AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Donald Trump is looking more and more like he could be the Republican nominee for president in November. In Congress, Republican leaders are beginning to reckon with that. We'll hear more about that in a moment. But first, Trump has won in key states so far in no small part because of white evangelical voters. Now, on the surface, that may not seem like a natural fit for values voters. Trump is a thrice-married real estate and casino mogul who, at times, has supported abortion. And he doesn't have the greatest familiarity with the Bible.
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DONALD TRUMP: Two Corinthians, right? Two Corinthians 3:17, that's the whole ballgame. Where the spirit of the Lord - right? - where the spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.
CORNISH: Now here to talk about Trump's appeal among evangelicals is Robert Jeffress. He's pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas. Welcome to the program.
ROBERT JEFFRESS: Great to be with you. Thanks for having me.
CORNISH: Pastor Jeffress, you've introduced Trump on the campaign trail. Can you talk about what the reaction was from your congregation? I'm sure it was a mix.
JEFFRESS: We have, in our church, a mixture of support for different candidates. We have Rubio folks, Cruz folks and Trump folks. And I think it's really a microcosm of what's happening with evangelicals around the nation. I mean, the fact is, yes, Trump is a very unorthodox evangelical candidate, and yet he continues to garner not only the national polls but in many states, the lion's share of the evangelical vote.
CORNISH: Help people understand - people who are not from Texas - what the reluctance is when it comes to a Ted Cruz, who is a pastor's son, who has put his faith at the center of his campaign.
JEFFRESS: And let me be clear, Ted Cruz has spoken in my church before, and there's a lot of interest in Ted Cruz. But evangelicals are divided between what I call the idealist and the pragmatist. The idealist are the ones who are supporting Ted Cruz and would say if we could just get a strong Christian in the White House, perhaps we could return our nation to its Judeo-Christian foundation. But then there are the pragmatists who say as much as we would like to have a faith-centered candidate, perhaps our country has moved too far to the left for that to happen, and so let's get the most conservative candidate who is electable. And many of those are going for a Donald Trump.
CORNISH: So faith is no longer the absolute litmus test in terms of casting that ballot.
JEFFRESS: It wasn't in 1980, and Americans at that time had a choice between two candidates. One was a sincerely born-again Christian who taught Sunday school in his Baptist Church and was married faithfully to one woman. His name was Jimmy Carter. The other choice was a twice-married Hollywood actor who as governor of California had signed the most liberal abortion bill in California history and whose wife practiced astrology. His name was Ronald Reagan. Christians overwhelmingly chose Ronald Reagan not because he was the most religious candidate but because he had the quality people thought was most necessary at the time, and that is leadership.
CORNISH: When you look at the last few years, what issues have values voters really felt strongly about that the Republican establishment has kind of fallen down on?
JEFFRESS: I think the same-sex marriage ruling by the Supreme Court last June was a watershed moment for evangelical Christians. I think in a strange way, that same-sex marriage ruling actually made evangelicals more open to a secular candidate like Donald Trump and here's why. I think many evangelicals have come to the conclusion we can no longer depend upon government to uphold traditional biblical values. Let's just let government solve practical problems like immigration, the economy and national security. And if that's all we're looking for government to do, then we don't need a spiritual giant in the White House. We need a strong leader and a problem solver, hence many Christians are open to a secular candidate like Donald Trump.
CORNISH: That's pastor Robert Jeffress of the First Baptist Church of Dallas. Thank you so much for speaking with us.
JEFFRESS: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.