Church of The Donald

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The Music City campus of the Trinity Broadcasting Network is about a half-hour drive from Music City itself, in a placid Nashville suburb on a bend in the Cumberland River where the main road through town is called the Johnny Cash Parkway. TBN, America’s largest Christian television network, acquired the complex in 1994 after the death of country singer Conway Twitty, who had operated it as a sprawling tourist attraction he called Twitty City. Last year, TBN renovated Twitty’s personal auditorium, leveling the floor, adding large neon signs and a faux-brick backdrop under the original Corinthian columns. The resulting TV set looks like an urban streetscape framed by a Greek temple.

On a February night, in his large office just above the auditorium, the network’s biggest star is making last-minute plans for what’s shaping up to be a busy evening. First, Mike Huckabee fields some logistics for dinner at his nearby condo, where he will host three couples who won the privilege in a charity auction. He takes a call from the actor Jon Voight, who tells Huckabee he is free to do an interview about Israel. (Huckabee leaves the next day for Jerusalem, where TBN opened another studio a few years ago.) He checks with one of his producers about an old “Laugh-In” clip Huckabee had requested. “We aren’t paying $6,500 for it, good gosh!” he laughs when he hears the cost of the snippet. “Did they point a gun at your head and wear a ski mask when you asked that?”

Two hours later, Huckabee walks onto a stage in front of more than 200 people and kicks off a taping of his hourlong cable show. For nearly all of its 45-year history, Trinity’s programming had been strictly religious, a mix of evangelical preachers, gospel music and a flagship talk show called “Praise the Lord” (now just “Praise”). But Huckabee’s show is saturated with politics. The former two-term governor of Arkansas and one-time Iowa caucus winner opens with a disquisition on the Fourth Amendment (“Our system is designed to make sure the government is your servant”) leading into a pre-taped interview with Senator Rand Paul. It’s followed by an appearance by Kayleigh McEnany, the Republican National Committee spokeswoman and a frequent campaign surrogate for Donald Trump. The crowd roars with laughter when Huckabee promises he won’t go on for as long as Nancy Pelosi, a reference to her recent filibuster-style speech on the House floor. “Can you imagine Nancy Pelosi for eight hours?” he asks, chuckling. “NO!” the audience shouts back.

When “Huckabee” made its debut on TBN last fall, it immediately became the network’s highest-rated show, with more than a million viewers for a typical episode. Unlike every other show the network has produced, it is overtly political and squarely focused on current events. It has a variety component, with musical guests and comedians, and Huckabee occasionally breaks out his own bass guitar on stage. But in its six months on the air, Huckabee has also interviewed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Trump-defending Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, anti-abortion activist Serrin Foster and former Senator Joe Lieberman. The very first guest on his very first show, last October, was President Trump.

A generation ago—even a few years ago—this would have been unthinkable. Christian TV was largely the province of preachers, musicians, faith healers and a series of televangelism scandals. Politicians were leery of getting too close. To establishment evangelicals, not to mention the rest of America, Christian TV was hokey at best, and disreputable at worst.

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