Most Donald Trump events kick off with music from Elton John or the Rolling Stones at deafening volumes. But praise choruses ruled the day Tuesday as hundreds of conservative Christians gathered at a hotel in Times Square to question Trump.
Under glittering pink-and-white chandeliers, evangelicals and conservative Catholics filled the large ballroom, some raising their hands and closing their eyes as they sang, “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God/And his righteousness/And all these things shall be added unto you.”
The meeting was closed-door and invitation-only, but NPR was granted permission to observe the event.
‘We Love Each Other’
As soon as Trump entered the room, it quickly became clear this was a largely friendly audience. The moderator, former Republican presidential hopeful and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, told Trump this would not be an “inquisition,” but rather people had come because they want someone who will “lead this nation out of the abyss.”
Organizer Bill Dallas of the Christian group United in Purpose says the event was designed to give religious conservatives, some of whom have had concerns about Trump, a chance to “understand” him better before the November election. It started out as a meeting for about 100 leaders but quickly grew to nearly 1,000 after a “tidal wave” of interest.
“That shows we all love each other,” Trump told the group.
Huckabee began by asking Trump about his family, saying that he’d seen them up close: “People can fake it on stage, they can walk out and do the happy family moment, but you can’t fake that backstage.”
Trump thanked Huckabee for the “nice question,” and said, “I have great children. … Through God they were born intelligent, they all went to great colleges.” He added that he always advised them all to avoid alcohol, drugs and smoking.
Trump drew applause for another bit of parenting advice: “If they do go to church, and if they start at a young age, that’s a tremendous asset … because you don’t see that as much today. … That’s not so automatic anymore.”
‘You Don’t Really Have Religious Freedom’
Trump then turned to what evangelical leaders have told him is a top priority – religious freedom. Many conservative Christians say they feel threatened by lawsuits aimed at requiring business owners to provide services for same-sex weddings, restrictions on prayer in public schools, and a growing move to allow transgender people to use the restrooms they choose.
“The next president is going to be very vital … in freeing up your religion, freeing up your thoughts,” Trump said. “You really don’t have religious freedom.”
Trump said ministers, in particular, are “petrified” of talking about politics because of IRS rules barring groups like churches that receive charitable tax exemptions from engaging in political advocacy.
“We are gonna get rid of that,” Trump said, though he did not specify how he’d change the law. Pastors aren’t allowed to endorse candidates from the pulpit, but that rule is rarely enforced.