Donald Trump won a standing ovation from hundreds of Christian conservatives who came to New York City Tuesday with a skeptical but willing attitude toward a man who has divided their group with comments on wormen, immigrants and Islam. In his comments the presumptive GOP nominee vowed to end the decades-old ban on tax-exempt groups’ — including churches — politicking, said religious liberty is “the #1 question,” and said he’d appoint anti-abortion Supreme Court justices.
“I think maybe that will be my greatest contribution to Christianity — and other religions, is to allow you, when you talk religious liberty, to go and speak openly and if you like somebody or want somebody to represent you, you should have the right to do it,” Trump said. A ban was put in place by Lyndon Johnson on tax-exempt groups making explicit political endorsements. Religious leaders in America today, Trump said, “are petrified.”
As president, he said, he’d work on things including: “freeing up your religion, freeing up your thoughts. You talk about religious liberty and religious freedom, you don’t have any religious freedom if you think about it,” he told the group, which broke in many times with applause.
Throughout the talk Trump emphasized that America was hurting for what he described as Christianity’s slide to become “weaker, weaker, weaker.” He said he’d get department store employees to say “Merry Christmas” and would fight restrictions on public employees such as public school coaches from being allowed to lead sectarian prayer on the field.
The audience included leaders and founders of many segments of the Christian Right, the evangelical movement that began in the 1970s under people including the late Jerry Falwell. Among those present and involved in the program Tuesday were Focus on the Family founder James Dobson (who is no longer with that group), former Christian Coalition head Ralph Reed and evangelist Franklin Graham (son of evangelical icon Billy Graham).
While polls show that the majority of white evangelicals — who make up about a fifth of the country — are favorable towards Trump, his campaign has bitterly divided Christian conservatives in general. Those who oppose him do so strongly, and later Tuesday a separate group of conservatives — including leading evangelicals — were meeting to strategize about a possible third candidate. Some leading Christian conservatives used the meeting to speak out against Trump and his comments about immigrants, women, Muslims and others.
“This meeting marks the end of the Christian Right,” Michael Farris, a national homeschooling pioneer and longtime figure of the Christian right, wrote on his Facebook page Tuesday. He noted that he was present at the first gathering of the Moral Majority in 1980. “The premise of the meeting in 1980 was that only candidates that reflected a biblical worldview and good character would gain our support. Today, a candidate whose worldview is greed and whose god is his appetites (Philippians 3) is being tacitly endorsed by this throng. … This is a day of mourning.”
Catholic conservative Robert George, former chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and a Princeton professor, declined to attend the meeting, saying while he may think even lower of Hillary Clinton, he fears Trump will “in the end, bring disgrace upon those individuals and organizations who publicly embrace him. For those of us who believe in limited government, the Rule of Law, flourishing institutions of civil society, and traditional Judeo-Christian moral principles, and who believe that our leaders must be persons of integrity and good character, this election is presenting a horrible choice. May God help us.”
Also Tuesday Hillary Clinton picked up the endorsement of Deborah Fikes, well-known for her years as a leader with the National Association of Evangelicals and the World Evangelical Alliance.
Some of those attending said the reception was very warm. Gov. Mike Huckabee, Dobson and others who spoke from the stage praised Trump and thanked him for spending time with the group.
“I believe that he came across very well as a messenger for everybody in the room, not just as a beneficiary of evangelical votes but as a fellow traveler. That’s not necessarily an easy distance for him to have traveled because people didn’t see him like that before,” said Marjorie Danenfelser of Susan B. Anthony’s List, which works to oppose abortion. “He made no missteps. There were no explosions.”
She said she couldn’t recall a candidate explicitly stating they would pursue “pro-life” justices. “They usually couch it in other words, like ‘constitutional,’ ” she said.
At the end of the event, the campaign announced an “evangelical executive board,” which included 21 names: 20 men and one woman, former Congresswoman Michele Bachmann. Others on the list included Dobson, Jerry Falwell Jr. of Liberty University and Reed.
The event wasn’t described as an endorsement, and there was no vote at the end. Many attendees may lean towards Trump, or are open to being, the question the event aimed to answer was how greatly.
The meeting was a display of many old-guard conservative Christian leaders. The event opened with former GOP candidate and neurosurgeon Ben Carson talking about unity, and then Graham saying a prayer before Trump spoke. Huckabee moderated a question and answer session.
About 50,000 questions were submitted, organizers said; 20 were chosen. Here are the leaders who asked questions and on which topics: Dobson asked about religious liberty, Reed asked about national security, prominent Latino pastor Samuel Rodriguez asked about immigration, Texas mega-pastor Jack Graham asked about leadership, Maryland Bishop Harry Jackson asked about marriage, Ronnie Floyd, immediate past president of the Southern Baptist Convention, asked about racial tensions and California televangelist David Jeremiah asked about Israel policy.
The meeting was closed to the media, but some attendees shared audio clips or reports.
Although Americans in general have been moving away from institutional faith, evangelicals in particular have always been skeptical of such hierarchy, and it’s hard to say how much sway the group will have in firing up the evangelical base.
By evening, a very different evangelical effort gets going in Manhattan. That includes members of a new group called Better for America, a coalition of social conservatives and other moderate Republicans who are opposing Trump. That effort was described a few days ago by my colleague Jennifer Rubin. The meeting Tuesday night, one evangelical leader attending said, will include topics including recruiting a candidate, improving ballot access and “strategies for causing trouble at the [GOP] convention.”
Social conservatives in the group say a hallmark is willingness to compromise – to a degree.
“To be frank, at this point, there’s a widespread feeling it would be hard to do worse than a choice between Trump and Clinton. There are threshold issues like [opposition to abortion], but this is not a group that will be overly strict about ideology. The circle of trust is wide,” said the evangelical leader with Better for America, who wasn’t authorized to speak for the group.
Also Tuesday, Fikes, a longtime leader in major evangelical organizations, in particular on human rights and religious-freedom issues, said Clinton represents Christian values far more than Trump.
“I feel like years of all the work that has been done on advancing international religious freedom in the last 15 years is in danger of unraveling with the policies of Donald Trump,” said Fikes, who was for years a board member of the National Association of Evangelicals and the United Nations’ representative for the World Evangelical Alliance. The WEA is an umbrella group of national evangelical organizations from dozens of countries.
Fikes said that she hears regularly from evangelicals overseas who are concerned that Trump’s comments on immigration and Islam could harm Christians who are minorities in other nations. Clinton, Fikes said, is associated with things such as health care and anti-poverty work.
“People refer to her as Sister Hillary, evangelicals! They don’t question her faith,” she said.