Trump gets mixed response from religious conservatives

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Donald Trump received a mixed response from religious conservatives at a massive closed-door gathering in New York City on Tuesday as he sought to frame himself as a reliable advocate on causes important to the Christian right.

“I am so on your side,” Trump told a several dozen Christian leaders invited to meet with him ahead of a larger town hall event with grassroots conservatives later in the day. “I’m a tremendous believer, and we’re going to straighten it out.”

For many of those on hand, Trump was not their first choice for president.

Trump likes to boast about having outperformed his GOP rivals in the primary among evangelical voters, but he has struggled to convince skeptical Christian leaders, many of whom interacted with him for the first time on Tuesday, that he can be trusted on issues like abortion, religious liberty and gay marriage.

Tuesday’s meeting was meant to address concerns those leaders have about Trump’s positions and potentially pave the way for their supporters to get the vote out for him. The event was closed to the press, but video of some of Trump’s remarks was posted online.

And there were small signs of progress.

“He did himself a favor today,” said Kelly Shackelford, president and CEO of the First Liberty Institute, a religious liberty group that has not endorsed a presidential candidate this year. “He started the conversation.”

But there is also a lingering suspicion of Trump, who, as a thrice-married former Manhattan playboy, is an unlikely champion for socially conservative causes.

“I don’t think he hurt himself, but there was a general lack of specificity on some of these issues,” said Penny Nance, president of Concerned Women for America, who helped arrange the meeting. “I don’t know that he did anything to bring new people over to his side.”

Trump was shepherded through the event by advisers and supporters who have the closest ties to the evangelical community.

Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) and former GOP candidate Ben Carson introduced Trump to influential figures in the Christian movement before he made remarks to a select few behind closed doors.

Later, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee moderated a town hall where Trump fielded questions from an audience of about 1,000 conservatives who had traveled from all over the country to learn more about where he stands.

Many of those on hand said they were appreciative that Trump had made the effort. He received standing ovations upon entering and leaving the event, and appears to have made some new allies.

A handful of prominent Christian leaders who have so far declined to endorse Trump — Southern Baptist Convention President Ronnie Floyd and Focus on the Family’s James Dobson among them — have joined Trump’s evangelical advisory board in hopes of influencing his policies going forward.

However, the event did not unleash a torrent of endorsements for Trump.

At a press conference later in the day, a reporter asked eight of those who had arranged the conference whether they would endorse Trump for president now. 

None raised their hands, though they had been sure to caution early on that a full-scale stampede into the Trump camp was unlikely after a single day of meetings.

Several top social conservatives — Family Leader President Bob Vander Plaats and Family Research Council President Tony Perkins, in particular — remain on the sidelines.

“There are a lot of evangelicals and social conservatives out there. They want to be with Donald Trump because they see the alternative,” Perkins said at a press conference.

“They don’t completely understand him because he comes from a different world, but they identify with him because he has stood up and spoken truth and has been attacked. For the last seven-and-a-half years, evangelicals have been under constant attack by the Obama administration.”

Trump appears to have convinced the anti-abortion movement of his sincerity on the issue after previously supporting abortion rights, several activists said.

He had already won over many social conservatives by releasing a list of judges — put together with assistance from conservative groups — that he said he would use to fill the vacancy at the Supreme Court.

Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List, who had actively campaigned against Trump during the primary, is not ready to endorse him but said she was impressed with several hires he has made.

Among them are Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the daughter of Mike Huckabee, and policy adviser John Mashburn, a staunch anti-abortion advocate. Both have acted as liaisons between the evangelical community and Trump campaign. 

“Personnel is policy, and he has put people in campaign that we trust,” Dannenfelser said.

Still, some question whether Trump truly understands the issues that are important to this bloc or whether he’s merely paying lip service in hopes of getting them to the polls.

Many who went to the event harboring doubts about Trump said they left with the same questions about how strong he would be on certain issues.

They note that Trump has never been steeped in the culture of religious conservatism and the language does not come naturally to him.

“He doesn’t know people like us very well,” Nance said. “He’s getting to know us and we welcome it, but there is still work to be done.”

On Tuesday, Trump appeared to tell listeners not to be “politically correct” by praying for political leaders who don’t have their interests at heart.

He questioned Hillary Clinton’s commitment to her Christian faith, saying that little is known about his rival’s spiritual life even though she’s been in the public eye for decades.

Trump returned to his argument that, as president, everyone would use the term “Merry Christmas,” which has long been a lynchpin in his pitch to Christian voters.

And he said that he owes Christianity “so much,” not because of what it has done for his life, but because evangelical voters delivered him needed victories during the GOP primaries.

Still, on issues like abortion and gay marriage, many social conservatives believe they have an ally in Trump — or at least not in enemy, which is how many in the movement view Clinton.

“It might not be obvious, but to me he’s clearly the candidate for social conservatives, said Terry Schilling, the executive director for American Principles Project. “He’ll go on offense against Hillary Clinton, and we’ve seen him do that on abortion. You never saw Mitt Romney or John McCain go after Obama on that issue.”

Tags Donald Trump Hillary Clinton John McCain Marsha Blackburn

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