(RNS) He needs no introduction, nor does he need forgiveness — at least in his eyes.
On Tuesday (June 21), I joined more than 900 other predominantly evangelical Christians from around the country to engage in a conversation with Donald Trump at a Manhattan hotel on Times Square.
One might say it was “YUGE.”
The presumptive Republican nominee took predetermined questions that were couched in praise from pre-selected evangelical leaders. Billed as a “conversation,” the event felt more like a cross between a revival meeting and a campaign rally, all guided by the moderator Mike Huckabee — a former Baptist pastor and Arkansas governor.
Although some of the evangelical leaders were obviously curious about what Trump would say, most seemed satisfied with what he already had said. Between the amens and applause, Trump answered questions covering a range of topics, including religious liberty, immigration, Israel and the military.
After a little more than 90 minutes of questions, Trump, like Elvis, left the building.
And he left a lot of unanswered questions behind. Those questions were then posed to a panel of nine participants representing the various strata of evangelical cultural engagement, from pro-life leaders to religious liberty lawyers.
Members of the audience, which was now much smaller, wound up voicing their opinions as much as asking questions.
One individual proudly proclaimed that he was a former homosexual and wondered what the panel thought of Trump’s relative silence on the LGBT movement. Following the Trump model, the responses were varied and failed to answer the question. But he did get applause from the crowd as a parting gift.
Another person gave a testimony concerning the plight of military leaders under the Obama administration. This was less of a question and more of a soapbox. But he also left with a parting gift of applause from the crowd.
Yet there were no questions regarding Trump’s faith. No one came into the room to hear Trump’s opinion regarding the current Trinitarian debate, but it would have been nice to hear how his faith shaped his understanding and responsibility toward the unborn — among other issues.
Instead of reasoned and thoughtful responses, audience members got a series of non sequiturs, basically audible tweets.
Maybe that’s because Huckabee had already settled the faith question earlier in the morning. The former governor sought to ease Trump’s nerves — if he was in fact anxious — by saying this was not a theological debate or a game of dogma gotcha. This was a conversation over the future of America.
“Moderator” may be the wrong word to use for Huckabee. The concept of moderator comes from the idea of being a manager or director. Huckabee was less of a moderator and more of a sidekick. He was Ed McMahon and Trump was Johnny Carson. Or, for millennials, you might say he was Pitbull chiming in every now and then.
Huckabee proclaimed that Trump was “God’s man to lead our country.” According to Huckabee, people have come to support Trump because of the abyss that our country has fallen into. Unsure what to do, they look to Trump for guidance. Huckabee seemed to think that was just fine.
Huckabee’s first “question” had to do with his admiration of Trump’s parenting. The former candidate reflected on the love and support Trump received from his children after each debate. Huckabee said that it is easy to put on a show in front of the cameras; it is harder behind the scenes.
But we were there, behind the scenes, as it were, and some of us wanted to know what Trump plans to do about ISIS, a terrorist group that uses women and children as shields and slaves. We wanted to hear about an immigration plan that is more than barring people because of their Muslim faith.
Those are the kind of questions we needed to ask, and the information we as believers — and voters — need before we cast a ballot in November. We are not voting for a father in chief, but a commander in chief.
Though there were no cameras allowed in this conversation with Trump, there was also nothing new — except increased support among evangelical leaders for Trump, and my unanswered questions.
(J. Nick Pitts, a doctoral candidate and adjunct professor at Dallas Baptist University, is director of cultural engagement at the Denison Forum on Truth and Culture)