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Trump candidacy stirs debate among evangelicals

NASHVILLE (BP) — With Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump scheduled to address thousands of young evangelicals at Liberty University this month, conservative Christians have renewed their discussion of whether political support for the real estate mogul can be consistent with a Christian worldview.

Trump’s Jan. 18 Liberty convocation address will make him at least the fifth 2016 presidential candidate to speak at the Christian university. Republicans Ben Carson, Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush and Democrat Bernie Sanders all have addressed students there.

Liberty President Jerry Falwell Jr. told Fox News in December that Trump, Cruz and Carson are his three favorite candidates. Falwell said Trump’s propensity to speak his mind reminds him of his late father Jerry Falwell Sr., a Baptist pastor who was active in conservative politics during the 20th century. Since Trump last spoke at Liberty in 2012, he and Falwell have remained in “close contact,” Falwell told Lynchburg, Va.’s News & Advance.

Polls suggest a plurality of evangelicals believe supporting Trump’s candidacy is acceptable, with a December CNN/ORC International survey finding that 45 percent of white, evangelical Republicans favor Trump. Cruz came in second among that group with 18 percent support.

A separate December poll conducted by Clout Research for WorldNetDaily found 40 percent of black voters and 45 percent of Hispanics also prefer Trump over other Republican candidates. That put Trump first among Hispanics and second among blacks behind Carson.

Other evangelicals weighing in on Trump’s candidacy include pastor Robert Jeffress of First Baptist Church in Dallas. While not endorsing Trump, he said he does not “accept the proposition that no Christian in good conscience could vote for Donald Trump.” Jeffress told Baptist Press he “would be very comfortable with Mr. Trump as president, knowing what I know about him.” Evangelical political analyst Donald Cole expressed a similar sentiment in a blog post.

In a 2015 op-ed, Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission President Russell Moore suggested that supporting Trump in Republican primaries is “illogical” and would mean evangelicals have “decided to join the other side of the culture war” — points echoed in significant measure by Southern Evangelical Seminary President Richard Land.

‘A friend in the White House’

Jeffress told BP he has met with Trump “several different times,” including a two-and-a-half-hour meeting along with other religious leaders at Trump’s New York office in September. “I got to ask him some very pointed, one-on-one questions,” Jeffress said. “He asked us to pray for him, and we had an extended prayer session.”

Many evangelicals support Trump, Jeffress said, because they perceive him to be a strong leader, see him as “a true outsider to the political system” and believe he stands the best chance of defeating Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton in the general election.

Trump’s support may stem in part from a changing view of government among American believers, Jeffress said. Previously, many Christians expected government to “uphold biblical values.” But following the U.S. Supreme Court’s nationwide legalization of same-sex marriage last year, some have shifted their expectations, looking to government now merely to “fix practical problems” — a task that does not require a “spiritual giant” in the Oval Office.

Jeffress noted he does “not necessarily agree” with the changing view of government even though he observes it as a factor behind Trump’s support.

Still, evangelicals “would not be betraying values” by supporting Trump, Jeffress said, adding, “There is no perfect candidate.” If Trump is elected, “evangelical Christians will have a friend in the White House.”

‘Lack of a moral compass’

Moore is not so sure. He wrote in a September New York Times op-ed that Trump “says of evangelicals: ‘I love them. They love me.’ And yet, he regularly ridicules evangelicals, with almost as much glee as he does Hispanics. This goes beyond his trivialization of communion with his recent comments about ‘my little cracker’ as a way to ask forgiveness. In recent years, he has suggested that evangelical missionaries not be treated in the United States for Ebola, since they chose to go overseas in the first place.”

Moore also criticized Trump’s “personal lack of a moral compass” and poor record on social issues.

“He’s defended, up until very recent years, abortion, and speaks even now of the ‘good things’ done by Planned Parenthood,” Moore wrote. “In a time when racial tensions run high across the country, Mr. Trump incites division, with slurs against Hispanic immigrants and with protectionist jargon that preys on turning economic insecurity into ugly ‘us versus them’ identity politics. When evangelicals should be leading the way on racial reconciliation, as the Bible tells us to, are we really ready to trade unity with our black and brown brothers and sisters for this angry politician?”

Land, Moore’s immediate predecessor as ERLC president, told BP other Republican candidates uphold evangelical values more effectively than Trump.

“I have difficulty understanding why any evangelical would support Donald Trump in the current primary field,” Land said, “when you have so many other alternatives that are pro-life and are more attractive and less objectionable to evangelical beliefs and values.”

‘See what happens’

Cole, a Georgia Republican analyst who has pastored Southern Baptist churches, apparently disagrees. He wrote in a Jan. 2 Internet commentary that he will vote either for Trump or Cruz in his state’s Republican primary.

Last year, when Cole wrote analyses of presidential candidacy announcements by 16 Republicans, he “kept putting off” Trump’s announcement speech because the analyst “did not think that he was serious.” But when he watched the speech, Cole changed his mind.

Trump “rambled, he bloviated, he bragged, he criticized, but as I watched and listened, I saw that he really wanted to make America great again,” Cole wrote. “He was serious and wanted to be taken seriously. I realized that no matter what I had heard or read from the political pundits, Donald Trump was for real and he was not going away.”

Trump could “draw more minority voters than the others,” Cole wrote, and he could conceivably win his home state of New York in the general election — a phenomenon that would leave “no path for the Democrat to win.”

Cole concluded, “I am interested to see what happens in Iowa. Cruz has the ground forces and his supporters will show up for the caucuses. Iowa will reveal the depth of Trump’s ground game. If Trump’s supporters show up in Iowa, count on them to show up everywhere else.”