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Evangelicals give Trump much-needed boost after Manhattan summit

A group of interfaith religious leaders protest against Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump outside a hotel where he was to meet with evangelical leaders in New York
Interfaith religious leaders protest against Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump outside a hotel where he was to meet with evangelical leaders in New York on June 21, 2016. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

NEW YORK (RNS) Donald Trump’s flagging presidential bid is enjoying a boost of that old-time religion after conservative Christian leaders gave the candidate high praise and standing ovations at a critical closed-door meeting that one observer described as a “campaign rally.”

Trump would look back on the Tuesday (June 21) meeting as “the seminal event and turning point in taking you to the presidency,” former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Baptist and Trump backer who moderated the talks, told the presumptive Republican nominee in front of nearly 1,000 mainly evangelical leaders gathered at a Times Square hotel.

Presumed Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump addresses more than 1,000 Evangelical Christian leaders during "A Conversation about America's Future with Donald Trump and Ben Carson" on June 21, 2016. Photo by Saulo Alonso Rodrigue

Presumed Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump addresses more than 1,000 Evangelical Christian leaders during “A Conversation about America’s Future with Donald Trump and Ben Carson” on June 21, 2016. Photo by Saulo Alonso Rodrigue

Huckabee’s remarks were among the many enthusiastic comments about Trump that leaked throughout the day on social media and elsewhere.

“Mr. Trump is a bold and fearless leader who will take the fight to our enemies and to the radical Islamic terrorists, whether they attack in San Bernardino, Orlando or Paris,” the Rev. Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University in Virginia and a longtime evangelical Trump supporter, said in his speech at the unprecedented event.

At a news conference after the meeting, Bill Dallas, head of United in Purpose and a chief organizer of the summit, said the encounter with Trump was “overwhelming” and “exceeded our expectations on many levels.”

Others at the panel generally echoed that excitement while being careful not to formally endorse Trump.

United in Purpose CEO and event organizer Bill Dallas shares unifying vision during "A Conversation of About America’s Future with Donald Trump and Ben Carson”on June 21, 2016. Photo by Saulo Alonso Rodrigue

United in Purpose CEO and event organizer Bill Dallas shares unifying vision during “A Conversation of About America’s Future with Donald Trump and Ben Carson”on June 21, 2016. Photo by Saulo Alonso Rodrigue

“Donald Trump did himself a great favor today,” said Kelly Shackelford, head of the First Liberty Institute, a legal advocacy group that fights for religious freedom causes and has strongly opposed the Obama administration.

Trump himself brimmed with characteristic confidence in a statement to the Christian Broadcasting Network, whose correspondent, David Brody, was one of a handful of friendly journalists invited to watch the proceedings.

“I just had record-setting attendance with evangelicals from all over the country,” he said. “Unbelievable event – great people!”


READ: Trump to top evangelicals: ‘I’m so on your side’


The meeting came at a critical moment for Trump: In recent days he fired his longtime campaign manager, financial disclosures showed his campaign coffers are nearly empty, and his poll numbers are flagging worse than expected after a series of controversial remarks.

Perhaps most worrying for Trump and the GOP are surveys showing that his support among white evangelical Christians – the key to Republican electoral success in November – is not nearly as strong as it needs to be.

There had been grave reservations about Trump among leading Christian conservatives, especially evangelicals, and many had backed his vanquished rivals, such as Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio.

But some had supported Trump and others started to come around, or seemed to want to find reasons to support him over his likely Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, who has long been the bane of many evangelicals.

Mark Gonzales, founder of the Hispanic Action Network, speaks at a press conference in Manhattan following an unprecedented meeting between Donald Trump and 1,000 leading conservative Christians who were looking for reasons to support the presumptive Republican presidential nominee. RNS photo by David Gibson

Mark Gonzales, founder of the Hispanic Action Network, speaks at a press conference in Manhattan after an unprecedented meeting between Donald Trump and 1,000 leading conservative Christians who were looking for reasons to support the presumptive Republican presidential nominee. RNS photo by David Gibson

This meeting seemed to provide all the reassurance they needed.

“Several times several people commented, ‘I’m impressed. I’m leaving more hopeful.’ Certainly, that reflects where I’m at,” said Curt Smith, president of the Indiana Family Institute and an at-large delegate to the GOP convention.

Marjorie Dannenfelser, a longtime abortion opponent who heads the Susan B. Anthony List, acknowledged that Trump “was not my first choice” and that her group had lobbied against him during the primaries.

But, she added, “I have come along on a journey” and she said that if she wasn’t ready to endorse Trump today, she would likely do so in light of his assurances to defund Planned Parenthood and nominate anti-abortion Supreme Court justices.

His commitment is “very clear,” Dannenfelser said.

The leaders who spoke to the media also made it clear that the conversation with Trump, which lasted several hours, was not a theological inquiry or an attempt to turn him into a rock-ribbed Bible thumper, as one put it.

