NEW YORK — Donald Trump won a standing ovation from hundreds of Christian conservatives who came to New York City Tuesday with a skeptical but willing attitude toward a man who has divided their group with comments on wo rmen, immigrants and Islam. In his comments the presumptive GOP nominee vowed to end the decades-old ban on tax-exempt groups’ — including churches — politicking, said religious liberty is “the #1 question,” and said he’d appoint anti-abortion Supreme Court justices.
“I think maybe that will be my greatest contribution to Christianity — and other religions, is to allow you, when you talk religious liberty, to go and speak openly and if you like somebody or want somebody to represent you, you should have the right to do it,” Trump said. A ban was put in place by Lyndon Johnson on tax-exempt groups making explicit political endorsements. Religious leaders in America today, Trump said, “are petrified.”
As president, he said, he’d work on things including: “freeing up your religion, freeing up your thoughts. You talk about religious liberty and religious freedom, you don’t have any religious freedom if you think about it,” he told the group, which broke in many times with applause.
Throughout the talk Trump emphasized that America was hurting for what he described as Christianity’s slide to become “weaker, weaker, weaker.” He said he’d get department store employees to say “Merry Christmas” and would fight restrictions on public employees such as public school coaches from being allowed to lead sectarian prayer on the field.
The audience included leaders and founders of many segments of the Christian Right, the evangelical movement that began in the 1970s under people including the late Jerry Falwell. Among those present and involved in the program Tuesday were Focus on the Family founder James Dobson (who is no longer with that group), former Christian Coalition head Ralph Reed and evangelist Franklin Graham (son of evangelical icon Billy Graham).
While polls show that the majority of white evangelicals — who make up about a fifth of the country — are favorable towards Trump, his campaign has bitterly divided Christian conservatives in general. Those who oppose him do so strongly, and later Tuesday a separate group of conservatives — including leading evangelicals — were meeting to strategize about a possible third candidate. Some leading Christian conservatives used the meeting to speak out against Trump and his comments about immigrants, women, Muslims and others.
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