By L.A. Williams
Christian Action League
June 24, 2016
In what is being called perhaps “the largest assembly of social conservative leaders in a generation,” about 1,000 evangelicals met with presumptive GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump on Tuesday at an invitation-only event in New York. Opinions of the meeting and its larger implications seem as varied and numerous as the guest list.
Tim Wildmon, president of the American Family Association, found Trump “pleasant, relaxed, funny and more thoughtful” in person than he appears on television, while Rob Schenck, Faith and Action president, tweeted warnings during the meeting that “Trump=Danger.”
Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, who had previously endorsed Ted Cruz and said he could not support Trump after the candidate’s statement about the legalization of same-sex marriage, wound up helping to lead the meeting.
Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, has compared Trump’s rise in the GOP presidential race to “reality television moral sewage,” and wouldn’t have been caught dead at the gathering, but Richard Land, former president of the same commission, did not attend but has become one of 25 people named to Trump’s evangelical executive advisory board.
In a Christian Post editorial, Land defended his decision to serve, making clear the fact that he has not endorsed Trump. Instead, he described the meeting and the formation of the board as the candidate’s endorsement of issues important to Christians and indicative of his desire to seek wise counsel.
Dr. Jack Graham, senior pastor of Prestonwood Baptist Church in Dallas and fellow advisory board member, believes that the board’s advice can be especially helpful as the potential president considers nominations of federal and U.S. Supreme Court judges, the sanctity of life and religious liberty.
“… what would our critics have us do? Would they really have us spurn the opportunity to give spiritual counsel and advice to Mr. Trump and his team?” Land wrote. “How would that be obedience to our Savior’s command to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world?”
Similarly Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, said, “I believe we have to be both an influence in this process and a witness to a standard of truth that is revealed in Scripture that we adhere to.”
“When we have a candidate whose positions in the past were inconsistent with that standard, we have to have a conversation,” he added.
As to how Trump’s end of that conversation played to evangelical voters, Wildmon saw both positives and negatives.
“I thought his strongest answers were about the type of judges he would appoint. I believe he fully understands the importance of this issue and said all his judges would be vetted by the Federalist Society – a stalwart conservative organization,” he said.
Trump promised to support Israel and answered questions about marriage, abortion and religious liberty, among other issues.
“I liked that Trump has promised that his appointees to the Supreme Court will be pro-life. That is a campaign promise, and it’s been a long time since a Republican nominee for President has made such a promise,” said Tami Fitzgerald, executive director of the NC Values Coalition.
Although Fitzgerald was vocal in her opposition to Trump during the primaries and still hasn’t decided whether to support him, Fitzgerald, who also attended the gathering in New York said the meeting shows he is courting evangelicals and will listen to their concerns.
She was glad to hear him promise to repeal the Johnson Amendment, which has a chilling effect on free speech in churches by pastors.
“It’s the Johnson Amendment that threatens to remove tax-exempt status from churches if the pastor or staff express their beliefs about elections, candidates or political issues,” Fitzgerald added.
She was further pleased to hear the candidate say that he doesn’t believe Planned Parenthood should receive taxpayer funding as long as it is performing abortions.
What tripped Trump up at the meeting?
“He did not clearly state his views in answer to the questions about when religious freedom and the LGBT movement come into conflict, other than to say that these matters will be decided by the courts,” Wildmon shared.
Fitzgerald said Trump needs to understand that religious freedom rises and falls on the issue of LGBT rights and whether that freedom can be curtailed by them.
“It’s obvious that Mr. Trump does not know enough about the pro-life issues or the religious freedom issues to talk about them with the language we want to hear,” she said. “But, he is listening and wants to learn, and that is a start.”
One issue that seemed to resonate with many in the crowd was Trump’s characterization of Christians being under attack in today’s cultural climate. His refusal to be politically correct and to speak his mind, even when his positions don’t line up with the Bible, have won him favor in the eyes of many conservative Christians throughout his campaign.
Whether Trump wins friends within the church or is personally challenged about his own faith by spending time with the body, many at Tuesday’s meeting seemed to believe it was worthwhile and would welcome a chance for further dialog.
“… Who but the Lord knows what lies ahead for Donald Trump?” Wildmon wrote to AFA supporters, adding that if a candidate shows interest in understanding Christians better, “… I believe we should tell him (Trump) what we think and where we stand. To use a sports word, I think he’s coachable.”