Many said they clearly had some policy differences with him and they recognized that Trump has not always been a saint. But they all stressed that Christianity is about forgiveness, and it is important to recognize when people are on a pilgrimage toward faith.

They also underscored that the election is about policies — and on that score Trump did not come empty-handed.

Yes, he invoked Scripture and said his own Presbyterian background was important to his life. But he repeatedly returned to policy proposals where he was more comfortable, such as pledging to defend religious freedom and attacking Clinton for failing to do so.

He also impressed many by vowing to revoke long-standing statutes that threaten the tax-exempt status of congregations that engage in open politicking. “I think maybe that will be my greatest contribution to Christianity and other religions,” he said during the meetings.

Could Trump’s political salvation come from these Christian conservatives?

The meeting was initially seen as a gamble, given that the thrice-married New York real estate mogul has been repeatedly blasted for his personal lifestyle and for his caustic comments about women and minorities – not to mention his often cringe-inducing struggles in articulating his Christian bona fides.


READ: 7 conservative Christians who are not supporting Trump


But it was a bet that Trump apparently couldn’t pass up.

He knows how important the evangelical bloc is, and he has ramped up his efforts to court those voters in recent weeks; on Tuesday, he also unveiled his new evangelical advisory board.

Several participants in the meeting said privately that political operatives in the campaign at first resisted proposals to hold this meeting, fearing that if some of the participants came out bad-mouthing their candidate that criticism would dominate the headlines and undermine any progress in solidifying this crucial electoral bloc.

Other Trump advisers, however, mainly Huckabee and former rival Ben Carson, convinced Trump that it was worth it.

The Trump campaign did insist that the meeting take place on his home turf, which led to the rather unusual scene of hundreds of largely Bible Belt Christians wandering out into the glitz and hustle of midtown Manhattan – Trump’s natural environment, but an exotic venue for those who felt the meeting should have been some place like Texas.

Also, the meeting was initially billed as a “conversation” between a few hundred faith leaders and Trump, and it grew to 500 and then 900 and then nearly 1,000.

It also grew increasingly scripted, with special prayers for the meeting’s success distributed to participants and pre-selected questions given to the candidate ahead of time.

That initially caused some private grumbling among a few of those in attendance.

But the careful choreography appeared to work as the predominant feeling coming out of the meeting was that the author of “The Art of the Deal” may have finally closed the deal with evangelicals.

“It was basically a campaign rally, folks,” tweeted Fox News columnist Todd Starnes, who was also allowed inside.

The question now, however, is whether the good feelings from this event — and several other recent efforts Trump has made to court conservative Christians — will translate into support among voters.

Some of the very same leaders who were at Tuesday’s gathering backed other GOP candidates in the primaries, but most evangelical primary voters went for Trump — as the presumptive nominee himself was quick to point out.

It’s all about turnout at this point, and Trump would need at least 75 or 80 percent of the evangelical vote to win and to compensate for his shortfall among other key demographics in the electorate. That’s about the percentage that voted for Romney in 2012, whereas Trump is drawing just 62 percent evangelical support currently.

But several participants believe it can happen, and already is.

Evangelicals across the country “want to be with Donald Trump because they can’t accept the alternative,” said Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council.

If everyone’s mind is not quite made up yet, Perkins said, Trump “will have increasing wind in his sails from the grass roots.” And that’s exactly the kind of network he said Trump needs given the struggles and small size of his own campaign staff.

“I think we’re on a great path,” added Ken Blackwell, also of the FRC. But Blackwell said “to get the intensity … to turn out the vote, to beat the Clinton machine, it’s going to take a continuation of this conversation.”

About the author

David Gibson

David Gibson is a national reporter for RNS and an award-winning religion journalist, author and filmmaker. He has written several books on Catholic topics. His latest book is on biblical artifacts: "Finding Jesus: Faith. Fact. Forgery," which was also the basis of a popular CNN series.

About the author

Emily McFarlan Miller

Emily McFarlan Miller is a national reporter for RNS based in Chicago. She covers evangelical and mainline Protestant Christianity.

29 Comments

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  • As a Southern Baptist who supports Donald Trump, I’m under no illusion that he is a born again Christian. It is obvious he is not, nor does he claim to be. However, he has stated that he supports of religious liberty and Christians. His determination, tenacity, and willingness to put America first is vitally important to me as a voter and person who believes that dramatic change must occur in the US Federal government.

  • He pander-bears his soul and they believe him? Whodathunk.
    Don’t they realize that, every time he speaks, he simply says whatever he thinks his particular audience du jour wants to hear, no matter what?
    Don’t they know that his promises to “put America first” are no more credible than his claim
    “I’m a tremendous believer”?
    Or “I know more about ISIS than the generals do”?
    Or “…I know nothing about David Duke; I know nothing about white supremacists”?
    Or “I got to know [Putin] very well, because we were both on 60 Minutes”?
    Or…?

