Donald Trump has been stepping up his courtship of conservative Christians, meeting last month in New York with 1,000 leaders of the religious right and naming an “evangelical executive advisory board.”
But while some evangelicals are ready to embrace the thrice-married business tycoon as a “lesser evil” than Democrat Hillary Clinton, many other conservative churchgoers are keeping their distance and may not vote for president at all this year.
The Rev. Clint Pressley, senior pastor at Charlotte’s Hickory Grove Baptist Church, said his 17-year-old son had the best description of the choice facing Bible-believing Christians put off by Clinton’s liberal stands on social issues and by Trump’s character.
“He said it was like trying to choose which light socket to jam your finger into. There is no good choice,” said Pressley, whose church attracts up to 5,000 worshipers every weekend. “I’m not sure what I’ll do. I can’t vote for either of them.”
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A Gallup poll released last week found that 66 percent of “highly religious” white Protestant Republicans approved of Trump.
That may seem high. But in 2012, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, whose Mormonism had initially been an issue with conservative churchgoers, ended up winning 78 percent of white evangelicals – the same share of that vote that President George W. Bush got in 2004. In 2008, then-nominee John McCain got 74 percent of those voters.
Trump is also having problems selling himself to other traditional GOP constituencies – the Chamber of Commerce, foreign policy hawks and conservative activists. But at just over a quarter of the national electorate, white evangelical Christians are a group Trump will need to energize if he hopes to have a chance in November.
That’s even truer in North Carolina, a major battleground state that’s home to evangelical icon Billy Graham and still part of the Bible Belt. According to the Pew Research Center, 35 percent of N.C. adults are evangelical Protestants – by far the biggest religious group in the state. Mainline Christians claim 19 percent; historically black Protestant churches, 12 percent.
The best thing Trump has going for him as he woos evangelicals: A vote for him is a vote against Clinton, whose liberal stands on abortion and same-sex marriage rule her out as an option for most conservative Christians.
“I don’t know any evangelicals who are wild with enthusiasm for Donald Trump or for whom Donald Trump was their first choice, or their second choice, or their third choice,” said Richard Land, president of Southern Evangelical Seminary in Matthews. “But the situation now is: The next president of the United States is going to be Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. That tends to focus one’s attention.”
Conservative Christian leaders who have decided to back Trump often say their endorsement is more for his message to evangelicals – particularly his pledges to defund Planned Parenthood, champion religious liberty and appoint Supreme Court justices opposed to abortion – than for the messenger.
“Most evangelicals know these issues are not near and dear to his heart, but he’s listening and wants to know what’s important for evangelicals,” said Tami Fitzgerald, executive director of the Raleigh-based N.C. Values Coalition, who attended Trump’s New York meeting with conservative Christian leaders.
When asked about Trump’s history of divorces and affairs and the unflattering comments he’s made about women, Fitzgerald echoed other evangelicals who have settled on Trump: “We’re not electing a pastor, we’re electing a president.”
Still other conservative Christians say they’re holding out until they get a better sense of the kinds of people a President Trump would pick to be in his administration.
“To quote Ronald Reagan: ‘Trust, but verify,’ ” said Land, who formerly held a high post at the Southern Baptist Convention.
Land did agree to join Trump’s 25-member Evangelical Executive Advisory Board – a national panel whose other members include Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, former U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann and the Rev. Jerry Falwell Jr.
But Land has not actually endorsed Trump.
“I don’t know yet. I’m praying about it,” Land said. “There are things Mr. Trump could do to make it easier for me.”
Things like announcing the names of respected conservatives he’d appoint to key positions in a Trump administration. For starters, Land will be watching who Trump picks as his running mate.
Land would like Trump to go ahead and name his Cabinet: Would he pick Dr. Ben Carson, a former GOP presidential candidate and still a favorite of conservative Christians, as secretary of Health and Human Services?
Trump said it’s possible he’ll name his Cabinet before the election. And he did release a list of possible Supreme Court appointees that got mostly positive reviews from conservatives.
Candidate Trump, advised Land, “needs to sort of flesh out what a Trump administration would look like.”
