I went to church in search of Donald Trump.
To understand Scott, you have to understand Cleveland. I have lived in Cleveland, on and off, for the last 10 years and have seen the city go through a lot of change. From 2004 to 2016, Cleveland has gone from being the poorest big city in America to losing LeBron (and getting him back) to preparing to host the most important Republican convention in a century. But in all of my time working, living and socializing in Cleveland, I had never once heard of Pastor Darrell Scott or the New Spirit Revival Center.
Scott, pastor of the New Spirit Revival Center in Cleveland, burst onto the political scene last November when he pulled together a group of black pastors who were supposed to endorse Trump for president. He’s been met with a lot of skepticism, criticism and a lot of side eye. However, I honestly wanted to know, why would an African-American pastor with an African-American church be such a strong Trump supporter? His answers were surprising and disappointing, and on the whole contradictory. Which may explain a lot about what Trump’s appeal is to a certain segment of black voters.
This isn’t a reflection of my personal relationship with the church; it’s more a reflection of Scott’s status contrasted with his high-profile gig as “pastor for the Church of Trump.” There are big-time pastors who are political players in Cleveland, regularly engaging in community activism, hosting candidate forums and tacitly endorsing candidates for office. There’s the Rev. Jawanza Colvin at Olivet Baptist Church, where Oprah Winfrey occasionally visits and then-Sen. Barack Obama attended service while on the campaign trail.
There’s Pastor R.A. Vernon of the Word Church, whose daughter was on MTV’s My Super Sweet Sixteen and whose church boasts an ice-skating rink and an indoor soccer field for members. Scott’s church doesn’t roll off the lips of the half-dozen activists, politicos and journalists I talked to about powerful black clergy in Cleveland. When I asked about Scott and his endorsement of Trump, the response (once people became aware of who he was) was almost universally negative.
“This is all about the money and getting next to Trump,” said Stephanie Howse, an Ohio state representative. “Just last year, his wife was on a reality show [Editor’s note: the quickly canceled Preach on Lifetime]. He’s trying to get famous and be on the come-up. … If he really cared so much about politics, where has he been on local issues, where he could make a much greater impact?”
Started From the Bottom
In the 1980s, Scott was an addict and a drug dealer who went by the street name “Coddy” (or “Cotty,” in a Cleveland accent). Scott’s and his wife’s pasts as addicts are a key part of their ministry and part of what initially brought them to their relationship with Christ. But none of that explains what connects him to a billionaire businessman who’s been at the forefront of riots and protests and expressed hostility toward African Americans in almost every speech.
I attended Scott’s church for a week right after his endorsement of Trump and talked to parishioners and community members along the way. New Spirit Revival is located on Mayfield Road, a long stretch of road that goes from the suburbs to Case Western University to the city. The church is nestled among empty car dealerships, derelict homes and a Starbucks that looks as if it tried to gentrify 10 years too soon.
Scott himself is handsome, well dressed and a bit rough around the edges. He bears a striking resemblance to a 40-something Lloyd Banks and spits fire from the podium with the theatrics of most big-city black preachers.
Scott’s first sermon after endorsing Trump was one part self-aggrandizing revival and another part self-interview. Like many pastors, he portrayed himself as a man of God being attacked by haters and heathens. He railed against the “liberal media.”
“If I was Muslim, if I was homosexual, the media wouldn’t have a problem with what I was saying,” Scott said.
He railed against other ministers, like Paul Morton and Joseph Walker, for being jealous of his “five year” relationship with Trump. For the most part, the congregation of about 200 seemed more driven by loyalty to Scott than by any particular love for the Republican front-runner.
With a focus on money, something typical of many prosperity ministers, Scott spoke a lot about Trump’s wealth and was almost giddy talking about flying on Trump’s private jet and the gold-plated seat belts he got to buckle.
After the requisite hoots and amens, he essentially began to interview himself, asking questions and then answering them for the crowd.
Why did you meet Donald Trump? What did you talk about?
“We talked black stuff! We nailed him to the wall for two hours and I was the chief nailer!”
What will Donald Trump actually do for black voters?
“Trump asked us for a list of community programs that we were doing here in the city. He said once he becomes president, he’ll take every one of them national!”
Are you telling all African Americans to vote for Trump?
“You all know me. I can’t tell you where to get your hair done; how am I gonna tell you who to vote for? Unless Jesus Christ is on the ballot.”
What about the Black Lives Matter protester beaten up at a Trump rally while he encouraged it?
“Trump told us he’d look into it. But he said, what do you think would happen if somebody came into one of your church services trying to disrupt everything?”
