WASHINGTON (AP) — Republican presidential front-runner and billionaire businessman Donald Trump is increasingly courting a wing of the Republican Party that might seem antithetical to his brand: evangelical Christians.
After initially declining the invitation, Trump spoke Friday in front of several hundred social conservative leaders at the Family Research Council’s Values Voter Summit in Washington. He joined a speaking program that includes Republican rivals with long records of dedication to religious causes — among them, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Baptist pastor, and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who wants his colleagues to risk a government shutdown to block funding to the women’s health services provider Planned Parenthood.
Trump brought his Bible along and briefly addressed his faith between attacks on his rivals and Democrats.
“I believe in God. I believe in the Bible. I’m a Christian,” he said. He ended by bemoaning the increased use of the term “Happy Holidays” in place of “Merry Christmas” as a sign that Christianity is under attack. As president, he said, he’d reverse the trend.
In many ways, Trump’s brand as the bombastic, thrice-married billionaire showman would seem an ill-fit among religious conservatives. He once held a reputation as a womanizing playboy, previously supported abortion rights and appears to spend more time calling into Sunday morning talk shows than attending church.
Trump likes to boast about the Bible being his favorite book, but he has refused to quote his favorite biblical verse when asked what it was. He raised eyebrows in June when he said at the Family Leadership Summit in Ames, Iowa, that he has never asked God for forgiveness and described Communion as “when I drink my little wine, which is about the only wine I drink, and have my little cracker.”
“I love them. They love me,” Trump, a Presbyterian, said of evangelicals last month in Greenville, South Carolina. “I love the evangelicals, and it’s really shown in the polls.”
Some evangelical leaders are skeptical.
Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, said Trump’s candidacy is fundamentally opposed to Christian values.
“When one looks at the very serious moral character questions, from Trump’s involvement in the casino gambling industry all the way through to his attitude toward women, Donald Trump is the embodiment of everything that evangelical Christians have been standing against in American culture,” he said.
Social conservatives are eager to have “a conversation” with Trump about his previous support for abortion rights, among other positions most conservatives strongly oppose, said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council and host of the gathering.
“He’s had some positions in the past which obviously raise questions that he’s going to have to have a conversation about at some point,” Perkins said. “But the intrigue of Donald Trump is that he is unconstrained by the so-called forces of political correctness.”
On Monday he’s set to host a group of evangelical pastors and bishops from across the country for a private meeting and prayer session at Trump Tower in New York.
Several attendees, including Pastor Lionel Traylor of Jackson, Mississippi, said evangelical voters are particularly drawn to Trump’s direct style and his strong defense of Christians at a time “when Christianity is under attack.” Trump has frequently made reference to attacks on Christians abroad and said that he will be a champion for religious liberty, including defending Christmas.
Trump’s relationship with evangelical leaders goes back far longer than he’s been running for president.
According to previously reported tax documents, the Donald J. Trump Foundation has given to numerous Christian causes in recent years, including $100,000 to the Billy Graham Evangelist Association in 2012, as well as ministries as far away as Debra George Ministries in Texas and the Ramp Church in Lynchburg, Virginia.