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-GOP-governor 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-year-old 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 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.”
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-the-scenes 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.
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.
“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.
“As a person of faith, I think we all 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.”
“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.”
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. There has been, in her lifetime in particular, a feeling among such Americans that politicians have broken promises to Christian conservatives. There is always a fear of being used, of not being dealt with genuinely.
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: “I thought he could win.”
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.
“Some things are black and white, and some aren’t. Some are simple right and wrong questions of morality. Tax reform isn’t necessarily a question of morality. For me, the life issue is a question of morality. Those aren’t the same for me,” she said in her office.
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.
“It’s amazing how much things change when you realize people are really closely watching what you’re doing and following every move you make, ” she said. “I want to make sure I’m teaching them the right thing, it encourages you to be a better person,” she said of her children.
And what does she think about the fact that her children are watching her serve Trump?
“Here I am.”