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Evangelicals Put Their Faith in Trump, but Admit to Skepticism


Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump addresses the Faith and Freedom Coalition's Road to Majority Conference in Washington, D.C., June 10, 2016.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump addresses the Faith and Freedom Coalition's Road to Majority Conference in Washington, D.C., June 10, 2016.

If you talk to evangelical Christians at the conservative Faith and Freedom Coalition conference being held this week in Washington, you may be tempted to assume Donald Trump has the evangelical vote safely wrapped up.

The presumptive Republican presidential nominee addressed the annual gathering of religious conservative activists here Friday, as part of his effort to court what could be a decisive voter bloc in November's general election.

If an informal poll of attendees at the conference is any indication, Trump may be succeeding. All conference-goers interviewed by VOA said they planned to vote for Trump, and many insisted they'd do so enthusiastically.

"I'm for Donald Trump because he says what we feel," said Jean Migdon from Wall Township, New Jersey. "I believe that God can use him. And I think that's who God has for us."

Many evangelicals have expressed reservations about the thrice-married former casino mogul who once famously boasted that he's never had to ask God's forgiveness for anything.

Alan McDowell from Covington, Kentucky, said he specifically takes issue with Trump's controversial comments toward women and minorities, which many have described as sexist and racist.

FILE - Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, foreground right center, met with a coalition of 100 African-American evangelical pastors and religious leaders in a private meeting at Trump Tower in New York, Nov. 30, 2015.

FILE - Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, foreground right center, met with a coalition of 100 African-American evangelical pastors and religious leaders in a private meeting at Trump Tower in New York, Nov. 30, 2015.

"I don't agree with him on everything," McDowell said. "He does seem a little bit on the discrimination side, but what can you do?"

Trump promises to 'restore faith'

In his address Friday to the conference, Trump largely stuck with standard Republican talking points, but appeared to make a special effort to use language that appeals to religious conservatives.

He promised to "restore faith to its proper mantle in society." He spoke of "shared values" and said he wanted to "uphold the sanctity of life," phrases he has not frequently used on the campaign trail.

Partly with the help of teleprompters, Trump also avoided any major mishaps such as those that occurred during past efforts to woo evangelicals. (He once drew laughter from an evangelical audience when he incorrectly referred to a book of the Bible as "Two Corinthians.")

Not everyone buys it

But it is not clear how much Trump succeeded in winning over those evangelicals who remain skeptical of his candidacy.

Notably, among the prominent evangelical speakers that preceded Trump on Friday, only one mentioned him by name.

And others were quick to point out that a Washington conference of political activists is not exactly representative of the diverse evangelical demographic.

"Black evangelicals, brown evangelicals, young evangelicals — they're not going to support Donald Trump, because Donald Trump is a racial bigot," insists Jim Wallis, a prominent progressive evangelical activist and author.

FILE - Pastor Joshua Nink, right, prays for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, after a Sunday service at First Christian Church, in Council Bluffs, Iowa, Jan. 31, 2016. At Friday's event, Trump appeared to make a special effort to use language that appeals to religious conservatives.

FILE - Pastor Joshua Nink, right, prays for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, after a Sunday service at First Christian Church, in Council Bluffs, Iowa, Jan. 31, 2016. At Friday's event, Trump appeared to make a special effort to use language that appeals to religious conservatives.

"This is a man who boasts about his adultery, who boasts about his sexual behavior, who is an utter materialist, who exploits the poor with his casinos, who is overtly textbook racist," Wallis told VOA. "This is a gospel issue. It's non-negotiable."

Will Trump change?

It's not just progressive evangelicals who don't like Trump.

Dr. Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's policy arm, is one of many conservative evangelical leaders who have been outspoken in their opposition to Trump.

Moore has urged evangelicals to not support Trump as the "lesser of two evils," and even engaged in a high-profile Twitter fight with the ex-reality TV star.

"My primary prayer for Donald Trump is that he would first of all repent of sin and come to faith in Jesus Christ," Moore told the Christian Broadcasting Network this week.

Even at the conference, there were some who appeared to waver in their support for Trump.

Rachel Metzel, a 21-year-old from east Texas, said she plans to vote for Trump, but said it bothers her that he sometimes objectifies women.

"Of course it does," she said. "But our answer is that we will pray for him. We believe in a real God who makes changes, so we're hoping that Donald Trump will be able to alter himself."

How confident is she that Trump will actually be able to change?

"Well," she said, "I guess that just depends on how big you think our God is."

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