  • Todd Starnes, Hindenburg wannabe, was complaining that 2Rump didn’t even mention Jesus?

    Why would he? JEsus can’t vote.

  • Sorry, but you’re making way too much sense for these liberals. Now they’re going to start hating on YOU as well !!

  • You guys are craven. Essentially declaring you are with Trump because you think he will push a bigoted agenda which grants Christian fundies undue privilege. Trump has shown more contempt for his supporters, investors and backers than any other groups. He made his living leaving them in the lurch.

    Have fun.

  • Trump had his photo taken with Rev. Falwell and his wife with a framed Playboy magazine hanging on the wall behind them. Keepin’ it classy, Mr. Trump.

    #NeverTrump #NeverHillary

  • Will you stop with the defamatory fiction that gays support Trump?

    It’s complete and utter fiction. You have been called out on it before, but you repeat it.

  • Defamatory trollery is duly noted. Trump has come out and said, while pandering to evangelicals he opposed gay marriage, supports discriminatory laws against gays and promised SCOTUS replacements who support that agenda.

    Gays for Trump is up there with Muslims for Trump or Latinos for Trump as groups of maybe one online poster or two at most. 🙂

  • I’m sticking to third parties and have no plans of voting Trump, but…

    A flamboyant gay man is the most vocal pro-Trump political commentator I’ve heard.

    I don’t find Trump’s ideas to keep Muslims from immigrating palatable. I find it more palatable then Clinton’s ideas to increase the amount of war and death in Muslim nations. One shows callous indifference to the refugee crisis, one strongly supports the policies that have caused the refugee crisis. I’d rather have the callously indifferent person then the person causing the crisis. There may be Muslims out there who think in a similar manner who, unlike myself, don’t think third parties are a “real” option for whatever reason.

  • How can evangelicals vote for someone who has not accepted someone as their personal Lord and Savior? Ohhhhh, I get it, an evangelical is only literal when it helps their cause. What a bunch of wimps.

  • What constitutes putting America first? Making sure you get what you want? When does the Biblical mandate about helping the poor ever enter his mind? Putting America first is nothing more than political correctness from so called conservatives meaning they want the status quo. Oh yes, and that God has commanded that everybody has a gun because otherwise the Democrats will take you all down a slippery slope into not having guns, lest we forget that.

  • Those “thousands of GOP gays” went the way of the Conservative Latino and Conservative Muslim vote. Who were in significant numbers in the days of Bush the Lesser. The GOP drove them away in various efforts to pander to bigoted white Christianfolk. There is about zero chance any of those formerly conservative groups are going to be voting Trump. Your claims are not only wildly incorrect, they are defamation at this point. Given how often you are repeating such a brain dead canard.

  • Give me a link to a source. I do not believe you. If it were true you could back it up from something people would consider credible.

  • This evangelical finds all of this very sad. People are willing to sell their souls in their lust to be associated with power. Under no circumstances would I ever vote for Trump!

  • Still peddling that lie? So where can I find the stories of Trump’s mythical gay supporters online?

  • I am not the one making the claim. Your repeated avoidance of proof when asked, just demonstrates you are a 1iar. I am not going to ask you again. I know you are full of it here. You will repeat that fiction as often as possible

  • I am not the one making the claim. Your repeated avoidance of proof when asked, just demonstrates you are just trolling.. I am not going to ask you again. I know you are full of it here. But you will repeat that fiction as often as possible

  • LOL! I can think of 3 on this board who aren’t. Go away before some idjut starts to take you seriously on that stuff.

  • Orlando wasn’t caused because of guns… Orlando was because of homophobia, which was generated from religious rhetoric.

    Do what you will with guns… But the Omar Marteens will still be there, until religions stop their persecution of LGBT.

    (BTW. If you feel inclined to write about the degree of one religions persecution of LGBT over another…. Here will be a version of my reply ; prejudice is prejudice. If you are try to claim your religion is different than the other – it doesn’t say much for your religion to point out that your hate isn’t as violent as another religions).

  • No self respecting gay man who considers Donald a friend would let Donald wear that bad rug, or terrible orange makeup job

  • “Donald Trump’s flagging presidential bid is enjoying a boost of that old-time religion after conservative Christian leaders gave the candidate high praise and standing ovations at a critical closed-door meeting that one observer described as a “campaign rally.””

    The article provides no evidence for this claim, nor do I see any in the real world. Over at Real Clear, http://www.realclearpolitics.com/epolls/2016/president/us/general_election_trump_vs_clinton-5491.html, Clinton has shown a one-click improvement, her lead over Donald rising from 5.8 to 5.9% since his verbal assault in front of the Christianists.

    -dlj.

  • But “At least we’re not as bad as the Muslims” is a genuine defense of piety.

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