Politics & Policy

Trump Struggles to Close the Deal with Evangelicals

(File photo: Lisa Hornak/Reuters)
At a meeting in New York, even those social-conservative leaders who planned to vote for him wouldn't endorse him.

New York — Donald Trump began his summit with social conservatives here Tuesday by promising to stay for as long as it would take to answer their questions and address their concerns.

But after an uneventful 75 minutes during which he fielded only five or six inquiries from the audience — and offered little in the way of new or revelatory answers — the presumptive nominee departed from the sixth floor of the Marriott Marquis in Times Square. He left behind an Evangelical movement united by visceral opposition to Hillary Clinton yet still divided by his own candidacy.

Certainly, the activists in attendance were pleased that Trump took the time to join them. Eight of the event’s organizers convened a press conference afterward in which they gushed about his appearance, saying it exceeded expectations and provided hope for a continued dialogue. But none of those eight leaders, when asked for a show of hands, said they were ready to endorse the winner of the 2016 Republican presidential primary.

Such was the reality of Tuesday’s much-ballyhooed meeting: After all the hype, nothing was said or done to fundamentally alter the uneasy relationship between Trump and the Christian Right. In interviews with a dozen attendees, the most common assessment of Trump’s performance was a shrug. He checked boxes on policy issues, they said, and played to the crowd’s greatest insecurity by repeatedly referencing the Supreme Court as a reminder of what’s at stake in November. Some activists reluctantly acknowledged afterward that they personally plan to vote for him. But many of these individuals were present Tuesday due to their leadership roles in large, grassroots-oriented organizations; strikingly, none of them are yet willing to extend Trump an endorsement that could mobilize their constituents on his behalf.

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“A lot of social conservatives . . . want to be with Donald Trump because they see the alternative,” says Family Research Council president Tony Perkins, who helped organize Tuesday’s gathering. He described it as “a historic event,” but like many of his contemporaries, hasn’t yet taken the leap of endorsing Trump.

“Overall it was positive, just because he was here. And personally, he has my vote,” says Penny Nance, president of Concerned Women for America. “But the question still is whether I can feel confident in asking people to join me.”

Nance was one of roughly 50 VIPs that met with Trump privately before the bigger gathering. He took no questions in that meeting, and “even there, everything was completely boilerplate,” she says.

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For the larger session, some 50,000 questions had been submitted from Christian activists around the country, with organizers narrowing the submissions to a list of 20 — and even then, Trump tackled only a fraction of that list. People in the room say he offered acceptable, if uninventive, commentary on issues such as religious liberty, immigration, social justice, the Supreme Court, and Israel.

#share#Trump, attendees say, played it safe and catered to his audience with carefully prepared phrases such as “pro-life judges” and “right to religious freedom.” He also raised, unsolicited, his concerns about a 50-year-old law that could threaten the tax-exempt status of churches that speak out on social issues. It may not have been a tour de force, but Trump’s supporters in the room believe he hit the right notes to soothe the anxieties of on-the-fence conservatives in attendance.

“It was music to their ears,” says Ralph Reed, president of the Faith and Freedom Coalition and a member of Trump’s newly announced Evangelical Executive Advisory Board.

Reed acknowledges that Trump didn’t break new ground with any promises or policy proposals. But just by attending Tuesday’s event, he argues, Trump made inroads with a constituency that has viewed him with suspicion and even hostility. “Woody Allen famously said half of life is showing up,” Reed says. “He showed up today.” (Allen actually said it was 80 percent of life.)

Trump, attendees say, played it safe and catered to his audience with carefully prepared phrases such as ‘pro-life judges’ and ‘right to religious freedom.’

Trump was given a warm welcome thanks to glowing introductions from Jerry Falwell Jr. and Franklin Graham, both heirs to a religious Right whose influence has waned in recent years. Their family names still carry enormous currency in evangelical circles, however, and they made the case that while Trump doesn’t share their traditional faith background, Christians should nonetheless accept him as one of their own.

“They vouched for him. And that’s meaningful to me,” says E. W. Jackson, a minister and conservative activist who was the nominee for lieutenant governor of Virginia in 2013. “I think there a lot of Christians that question [Trump’s faith], so hearing that from evangelicals of their stature was very encouraging to me.”

Trump’s outreach was also aided by Ben Carson and Mike Huckabee, two former rivals for the Republican presidential nomination who remain popular with the Christian-conservative base. Carson lent his name to help organize the event and was in attendance Tuesday; Huckabee served as the moderator of Trump’s Q & A session. He broke the ice by joking that everyone in the room was happy to see Trump on stage — except he and Carson.

Huckabee, who hosted a Fox News show for many years, fit the profile of a friendly emcee. But multiple attendees took issue with his role in the proceedings.

“I don’t understand why Huckabee was the moderator,” says Tom DeLay, the former House majority leader. “Huckabee sold out for Trump. This was supposed to be a meeting of people who had real concerns. I love Mike Huckabee, but I don’t think it was appropriate to have him as the moderator in this particular setting. He spent half the time — half of our time — cheerleading for Trump.”

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The organizers made clear that nobody was planning an inquisition. But between Huckabee’s commentary, questions-turned-speeches from attendees, and Trump’s own rambling answers, participants voiced frustration that there was only time for a handful of questions — none of which probed Trump on his own faith or sought explanation for his multiple shifts on abortion, which were priorities for some attendees coming in.

Trump teased the VIP group by telling them of Christianity, “I owe so much to it in so many ways.” In a video posted to Twitter by Jackson, he proceeded to say that he wouldn’t be standing before them without it — not because of how it shaped his life or informed his worldview, but “because the Evangelical vote was mostly gotten by me.”

Increasingly, however, top social conservatives are accepting the reality that Trump will never think or talk like they do. The arguments made by Falwell and Graham on Tuesday — that it’s unfair to compare Trump with idealized Christian leaders — are echoed by other attendees, many of whom are still struggling to reconcile Trump’s many manifest shortcomings with the fact that he alone stands between Clinton and the White House.

“Who he is in his faith journey, it doesn’t reflect the room. There’s no question about it,” says Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, an anti-abortion group. “All along the way, he was our last choice. But when you get to the end, to the point of having a binary choice, you must choose. It’s what our system has given us.”

Still, Dannenfelser — like Perkins, Nance, and many other attendees — declined to endorse Trump on Tuesday.

#related#Many of the prominent activists who came to New York, Perkins included, were vocal supporters of Ted Cruz in the GOP primaries. Some, such as Iowa Evangelical leader Bob Vander Plaats, regularly mocked Trump’s botched citation of “Two Corinthians” and his admission that he’d never asked God for forgiveness. Six months later, they are doing their best to downplay these “differences” while defending Trump from other conservatives who haven’t come around.

“The Bible is full of men and women that repeatedly made grave errors,” says Gary Bauer, the longtime activist leader and 2000 presidential candidate who also backed Cruz in 2016. “Who is it that they’re holding up as this paragon, a man or woman without sin that they could have nominated for president?”

Bauer adds: “There’s only one person who fits that description, and when he returns the election will be canceled.”

— Tim Alberta is the chief political correspondent for National Review.

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