After which Scott laughed and implied that he knew New Spirit Revival would beat down anyone who tried to disrupt one of his sermons, and the church agreed.
As open as he was with his congregation, he was much less so with the press. I was given the runaround when I tried to get an interview with Scott. It’s not that his media schedule is packed; it’s that he’s very selective. He has all but avoided black media, notoriously refusing to be interviewed by Roland Martin or urban-radio hosts, preferring instead to go on Fox News or morning debate panels on CNN.
When I finally managed to get an interview with Scott, I was guest-hosting the Michael Smerconish program on SiriusXM radio.
When I asked Scott what was the difference between Donald Trump and Donald Sterling (both have said racist things, both have been sued for racial discrimination, and both have media power and have made a few select black men wealthy), Scott said, “Trump is just judged differently,” and went on to say that he knew plenty of black pastors who like Donald Sterling.
When I asked him how Donald Trump could truly connect with black voters, given his words and violence at his rallies, the pastor revealed as much about his attitudes as he did about Trump.
“He’s a 69-year-old rich white man from upstate New York. [Editor’s note: Trump was born in the New York City borough of Queens.] He’s not going to turn hat backward, sag his jeans and flash gang signs while he puts out a rap video with Jay Z,” said Scott, the assumption being that gang signs, baggy jeans and rap videos are what’s necessary to get black votes.
When I pushed back, pointing out that Barack Obama never did anything like that while running for office (let alone Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Marco Rubio or anyone else), he claimed that he was just using an example. The issue I found, though, is that Scott, even when pressed, never seemed to have a real explanation as to why Trump was the best option for his congregation, or black voters in general. When I asked him why Trump was better for African-American Christians than Mike Huckabee, a minister, or Rick Santorum, his answer was, “They haven’t reached out to me.”
When I asked him how he reconciles being a pastor with endorsing a candidate who advocates refusing to allow immigrants into the United States based on their faith, he threw out some GOP talking points that Trump was only supporting a “temporary” ban on Muslims coming into the U.S. In other words, after spending time at Darrell Scott’s church and having a pleasant, lengthy interview with him, I didn’t find much depth to his reasons for supporting Trump, as opposed to any other Republican or Democrat. And even as Trump’s rhetoric and campaign rallies have become more and more violent, Scott has still refused to condemn those actions or to explain how a man who speaks violence to those who disagree with him lines up with a faith that encourages tolerance and loving one’s enemies.
Not About Politics
All of this plays into the narrative that Scott’s actions are more about raising his profile and financial gain than concern about politics, his faith or his flock. It would be one thing if Scott were a conservative, but he’s worked to elect Democratic mayors in Cleveland for years. At the same time, when Cleveland pastors rallied at the Cuyahoga County Courthouse on the one-year anniversary of Tamir Rice’s death, Scott was nowhere to be seen. He was at a Trump rally in Georgia. Maybe that’s all we need to know about his politics and priorities.
After all, it’s hard to ignore how profitable this newfound association with Trump could be for Scott and his church. There are millions of dollars in catering, housing and transportation contracts linked to the GOP convention in Cleveland, and some of those could certainly be funneled toward Scott now that Trump is a big GOP player. Further, it’s obvious that Scott and his wife have television aspirations (reality or otherwise), and being a Trump surrogate certainly gets Scott into meetings he couldn’t pull last year.
Darrell Scott isn’t the first African-American preacher to attach himself to a Republican candidate whose positions most black people disagree with. Rand Paul, Huckabee and others have trotted out black pastors as a way to signify to black and white voters that they’re not racist. (Remember how close T.D. Jakes was with George W. Bush?) Nor is Darrell Scott the first African-American pastor who might reap financial benefits from attaching himself to a political candidate of either party.
However, he may be about to take home the trophy for the biggest political come-up of 2016. To go from being overlooked and ignored by your own local news to flying around with Donald Trump and appearing on CNN and Fox News is quite an accomplishment. You just hope that at some point he can reconcile his “personal” decisions with the impact that a Trump presidency would have on his congregation, if not on black people as a whole. But he didn’t seem all that concerned about the contradiction.
As Scott said during that same sermon in which he answered his own questions regarding Trump: “If you’re going to lie to me, at least lie to me about something I want to hear.”
With that kind of attitude, he might be exactly what Donald Trump needs to win the White House.
Jason Johnson, political editor at The Root, is a professor of political science at Morgan State’s School of Global Journalism and Communication and is a frequent guest on MSNBC, CNN, Al-Jazeera International, Fox Business News and SiriusXM Satellite Radio. Follow him on Twitter.