books about religion and politics, thinks Sanders holds this view of a divine plan and it gives her confidence at the podium.
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.
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.
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.”
Faith is her family’s cornerstone, and politics has always been 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’s parents demanded that their children get involved.
After college, Sanders moved to Washington, where she worked in legislative affairs for the Bush administration’s Education Department. At the time, she thought she’d never leave.
“I had no intentions of going back,” she said, but did in 2006 to help her father start a PAC in Little Rock. Sanders was considered an especially gifted young organizer and given important jobs on not only her father’s campaign but other national ones, including that of Sen. John Boozman (R-Ark.) and Tim Pawlenty’s run for president in 2011.
Multiple people who worked on campaigns with Sanders praised her technical abilities — her ability to juggle a lot at once (including on understaffed campaigns), her high energy, her thoughtful management of grass-roots organizing, her political instincts on what makes one candidate appealing rather than another. Few could recall her policy priorities or views.
That love-hate thing with D.C. is a core part of conservative evangelicals’ focus on politics.
This belief may have brought Sanders and her father to Trump early — in early 2016, long before most well-known conservative Christian leaders.
In an interview, Huckabee said Trump’s perceived lack of pretense drew his daughter in.
“She can deal with the authenticity of people who are not like her. One thing she’d not be comfortable with are people who behave one way in front of faith people and another with secular people. Someone who pretends to be a faith person but isn’t.” Trump, he said, is authentic, a highly prized characteristic.
Asked by the New York Times earlier this fall what drew her to Trump, Sanders was quick to answer:
When asked to untangle conservative Christian views about Trump, Sanders said she thought the appeal was pretty basic: the appointment of Neil M. Gorsuch to the Supreme Court and his efforts on abortion and religious freedom for conservatives.
When she was appointed, many antiabortion leaders from big groups such as the Susan B. Anthony List and Concerned Women for America celebrated — even as evangelicals in the heartland would be likely to raise eyebrows about a mother of young children taking such a high-powered, round-the-clock job.
Dianne Bystrom, director of a center on women and politics at Iowa State University, said GOP women just started embracing motherhood in politics in the past couple of years.
“It used to be no one campaigned on being a mom, because if you were a mom, why aren’t you taking care of your kids? But [in the past few years] being a mom is being turned into an advantage.”
It looks more nuanced to Anthea Butler, a religious studies professor at the University of Pennsylvania who writes about women and Christianity. To Butler, Sanders is “the classical evangelical woman,” someone who has worked for men “and knows how she is supposed to behave as a support to men in power. She must back them at all costs, and not appear to disagree in public. . . . I’m not saying you should discount her for what she has done, but if you look at her life, she has been at the seat of political evangelical power for a long time. She knows what’s up.”
It’s true that Sanders, despite her self-described outsider status, has been in an elite position of influence her entire life. But never in one that comes with a West Wing office. The question is: When the Trump years are over, what will she do? What effect will all of this have on her career?
Right now she is not focusing that far ahead. Instead, she said in her office, what she wants most is to be a good role model for her kids.
And what does she think about the fact that her children are watching her serve Trump?