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Friday, 22 January 2016 00:00

Get Him to the Church on Time: Trump and Evangelical Christians

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aaaGuteBible(Photo: Mactographer)On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Donald Trump made a pilgrimage to the late Rev. Jerry Falwell's Liberty University. Liberty is the largest Christian University in the world, and is now run by his son Jerry Falwell Jr. At Liberty, Trump said that it was an honor to be compared to the Rev. Jerry Falwell, and he assured the 13,000 people in attendance that he would "protect Christianity."

"Christianity is under siege," Trump added. "Very bad things are happening ... Somehow we have to unify, we have to band together, we have to do really in a really large version what they've done at Liberty ... You band together, you've created one of the great universities, colleges anywhere in the country, anywhere in the world, and that's what our country has to do around Christianity."

Raw Story reported that Trump "was ridiculed by some religious leaders after his appearance at Liberty on Monday, during which he tried to shoehorn a Biblical reference into his usual stump speech."

Trump speaking at Liberty University is pretty remarkable given that Trump has never had a close connection to, or even a passing relationship with, the Christian evangelical community. That combined with the fact that back in the day, the Rev. Jerry Falwell was an outspoken critic of Martin Luther King Jr. and what he termed the "so-called freedom movement," certainly made for an unusual cultural moment. To be fair to the late Rev. Falwell, he did eventually repudiate his segregationist past, although he never embraced Martin Luther King Jr.'s civil rights/freedom struggle during his career.

Trump's appearance at Liberty was followed by his receiving the endorsement of Sarah Palin, which, given her standing in the evangelical Christian community, could nudge a few more evangelical Christians into his column.

In Iowa, Senator Ted Cruz has most of the significant endorsements said Bob Vander Plaats, Iowa's most powerful social conservative and a co-chairman of Cruz's campaign. "Donald Trump brings out Sarah Palin, and there's a lot to like about her. But he gets her endorsement to provide cover for his values whereas Dr. James Dobson [founder of Focus on the Family] and [conservative congressman] Steve King and the National Organization for Marriage and myself, we endorsed Cruz because we embrace each other's values."

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Trump and Palin took their show on the road, stopping at the scandal-plagued Oral Roberts University's Mabee Center. "There is an assault on Christianity," Trump said. "There is an assault on guns. There is an assault on everything that we stand for, and we're going to stop the assault."

Which brings us back to evangelical Christians and Mr. Donald Trump?

There is probably no day on Earth that you would agree with the American Family Association's Bryan Fischer on just about anything. This column isn't nearly long enough to detail Fischer's loopy and often hate-filled observations about gays and lesbians, same-sex marriage, Muslims, religious freedom, etc. etc. etc. In Fischer's recent column titled "The Inexplicable Evangelical Support for Donald Trump," he is as flabbergasted -- as many other longtime observers of the Religious Right -- that Donald Trump is attracting significant support from Christian evangelicals.

On January 19, a rather astonished Fischer wrote: "Trump has initiated two unbiblical divorces, had a very public affair with the woman who became wife number two while still married to wife number one, has made a fortune off the immoral practice of gambling, celebrates greed, has gone bankrupt four times, openly admits that he has spent his entire public life bribing politicians for access and influence, and hasn't apologized to God or to man for any of it."

Despite Trump's record, "evangelical leaders can't seem to help themselves, falling for the charm of a man who can't stop talking about how smart and rich he is," Fischer points out. "It's almost as if he is on a crusade to turn the seven deadly sins into virtues."

Fischer is willing to concede that there are some issues Trump has pinpointed that should appeal to evangelicals, including his advocacy against immigration, and his warning of Muslim-initiated terrorism. But, Fischer maintains, Trump is "virtually illiterate when it comes to the Constitution, and his bobbing and weaving and sudden position reversals (first he was for defunding Planned Parenthood, the next day he wasn't) makes it impossible to know where he stands today on moral issues, let alone where he will stand tomorrow if he winds up in the Oval Office. "

Fischer has visited this question in an earlier column titled "Evangelicals and Trump's Three Wives" in which he questioned Trump's moral path, particularly regarding his marriages and divorces: "We can readily stipulate that for most voters, Trump's domestic history may not matter. 'Everybody makes mistakes, who am I to judge,' etc., etc. But evangelicals cannot afford to be so cavalier when it comes to evaluating a man's fitness to hold the highest office in the land. At some point, we social conservatives must look squarely at Mr. Trump's personal history and decide how much weight we should attach to it."

Some evangelicals appear to be satisfied that Trump's change of heart on such issues as abortion, defunding Planned Parenthood, and opposition to same-sex marriage might represent a spiritual growth spurt. Pam Olsen, an influential evangelical prayer group leader in Florida, said of Trump: "His story of turning from pro-choice to pro-life is a very good story, and with what happened with the Planned Parenthood videos coming out, we are praying as leaders in the evangelical movement that multitudes of people would have that same story that Donald Trump has, to become aware of what abortion really means and to become pro-life."

But many evangelical leaders are stumped by Trump's attraction to their community. Back in September, Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's "Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission," wrote an Op-Ed for The New York Times titled Have Evangelicals Who Support Trump Lost Their Values?, in which he said that "to back Mr. Trump, these [evangelical] voters must repudiate everything they believe."

"Many Christians are advocating for a man who I think would be the most immoral and ungodly of any person elected to public office," John Stemberger, the head of the Florida Family Policy Council, and a top social conservative in the state, told Mashable.