Donald Trump spoke to a huge New York City hotel ballroom packed with nearly 1,000 conservative religious leaders, mostly evangelicals along with a smattering of Catholics and, without a doubt, did himself a world of good.
The event was billed as a “Conversation with Donald Trump,” and the crowd was largely cautious in showing him enthusiastic support. In his introduction of Trump, Jerry Falwell Jr. referred to Trump as “the next president of the United States,” which received no more than a smattering of applause and certainly no whooping and hollering as would have occurred at a campaign rally.
Trump came with a handful of messages tailored specifically to religious voters; he will work to defend the religious freedom of Christians — although on this he was short on specifics — and that he would appoint pro-life judges and justices to the Supreme Court.
In defense of religious liberty, he said he would strike down the IRS ruling that is said to prevent non-profit groups, including churches, from endorsing political candidates. He said he was surprised to learn about the Johnson era ruling that has largely prevented nonprofits from politicking. “I will tell you folks, I watched fear in the hearts of brave, incredible people,” he said, adding that people passing by his Fifth Avenue office have more religious freedom than Christian pastors.
Trump was asked repeatedly about the tension between Christians and the gay agenda and both times he did not answer. Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council asked Trump specifically about the imposition of gays and now transgenders in the military. Trump’s answer about making the military stronger did not come close to answering Perkins’ question.
His other central message was that he would appoint “pro-life” judges and justices. He said he has consulted on judges with the conservative Federal Society, what he called “the gold standard” and he also praised the Heritage Foundation in helping him name the 11 judges he used as examples of the types he would nominate for the high court. He said, “I will name four or five more, too, and soon.”
The hour went by very quickly with Trump sitting relaxed on stage alongside Mike Huckabee who acted as host. Because of his loquaciousness, only a handful of questions were asked, some of which turned into mini-speeches by the questioners who were picked in advance.
On “poverty, crime and violence in urban areas” Trump said the answer was jobs, police forces that were defended for their good work, and training. He said, “There is no spirit in the inner city, no hope.”
He said, “We gotta spiritize this country.”
He vigorously defended Israel. Among evangelical Christians there is a belief that God will judge them on how we treat and defend the State of Israel. Trump attacked Obama, saying, “I can’t imagine that Bibi [Netanyahu] likes Obama so much.” He added that Obama walked away from Iraq and “gave it to Iran, which is now a major power.”
Responses from conservative leaders were largely positive.
Terry Schilling, Executive Director of the American Principles Project, told Breitbart News, “Donald Trump is a unique candidate for social conservatives, and not for the reasons many might think. Trump pledged today to fight to protect religious freedom and the rights of gay marriage dissenters. He pledged to nominate pro-life Supreme Court justices. The reason that he is unique from most other Republican candidates is that he is not afraid to go on offense and make Democrats — especially Hillary Clinton — pay a political price for their extremism.”
Peter Wolfgang, Executive Director of the Family Institute of Connecticut, told Breitbart News:
Donald Trump dodged two questions on whether the LGBT agenda trumps religious liberty but his bottom line message on why social conservatives should support him was unmistakable and can be summed up in one word: Judges. Trump says he will appoint pro-life judges who will respect our freedom and Hillary will appoint the opposite. We know he’s right about Hillary. What we don’t know is whether he will really appoint the judges he named, especially if the GOP loses the Senate. So we are where we were before today’s meeting: the certainty of evil that is Hillary Clinton’s agenda vs. the question mark that is Donald Trump.
Marjorie Danenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List and one of the sponsors of the event, said, “He was relaxed, comfortable in the conversation, projected as one of us. He told a smaller group that he was a messenger for us.”
Deal Hudson, longtime editor of Crisis Magazine and who ran Catholic outreach for the Bush campaigns, said, “It’s a pity this conversation with Donald Trump wasn’t broadcast to the nation. The outcome of the election would be decided. We saw the real Donald Trump, devoid of bravura, speaking with self-deprecating humor, committed to life, religious freedom, a strong military, repealing Obamacare; securing our borders; bringing a new spirit of hope to our inner cities, and protecting our 2nd Amendment.”