‘Anybody but Hillary’
While evangelical leaders ponder whether to endorse Trump, what about the people in the pews?
Interviews this past Wednesday night with rank-and-file evangelicals at First Baptist Church of Charlotte turned up support for Trump.
Some of that support was grudging, and much of it was as much anti-Clinton as pro-Trump.
“Anybody but Hillary,” said choir member Ed Sinclair, 76, of Concord, a lifelong member of First Baptist. “I keep hearing so many negative things about her. ... (And) I have a problem with all these abortions. Those are children who will never get to see life.”
Church member John Stark, 52, a Charlotte engineer, said he wished Trump would curb his tendency to speak off the cuff and insult women, Mexicans and other groups.
“But I definitely pick him over Clinton,” Stark said. “If Hillary gets in, nothing will change and we’ll continue to go downhill.”
During a prayer meeting-Bible study in the First Baptist sanctuary, 30 or so members prayed for Trump after one of them brought up a report that Trump had recently become a “born-again” Christian. The source of the story was Dobson, who has since dubbed Trump a “baby Christian.”
“If this story . . . is true, that Mr. Trump has become a believer,” said the Rev. Michael Cummings, an associate pastor who led the prayer, “we ask, Father, that that change would be made in his heart.”
Among those praying: Harvey Brown, 97, of Charlotte, a First Baptist member since 1942 who said he voted for U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas – the top choice of evangelicals – in North Carolina’s GOP primary.
But now Brown, who cast his first vote for president in 1936, is ready to go with Trump. “He’s probably a blowhard, but I think he has some good ideas,” Brown said. “He is saying what I think a majority of people want to hear ... and I think he would do a good job picking judges.”
And what about Trump’s salty vocabulary and his one-time casino gambling empire?
“As a churchgoer, I would say, ‘Judge not,’ ” Brown said. “We can find fault with anybody.”
But support for Trump was not unanimous Wednesday at First Baptist.
“The man scares the daylights out of me,” said choir member Caroline Peters, 66, of Charlotte, who’s been a member of the church since 1988. “I don’t trust him. ... (And) he’s not presidential.”
A retired banker and self-proclaimed conservative evangelical, Peters said she is torn about Clinton. She has concerns about Clinton’s record on Benghazi, her private email server and her support of same-sex marriage. Still, Peters said, it would be “awesome” to have a woman as president and Clinton has credibility with world leaders and knows how to get things done in Washington.
As for Trump, “he doesn’t know anything,” Peters said. “And, I’m sorry, Washington will chew him up. ... I don’t think I could vote for him.”
‘Hold your nose’
The senior pastor at First Baptist, the Rev. Mark Harris, said he’s taking the long view in personally supporting Trump for president. If Clinton wins, he said, “we’ll be making a 40-year decision” because of the longstanding impact her likely liberal Supreme Court appointees will have on moral issues in the country.
“I would love to elect a president of the United States who was not only a solid leader but one whose positions were birthed out of a strong spiritual foundation in that person’s life,” said Harris, a GOP congressional candidate this year who first endorsed former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and then Cruz. “In the end, though, you have to go with the one you believe will make a more positive difference.”
But Pressley said Bible-believing Christians who opposed Bill Clinton in the 1990s because of his extramarital affairs and other moral issues look inconsistent when they brush aside those same issues about Trump in 2016.
“If character really does count, then be consistent,” Pressley said. “If it mattered then for (Bill Clinton), then it has to matter now (with Trump).”
On a recent appearance on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” Russell Moore – president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Liberty Commission – condemned the tone of Trump’s presidential bid in words as colorful as those used by the candidate himself at his rallies.
“Reality television moral sewage,” Moore called the Trump campaign.
The Southern Baptist leader also skewered Clinton and her campaign, using words like “amoral” and “decadence.”
On Wednesday, North Carolina-based evangelist Franklin Graham put the choice – Trump or Clinton? – this way at a prayer rally in Olympia, Wash., that drew several thousand evangelicals:
“You’re just going to have to ask yourself which of the two do you think we as Christians will at least have a voice with?” said Graham, who has not endorsed either candidate. “You have to make that choice.”
He added: “Now, you might have to hold your nose…”