NEW YORK (Christian Examiner) – National Public Radio has published what is, perhaps, the most complete account of Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump's meeting with evangelical leaders at a Times Square hotel June 21.
The news agency was given permission to "observe" the event, the report said, but the opportunity to ask questions was reserved only for invited guests, the number of which swelled from 100 to nearly 1,000.
The event was organized by Bill Dallas, CEO of the group United in Purpose, which claims to "unite and equip like-minded conservative organizations to increase their reach, impact, and influence through the latest technology, research and marketing strategies for the purpose of bringing about a culture change in America based on Judeo-Christian principles."
Gov. Mike Huckabee, who has run for president twice, was moderator of the event, and the guest list was a veritable "who's who" among evangelicals.
Evangelist Franklin Graham, who also leads Samaritan's Purse, was at the event and said on his Facebook page that James Dobson, David Jeremiah and Ronnie Floyd, immediate past president of the Southern Baptist Convention, were also among the guests. Graham included some of the questions asked, but few of the answers (except one pertaining to Israel as a U.S. ally).
That's where NPR comes in.
The federally-funded broadcaster wrote that Trump was told by Huckabee that he wasn't facing an "inquisition," but honest questions from religious leaders who wanted to know how he planned to "lead this nation out of the abyss."
Trump talked first about his family and his children, who he said he warned early on to swear off any kind of drugs, tobbaco or alcohol.
"I have great children," he said. "Through God they were born intelligent. They all went to great colleges."
Trump also told the audience that children who go to church at an early age pick up "a tremendous asset, because you don't see that as much today. ... That's not so automatic anymore."
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Trump even cited the ways in which Christianity had helped him "in life," but especially when it comes to political support.
"I've been a Christian, and I love Christianity and the evangelicals have been so incredibly supportive," Trump said. "Don't forget, when I ran, and all of a sudden I went to states that were highly evangelical, like as an example, South Carolina, and they said, 'Well, Trump won't win this state because it's evangelical' ... not only did I win, I won in a landslide.'"
As expected, Trump focused on religious liberty during the meeting, taking on court rulings that have forced Christian business owners to use their labor in support of same-sex marriages, knocked down prayer in schools and created transgender bathroom policies. Trump said that type of court action proves "you really don't have religious freedom."
Perhaps most far-reaching, however, was Trump's pledge to squash IRS rules that don't allow ministers to speak about political campaigns or candidates from the pulpit. That provision was written into law by then Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson [D-Texas] in 1954 after several prominent Texas ministers and political activists railed against his candidacy.
"We're gonna get rid of that," Trump said. Lifting the provision is opposed by groups such as Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
The part of the meeting that has received the most attention is the portion centered on a series of small video clips posted by Rev. E.W. Jackson, conservative radio host and the founder of the conservative group STAND.
In one clip, Trump is seen questioning Hillary Clinton's faith, saying, "We don't know anything about Hillary in terms of religion."
"You know, she's been in the public eye for years and years and yet there's no, there's nothing out there, there's, like, nothing out there," Trump said.
He also tells a smaller gathering of leaders they "can pray for your leaders, and I agree with that – pray for everyone – but what you really have to do is you have to pray to get everyone out to vote for one specific person."
Trump's comment about Clinton is not entirely true. While she seldom speaks of her specific doctrinal beliefs and has abandoned core tenets (such as marriage between only one man and one woman), Clinton frequently claims she is a lifelong Methodist. She has spoken frequently in black churches, sometimes even altering her voice to sound more Southern, as she did in Selma, Ala., during the 2008 presidential campaign.
Trump's appearance before the evangelical group, which included Liberty University President Jerry Falwell, also earned a fair amount of criticism.
Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission tweeted, "Forget the politics. Forget the country. An unrepentant lost person pronounces himself to be a believer. And you stand there and applaud?"
Perhaps the most telling response, however, was from Nathan Lino, a pastor of Northeast Houston Baptist Church and a trustee of the SBC's International Mission Board.
Lino tweeted a picture of Falwell and his wife, Becki, standing with Trump in his office. Falwell was giving the "thumbs up" sign, as was Trump, while the trio stood in front of a framed copy of Playboy magazine featuring the New York billionaire and a pornography star on the cover.
"Literally a framed pic on the wall of the candidate and a porn star, as a major evangelical leader endorses him," Lino wrote.
To read the full NPR article, click here.