Throughout the election, Donald Trump has proven a divisive force for conservative Christians. They've have watched Trump morph from someone who claimed to be pro-choice into someone who proclaimed there should be "some form of punishment" for women who get abortions. That comment drew ire from both the left and the right, and Trump recently made a memorable biblical gaffe, but his list of conservative potential Supreme Court justices proved particularly appealing to Christians who'd like to see the legislative body rule in favor of their ideology.
In short, although polls show that a majority of evangelical Christians support Trump, religious leaders have been hesitant to back the presumptive GOP nominee. And despite Trump's effort to win them over — he held an event for thousands of Christians who traveled across the country to hear from him on Tuesday — many are still unconvinced.
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"This is a process as I've stated," Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council, told the New York Daily News during a press conference after the event. "There are some very concrete things that have to take place. Donald Trump does not have a track record when it comes to being in public office. The best indicator of future performance is past performance."
Penny Nance, the president of Concerned Women for America, echoed Perkins. "I don't think he hurt himself, but there was a general lack of specificity on some of these issues," she said. "I don't know that he did anything to bring new people over to his side. He doesn't know people like us very well," she went on. "He's getting to know us and we welcome it, but there is still work to be done."
But Marjorie Dannenfelser, the president of the Susan B. Anthony List — an organization that seeks to advance pro-life women in politics and that previously called Trump "unacceptable," said she was encouraged by Trump's list of potential SCOTUS judges and by some of the recent hires his campaign has made to act as liaisons between the Trump campaign and evangelical voters. "Personnel is policy, and he has put people in campaign that we trust," she said.
But when reporters asked Dannenfelser to raise her hand if she had decided to endorse Trump, she declined, as did Perkins and Nance and the four other conservative Christian leaders who helped organize the meeting.
The confab itself took place at the Marriott Marquis near Times Square while both pro-Trump and anti-Trump protesters demonstrated outside. Inside, Trump reassured Christian leaders he was "so on their side." "I'm a tremendous believer, and we're going to straighten it out," he said.
He promised to place pro-life judges on the Supreme Court, as well as to end the ban on tax-exempt groups' — including churches — ability to participate in the political process.
"You talk about religious liberty and religious freedom, you don't have any religious freedom if you think about it," he said to much applause, according to the Washington Post. He went on:
"I think maybe that will be my greatest contribution to Christianity — and other religions — is to allow you, when you talk religious liberty, to go and speak openly, and if you like somebody or want somebody to represent you, you should have the right to do it," Trump said. A ban was put in place by President Lyndon Johnson on tax-exempt groups making explicit political endorsements. Religious leaders in America today, Trump said, "are petrified."
He also took the opportunity to bash presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, who he said "We don't know anything about in terms of religion." (Clinton has, in fact, been a practicing Methodist all her life.) "Now, she's been in the public eye for years and years, and yet there's no — there's nothing out there," he said.
It's those kinds of remarks that have drawn ire from other Christian leaders, who have condemned his "politics of personal insult." "The bullying tactics of personal insult have no defense — and certainly not for anyone who claims to be a follower of Christ," said Mark DeMoss, a close associate of Jerry Falwell Sr., after Falwell Jr. endorsed the mogul. What's more, policies such as Trump's Mexican border wall and his proposed Muslim ban have worried other prominent Christian leaders such as Deborah Fikes, executive advisor to the World Evangelical Alliance, who endorsed Hillary Clinton on Tuesday.
"Mr. Trump's proposals are not just un-Christian — they're un-American and at odds with the values our country holds dearest," Finkes said. "It troubles me deeply to see abuse of the vulnerable and intolerance toward religious minorities on the rise. When candidates like Mr. Trump start sounding eerily similar to some of the worst global offenders, it's time for some serious soul searching."