Donald Trump Meets With Christian Leaders
Those in attendance at the June 21 gathering had mixed reactions, with some saying it only raised further concerns.
WASHINGTON — A meeting with Donald Trump in New York City on Tuesday was intended to answer the questions that some Christian leaders have about the presumptive Republican nominee.
But after the event, those in attendance had mixed reactions, with some saying it only raised further concerns.
“Donald Trump definitely won over the room, but the bigger story to me was: Why weren’t the big leaders there?” said Christopher Hale, senior fellow at Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, who attended the meeting.
“I think it’s important that a lot of the leaders within the Christian community are refusing to support him,” he told CNA, noting the absence of Christian leaders like Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. Hale added, “I think they have the same concerns I do.”
The billionaire-turned-politician has run a presidential campaign brimming with controversy. He has drawn criticism for what many consider inflammatory rhetoric and derogatory comments aimed at women and minorities. His supporters say they find his blunt approach to politics refreshing.
Prominent Christian leaders, as well as influential members within the Republican Party, have been split on whether to support Trump, despite the fact that he has secured enough delegates to clinch the party’s nomination.
On Tuesday, he met with around 1,000 conservative and Christian leaders, mostly evangelicals, at his Manhattan hotel. He answered pre-selected questions from the audience on various issues like the family, abortion, guns and foreign policy.
Some Christian leaders, like Moore, were noticeably absent from the meeting. Robert George, a Catholic and former chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, “declined to attend,” The Washington Post reported.
One evangelical pastor in attendance, Jeremy Roberts, said that he entered the meeting with “skepticism” but came out “more optimistic.”
The candidate was “receptive” and “very conversational,” he said, and the meeting was not a “photo op,” but a “genuine conversation between evangelical leaders and Donald Trump, for him to hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
But according to another person in attendance, who wished to remain anonymous, the meeting was more of a chance for Trump to say what he wanted rather than an opportunity to answer tough questions.
“There was a lot of teeing up,” the attendee told CNA, calling the questions asked of Trump “softball” and adding that he still “barely answered them.” Yet at the meeting Trump was compared to figures like Moses and David, “who had great sins in their lives … [but] turned out to be great leaders.”
On the family, “the only thing Trump said was that he told his kids not to do drugs, get in trouble,” the attendee continued, saying he “barely talked about abortion.”
“Going in, my expectations were — I was open minded — very low. But there was little of substance,” the attendee said, concluding that the meeting was “an enormous waste of time.”
Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List, told supporters in an email that Trump “related well, coming across confident and comfortable in such a large crowd of thought leaders whose opinions and actions will be so critical as we approach November.”
She said that she was encouraged when Trump reiterated a commitment to appoint pro-life justices to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Hale said that he did not doubt that Trump believes in pro-life policies, but added that “he doesn’t sound like someone who this is a bread-and-butter issue for.”
On religious liberty, which was also brought up at the meeting, Trump didn’t sound as if “he knows the specifics of religious-liberty concerns” that are talked about by Catholics today, Hale continued.
He pointed to one incident, in which a photo of Trump with Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of Liberty University, who endorsed Trump and has been named to his evangelical advisory committee, made headlines because of a Playboy magazine cover hanging on the wall of Trump’s office in the background of the photo.
“I think that image epitomizes the difficult dance a Christian has supporting Donald Trump,” said Hale, voicing his agreement with professor George, who said that Trump is “manifestly unfit to be president of the United States.”
“Nothing he said yesterday changes my opinion of that,” Hale said.
Another Catholic in attendance, Joshua Mercer, co-founder of CatholicVote.org, said it was “good” that Trump met with Christian leaders, but recommended that he meet with Catholic leaders as well, in order to “get advice” from them.
Eric Teetsel, who was the director of faith outreach for Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign, protested the meeting with a sign saying that various practices like torture, racism, misogyny and murdering the children of terrorists are “not pro-life,” implicitly accusing Trump of supporting or condoning these practices at some point in his life.
Teetsel “wasn’t invited” to the meeting, he later tweeted, but said if he had gone, he would have asked Trump the following question:
“Mr. Trump, you are a very wealthy man. You claim to be a Christian. You say you are pro-life, pro-religious liberty and pro-marriage. There are many fine organizations working on life, marriage and religious liberty. Which ones do you personally support financially?”
Brian Burch, president of CatholicVote.org, was in attendance at the meeting. He told Time magazine that Trump “came across as reasonable, not reckless.”
He added, “Probably the biggest takeaway was not what Trump will do for them as president, but what Christians can do if they throw off the perception that they are a significant minority that are not relevant.”
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