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 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.
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.
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 Catholic, and their three children were baptized as infants.
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 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.
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 anti-abortion leaders 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.
To Anthea Butler, a religious studies professor at the University of Pennsylvania who writes about women and Christianity, Sanders’ role is more nuanced. 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?
“Here I am.”