By ELANA SCHOR
Vice President Mike Pence, left, greets Senior Pastor Dr. Robert Jeffress, right, after Pence spoke at the Southern Baptist megachurch First Baptist Dallas during a Celebrate Freedom Rally in Dallas, Sunday, June 28, 2020.
NEW YORK (AP) — Churches connected to President Donald Trump and other organizations linked to current or former Trump evangelical advisers received at least $17.3 million in loans from a federal rescue package designed to aid small businesses during the coronavirus pandemic.
Those receiving loans include City of Destiny, the Florida church that Trump’s personal pastor and White House faith adviser Paula White-Cain calls home, and First Baptist Dallas, led by Trump ally and senior pastor Robert Jeffress. City of Destiny got between $150,000 and $350,000 from the Paycheck Protection Program, or PPP, and First Baptist Dallas got between $2 million and $5 million, according to data released by the Treasury Department on Monday.
Loan recipients included several churches and organizations connected to allies who joined Trump’s evangelical advisory board during his 2016 campaign, helping a twice-divorced candidate win over a socially conservative constituency that has proven an essential part of his political base.
Payments received by churches and other organizations linked to Trump’s evangelical allies represent a small fraction of the total aid the program gave to religious entities, which were allowed to access pandemic assistance loans even if they performed only faith-based functions.
Jeffress noted that in establishing the relief program, the Trump administration as well as Congress not only allowed houses of worship to take part but “encouraged” applications for aid out of an understanding “that houses of worship are not only ministries, but they’re employers.”
The number of loan recipients connected to religious supporters of the president, however, illustrates the potential pitfalls for churches and other faith-based groups that opted to pursue the financial aid amid questions about blurring the line between church and state.
Government data shows Jeffress’ church reported retaining 293 jobs with its loan, while Prestonwood Christian Academy in Plano, Texas, reported retaining zero jobs with its loan of between $2 million and $5 million. That school is associated with Prestonwood Baptist Church, where senior pastor Jack Graham is a longtime Trump backer who wrote an op-ed lauding the president’s anti-abortion credentials in January.
Graham, whose megachurch claims more than 42,000 members, is not related to Trump evangelical adviser Franklin Graham, son of the late Rev. Billy Graham.
Other program beneficiaries connected to veteran evangelical Trump allies include The Faith & Freedom Coalition, founded by conservative strategist Ralph Reed, which got a loan of between $150,000 and $350,000. That group reported retaining 24 jobs with its loan, according to government data.
The PPP helps smaller businesses stay open and keep Americans employed amid the coronavirus pandemic. Under the program, the government is backing $659 billion in low-interest business loans that will be forgiven if employers use the money on payroll, rent and similar expenses. Companies typically must have fewer than 500 workers to qualify.
About $130 billion was unclaimed as the application deadline closed June 30. With money still available, Congress voted to extend the program just as it was expiring, setting a new date of Aug. 8.
The public may never know the identity of more than 80% of the nearly 5 million beneficiaries to date because the administration has refused to release details on loans under $150,000 — which accounts for the vast majority of borrowers. That secrecy spurred an open-records lawsuit by a group of news organizations, including The Associated Press.
Still, the release of the data is the most complete look at the program’s recipients so far.
The federal government disclosed the dollar figures in ranges rather than specific amounts. That means the $17.3 million figure for the loans to Trump-connected churches and other organizations is a minimum, with the real number somewhere between there and $42.3 million.
The AP’s analysis of the data examined organizations tied to members of the president’s 2016 evangelical advisory board, in addition to those linked to pastors who have publicly supported the president as he pushes to mobilize religious conservative voters.
King Jesus International Ministry, the Miami megachurch where Trump launched his evangelical outreach push ahead of November’s election, received a loan of between $2 million and $5 million according to the data. That church’s pastor, Guillermo Maldonado, was also among a group of faith leaders who met and prayed with Trump at the White House last fall.
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