Religious conservatives are putting aside their misgivings as they seek to unite against Clinton.
By Sarah Wheaton
09/09/16 06:38 PM EDT
Republican Presidential Nominee Donald Trump addresses the Values Voters Summit at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington, D.C. on September 9. John Shinkle/POLITICO
Donald Trump is finally preaching to the choir.
Evangelicals were a weak point for Trump in the Republican primary, and he publicly fretted last month that they might not turn out for him on Election Day.
But at the Values Voter Summit on Friday, the 2,200 Christian conservatives who gathered in Washington seemed united in their plans to vote for Trump, if not their enthusiasm.
“One of the greatest privileges of my journey has been the time I’ve spent with the evangelical community,” Trump said, as he addressed the crowd on Friday afternoon.
“A lot of people said, I wonder if Donald will get the evangelicals. I got the evangelicals,” Trump added, drawing tepid, almost sheepish applause.
In fact, with a few key exceptions, Trump didn’t win the evangelical vote during the primaries. But now they’re putting aside their misgivings — and abandoning plans to stay home on Election Day — as they acknowledge the threat from the alternative, said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, which sponsors the Values Voter Summit.
"It’s very strongly anti-Clinton,” Perkins said in an interview. “I think we’ve got to be very candid with where we are. Most conservatives were not with Donald Trump in the primary, but now they have a clear choice between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.”
Full text: Trump Values Voter Summit remarks, By POLITICO Staff
Perkins added, “And some would say, ‘Well, we’re not certain what Donald Trump will do.’ OK. But we do know what Hillary Clinton will do, and I think that is what is moving people more and more into the Trump column.”
It’s the same argument that single-issue groups, like the National Rifle Association and the anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List, have been making to members for months. And while evangelicals say a range of issues — not to mention tone and faith — factor into their votes, they say that the balance of the Supreme Court and perceived threats to religious liberty are motivating them to back a candidate who hasn’t totally convinced them he’s a Christian.
"Let’s just say I wish his beliefs were stronger and more evident in his daily life,” said Dan Weber of Lady Lake, Florida — not far from the Republican stronghold of The Villages — of the thrice-married Republican. "I was thinking of eliminating him because of that. If he can be believed where he said he’s gonna do the right things — but they all say that.”
A supporter of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) in the primaries, Weber added, “If he appoints center-right, right justices, I think we’ll be doing OK.”
Some attendees echoed comments former Rep. Michele Bachmann made last month, chalking Trump’s assent despite his political and personal faults up to divine mystery.
“At the end of the day God raised up, I believe, Donald Trump, who was going to be the nominee in this election," said Bachmann, who had backed Cruz in the primary.
On Friday, from the podium at the Values Voters summit, she compared the election to the choice God laid out in Deuteronomy: “I have set before you life and death, which will you choose?"
Born-again voters have turned out for people they didn’t identify with before. Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith was a turnoff for many evangelicals, some of whom view Mormonism as a cult rather than Christianity. But 78 percent of them voted for Romney in 2012, and evangelicals have consistently represented about a quarter of American voters in presidential elections.
Trump on Friday repeated an erroneous claim he made when speaking to Christian clergy last month when he insisted that evangelicals hadn’t turned out for Romney and thus cost the Republican the race.
“You didn’t vote four years ago. You didn’t vote,” Trump said, drawing yells of “I did!” from the crowd.
Still, the Family Research Council is trying to drive that vote up even higher.
Trump vies for the Evangelical vote View 09/09/16 09:24 PM EDT
"We need to vote,” Gil Mertz, special assistant to the president at the Family Research Council, told the crowd shortly before Trump’s speech. "The last election turned out about 335,000 votes in four swing states. If just a slight tick up among eligible evangelical Christian voters would just go to the polls and vote…"
Trump did draw evangelical votes in some key primary contests: A plurality voted for him in South Carolina (Sen. Marco Rubio and Cruz split a majority share), and in Indiana, exactly 50 percent of the state’s dominant evangelical bloc helped carry Trump to victory, prompting Cruz to drop out.
But a Pew Research Center survey showed that as late as April, 56 percent of self-identified born-again Christians did not support Trump — and he fared even worse with people who identified as frequent church-goers.
That had changed dramatically by July, when Pew found that 94 percent of evangelical Republicans would vote for Trump over Clinton — a higher proportion than other Christian categories.
So Rep. Louie Gohmert’s entreaties may have been unnecessary.
“If you vote present or you don’t vote or you vote third party, you’re voting for Hillary,” Gohmert (R-Tex.) said at the summit. “Unless you want an end to your freedom of worship, our freedom of speech, your freedom to assemble in a church, you better make sure the Republican gets elected. You have no other choice.”
(He put it even more sharply outside the ballroom. The Dallas Morning News’ Todd Gillman heard him say in the hallway, "I’d like to elect a godly man, but we don’t have that choice.”)
Trump, a Presbyterian, has frequently struggled to show fluency in his faith: he drew laughs at Liberty University when he quoted a book of the Bible as “Two Corinthians,” rather than “Second Corinthians,” and he has referred to the communion wafer as “my little cracker.”
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But in other ways, Perkins said, he’s speaking their language.
One of Trump’s biggest applause lines on Friday was his pledge to repeal the Johnson Amendment, a 1954 addition to the tax code that barred tax-exempt organizations — including churches — from taking positions on political candidates.
"He was conveying a message that, look, your faith will not be marginalized,” said Perkins. “You will be free to live out your faith."
The Family Research Council also fired up activists about issues related to religious freedom, as the administration has intervened in local debates about transgender bathrooms and required some religious nonprofits to pay for birth control under Obamacare. Trump repeated his promise to repeal the Johnson Amendment on Friday.
But not everyone at the Values Voters Summit was a recent convert to Trump.
Annie Pati said she was one of the 5 percent of attendees at last year’s Values Voters Summit to back Trump in a straw poll. (Cruz won for three years straight). She saw him as the most practical choice to fix the economy after reading “The Art of the Deal.”
"They’re too heavenly minded to be any earthly good,” she said of Trump-skeptic believers.
Pati, of Houston, acknowledged that Trump “might change on anything and everything.”
But, she added, “I think the alternative is much more worrisome. I think Trump’s worst changes would be better than Hillary’s well-meanings."
Steven Shepard contributed to this report.