Donald Trump at an Arizona rally in March, 2016, by Gage Skidmore. Cross by Gordon Johnson.
Any devoted presidential campaign strategist knows that the so-called Christian evangelical vote is essential for a Republican candidate to win Florida—and that winning Florida is crucial to becoming President. So Republicans should be pleased that their candidate is reaching out to evangelical Christians on the Florida campaign trail.
On Thursday, August 12, Trump began the evangelical phase of his campaign in earnest at an event, “Rediscovering God in America Renewal Project and/or The Men and Women of Issachar Campaign Training” in Orlando Florida, organized by two groups dedicated to pushing fundamentalist readings of the Bible.
One of them is Liberty Counsel, run by the constitutional lawyers Mat and Anita Staver. Mat Staver represented Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who lost her job because she refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Liberty Counsel also represents Alabama Supreme Court chief justice Roy Moore, who was suspended for trying to defy the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling last year allowing same-sex marriages.
Liberty Counsel’s co-host at the Orlando event was the mysterious, if not mystical, Florida Renewal Project, which emphasizes catapulting evangelical types into the political sphere. As they put it:
“In unity and humility, we seek to restore our culture through Christ-centered engagement in the public square.”
One featured activity at the Orlando gathering was “Issachar training” for pastors interested in running for public office.
Could one of the anointed leaders of Christ-centered politics actually be President Donald Trump?
Mike Huckabee seems to think so. Huckabee, the Southern Baptist minister turned Arkansas governor, millionaire television personality, and two-time GOP presidential candidate, has been stumping for Trump.
Introducing Trump to the pastors, Huckabee echoed the billionaire’s Make America Great Again canard. “One of the reasons I’m here today is because I’m convinced that we need someone who will fight for America to be on top again, rather than disrespected and disregarded across the world,” Huckabee declared. The ministers applauded loudly.
Huckabee’s next lesson for the pastors was to establish that Trump really believes, and also has anti-abortion credentials:
“I’m also aware that a lot of my fellow believers, evangelicals, sometimes say, ‘You know, is Donald Trump one of us?’ Let me try to be as blunt as I can be. He may not sit in the front of a church like yours every Sunday. He may not be as expressive or as loud about his own faith or convictions about things like being pro-life, which he is. And if he wasn’t I wouldn’t be standing here today. But folks, some people will eat their soup a little louder than others, but it doesn’t mean the soup tastes better.”
Huckabee also went to work portraying The Donald as more honest than Hillary—even if he might have a delivery problem.
“There is a dramatic difference between a Hillary Clinton, whom we’ve seen time and again look us right in the eye and lie to us and a person who sometimes tells the truth so bluntly that a lot of folks just can’t handle it,” Huckabee said, apparently referring to Trump. “I can handle the unfiltered truth a whole lot better than I can handle the hidden, secret agenda of people who don’t know how to tell the truth. And worse, don’t know how to tell the difference.”
In its promotion of Trump’s appearance, the American Renewal Project, which oversee the Florida Renewal Project, singled out one issue: repeal of the 1954 Johnson Amendment to the federal tax code. The Johnson Amendment prohibits tax-exempt charitable groups, including churches, from “participating or intervening” in campaigns for elected office.
In other words, Trump has promised to allow nonprofit churches to turn millions of dollars of charitable donations into millions of dollars of campaign contributions.
Trump spent much of his half-hour speech rambling about the Johnson Amendment and taking credit for getting the plank into the Republican platform. He asserted that the amendment had “silenced” evangelical ministers “like a child that’s been silenced”; and assured them that “we’ll be able to terminate the Johnson Amendment, and you’ll have great power to do good things.”
Trump mistakenly claimed at least three times in different parts of his speech that Lyndon Johnson had pushed the amendment through “in the 1970s” and repeatedly praised the Texan for being “a tough cookie” and “a major player,” clearly implying that it would take another tough guy (Trump) to pull off a repeal and “open it up for you folks.”
“This will be so great for religion,” Trump continued. “But it would be so great for the evangelicals, for the pastors, for the ministers. For the priests. For America.”
Someone in the audience yelled, “For the world!”
“They took away your voice,” the candidate responded. “They took away the voice of great people. They took away the voice of people that want to see good things happen. It’s not like they took away a bad voice, an evil voice. They took away a voice! And I mean, took it away!”
To his credit, Trump made no explicit mention of traditional marriage, bathroom use by transgender people, abortion, or any of the latest set of “cultural” issues that Liberty Counsel, America Renewal Project, and many fundamentalist Christian leaders have transformed into rallying cries this campaign year, including several on Trump’s evangelical advisory board.
Following Huckabee’s path, Trump cast more stones at the opponents. He called President Obama and Hillary Clinton “bad people with bad judgment” and repeated remarks made elsewhere that they are the founders of the Islamic State terrorist group “because of their judgment.” When he added that “ISIS is going to present them with the most valuable player award,” the pastors erupted in applause.
Trump told the pastors that he prays for them and asked them to pray for him—for a couple of reasons:
“So go out and spread the word, and once I get in I will do the thing that I do very well, and I figure it’s probably, maybe, the only way I’m going to get to heaven. So I better do a good job.”
Probably the only way he can get to the Oval Office, though, according to voting map experts, is if these and many other pastors somehow manage to send a historic flood of pro-Trump evangelical voters to the polls on November 8th in Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.
Kirk Carter Nielsen writes about politics and other worldly matters in Florida and beyond.