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Trump checks boxes for Christian audience, but tension lingers

·Chief National Correspondent
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The barrier to entry for Donald Trump into some parts of the Christian right is rather low, as was on display Friday afternoon in the nation’s capital.

Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee for president, showed up at a gathering of Christian conservatives gathered by longtime operative Ralph Reed. He briefly checked off the boxes he knew mattered to his audience and got a raucous ovation.

He may not have been the first choice during the Republican primary of many in the Faith and Freedom conference crowd, but the thought of Hillary Clinton as president made Trump supporters out of the Christian confab’s attendees.

And Trump knew it. He made promises to the crowd about appointing conservative Supreme Court justices, pledged to “restore faith to its proper mantle in society” and said he would “respect and defend Christian Americans.”

But Trump spent as much time telling the crowd why they should fear the election of Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee, to the presidency.

Clinton, he said, would “appoint radical judges, … abolish the Second Amendment and the rule of law, … restrict religious freedom, … undermine the wages of working people with uncontrolled immigration.” And the list went on.

Donald Trump waves after addressing the Faith and Freedom Coalition's "Road to Majority" conference in Washington on Friday. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)
Donald Trump waves after addressing the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s “Road to Majority” conference in Washington on Friday. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

Trump spoke from a teleprompter for the second time this week, a reminder that he is still in damage control mode after spending several days mired in his latest firestorm. Trump had repeatedly said that a U.S.-born federal judge’s Mexican heritage was a “conflict of interest” in a lawsuit against Trump University. Both Democratic and Republican leaders widely condemned Trump’s argument.

And so, as a result of Trump’s newly required verbal discipline and his overall lack of familiarity with matters of faith, he spoke briefly, but left the stage to a rousing standing ovation.

Reed, 54, who was a phenom of the Christian right during its heyday in the 1990s but was implicated in the Jack Abramoff scandal a decade ago, did what he could to make the room receptive to Trump.

Reed spoke for nearly 30 minutes and took on some of the arguments that are being made by other evangelicals for why Christians should oppose Trump.

Many anti-Trump evangelicals intend to vote this fall but skip the presidential race. Reed portrayed those evangelicals as people “who counsel timidity and retreat, and … recommend that people of faith retreat to the cold comfort of the stained-glass ghetto.”

“That is not an option to followers of Christ,” he said.

Echoing Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr., who during the primary said Christians are not voting for a “pastor in chief,” Reed said, “We’re not looking for a political messiah because we already have a messiah.”

Many evangelicals are turned off by Trump’s penchant for vulgarity, his three marriages, his misogynistic language, his consistent pattern of lying about matters of public record and his ownership of casinos, among other things.

But Reed said voters should accept Trump’s flaws.

“There has only been one perfect person who walked on this earth,” Reed said. “His name was Jesus Christ.”

And Reed also accused anti-Trump evangelicals of the sin of pride, as well as being inflexible.

“We’re called to put aside a my-way-or-the-highway pride,” he said. “Beware the temptation of pride … to simply declare a pox on both houses and thereby remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong.”

Russell Moore, the most prominent evangelical leader to aggressively criticize Trump, has encouraged Christians to oppose both Trump and Clinton, and to vote for down-ballot races and consider either writing in a name for president or voting for an independent or third-party candidate. Alan Noble, an evangelical writer and Oklahoma Baptist University English professor, made an exhaustive case for that position this week.

Moore did not respond directly to Reed’s comments but tweeted soon after a Merle Haggard lyric: “And you never know whose lips you’ll soon be kissing, ’cause it all depends on who will buy the wine.”

But it was former Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina who responded to Reed’s remarks and issued something of a prebuttal to Trump’s speech.

Fiorina, a former Hewlett Packard CEO, spoke after Reed and directly before Trump. She clashed bitterly with Trump during the primary and ended up joining Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s rival GOP ticket in April as his running mate.

Much of Fiorina’s speech was a subtle rebuke of Trump. She said she would never vote for Clinton, but spent the rest of her remarks exhorting the audience to value the lives and abilities of all people and to devolve power away from the federal government.

Fiorina never mentioned Trump by name, but she urged her listeners to remember their beliefs.

“How we win matters,” she said. “Our faith tells us that victory at all costs is no victory at all. Our faith tells us that the ends do not justify every means.”

And as the official organs of the Republican Party have coalesced behind Trump, Fiorina cautioned that parties “can become like sports teams” where members “could become so concerned with winning that they would … forget about the values and principles that matter.”

Fiorina argued for the devolution of power away from the federal government — the branch that Trump seeks to lead — and gave a nod to the idea that the elections worth the time and energies of Christians and conservatives are the ones for other offices beside for president.

She said she would spend the rest of the year “making sure we have good conservatives all up and down the ballot.”

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