Evangelical Gathering A Sign Conservative Christians Slow To Embrace Trump

Sep 10, 2016
Originally published on September 10, 2016 3:21 pm

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump addressed the annual evangelical gathering known as the Values Voter Summit Friday in Washington, where in promised in part to give churches "their voices back."

The bombastic, at times crude, thrice-married GOP standard bearer does not exactly fit the mold of a nominee that religious conservatives typically champion.

Many evangelical activists were slow to embrace Trump early in the primary season. But a steadily growing number on the religious right now view a potential Trump presidency as their only chance at reasserting conservative influence on the Supreme Court, which may very well make decisions on many key social issues.

"Our Christian heritage will be cherished, protected, defended, like you've never seen before," Trump told a packed ballroom and the Omni Shoreham hotel in downtown Washington.

Evangelical voters are an important voting bloc for any Republican seeking the White House. And Donald Trump has been focused on winning them over.

He promised to repeal 1950s-era legislation prohibiting tax-exempt organizations, like churches, from endorsing political candidates.

"The Johnson Amendment has blocked our pastors and ministers and others from speaking their minds from their own pulpits," Trump said. "If they want to talk about politics they're unable to do so. If they want to do it, they take a tremendous risk that they lose their tax-exempt status."

Trump later joked that by getting behind such action, his soul may be saved.

"I figure it's the only way I'm getting to heaven. The only way," Trump said to a smattering of chuckles from the crowd.

It was not all laughs at the event, though.

Gary Bauer, president of the conservative group American Values, struck a somber tone when he spoke, recalling vivid memories of the Sept. 11 attacks.

He compared the November election to the choice faced by the people aboard the hijacked plane that crashed in a Pennsylvania field.

"Ladies and gentlemen, this is a Flight 93 election. This may be our last shot. It's time to roll. It's time to run down the aisle and save Western civilization." Bauer said.

On that flight the passengers fought back against their hijackers. Many consider those passengers heroes for downing the aircraft and thwarting what was intended to be the fourth plane in a coordinated suicide mission.

Bauer carried on the metaphor, saying the country is headed to calamity if evangelicals don't regain their influence.

"This country is the equivalent of that hijacked plane right now. We're headed to a disaster, unless we can get control of the cockpit again," Bauer said.

Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., is a former Baptist youth camp director. He did not mention Trump by name but he did bring up the Supreme Court.

"Can I remind us again what happens at the Supreme Court in the days ahead will matter for a generation," Lankford said.

He then reminded the crowd the last time a Clinton was in the White House.

Under former president Bill Clinton, Lankford said "the most reliable liberals" were added to the Court.

"Does anyone believe the next two Supreme Court Justices that are appointed won't be the next two most reliable liberal justices on the Supreme Court if the next President Clinton gets a shot? I believe they will," Lankford added.

Just outside the ballroom where the main speeches were taking place, Dexter Sanders, an evangelist from Orlando, admits Trump was not his first choice to lead the Republican ticket.

After considering Dr. Ben Carson, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, he finally came around to Trump. Like many at the summit, Sanders says he is concerned about the future makeup of the Supreme Court.

And faced between the option of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and Trump, the choice couldn't be more clear.

"God has used different people throughout the course of history, especially during Biblical times. The strangest people do the most enormous things in our world." Sanders said.

"And so the fact that [God] might choose a Donald Trump in this country that other presidents and other politicians have not been able to step up and do, would not be surprising to me at all."

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Donald Trump addressed the Value Voters Summit in Washington, D.C. yesterday. That's a group of evangelical voters. Many Christian conservative activists were slow to embrace Trump early in the primary season. But as NPR's Brakkton Booker reports, many now accept him.

BRAKKTON BOOKER, BYLINE: Evangelical voters are an important voting bloc for any Republican seeking the White House. And Donald Trump has been focused on winning them over.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: A Trump administration - our Christian heritage will be cherished, protected, defended like you've never seen before.

(APPLAUSE)

BOOKER: The bombastic, at times crude, thrice-married married GOP standard bearer does not exactly fit the mold of a nominee religious conservatives typically champion. At the Values Voters Summit, Trump vowed to give churches their voices back. And he promised to repeal the ban to the 1950s-era legislation which prohibits tax-exempt organizations like churches from endorsing political candidates.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: The Johnson Amendment has blocked our pastors and ministers and others from speaking their minds from their own pulpits.

BOOKER: Trump then joked...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: I figure it's the only way I'm getting to heaven. So this is going to be very good...

(LAUGHTER)

TRUMP: ...The only way.

BOOKER: It was not all laughs at the summit Friday. Gary Bauer, the former head of the Family Research Council, the group that sponsors the summit, struck a somber tone. He recalled vivid memories of the September 11 attacks, which took place 15 years ago tomorrow.

During his remarks, Bauer compared the November election to the choice that was faced by people on the plane that crashed in a Pennsylvania field in 2001. Aboard that flight, the passengers fought back against their terrorist hijackers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GARY BAUER: Ladies and gentlemen, this is a Flight 93 election.

BOOKER: Bauer, who himself ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000, carried on the metaphor, saying the country is headed to a disaster, unless evangelicals can regain control.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BAUER: This may be our last shot. It's time to roll. It's time to run down the aisle and save Western civilization.

BOOKER: Oklahoma Senator James Lankford is a Republican and a former Baptist youth camp director. He did not mention Trump by name. But he did bring up the Supreme Court.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JAMES LANKFORD: Can I remind us again that what happens in the Supreme Court in the days ahead will matter for a generation?

BOOKER: Lankford recalled the last time a Clinton was in the White House. Former President Bill Clinton nominated Justice Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Lankford referred to them as the most reliable liberals on the court.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LANKFORD: Does anyone believe the next two Supreme Court justices that are appointed won't be the next two most reliable liberal justices on the Supreme Court if the next president, Clinton, gets the shot? I believe they will.

BOOKER: Just outside the ballroom, I catch up with Dexter Sanders, an evangelist from Orlando. Like many here, Sanders says he is concerned about the future of the Supreme Court. But when it comes to the presidential race, the choice for him is clear.

DEXTER SANDERS: God has used different people throughout the course of history, especially during biblical times - the strangest people that do the most enormous things in our world. And so the fact that he might use a Donald Trump to do something in this country that other presidents and other politicians have not been able to step up and do would not be surprising to me at all.

BOOKER: Sanders adds, who is he to question God? Brakkton Booker, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.