Donald Trump received a mixed response from religious conservatives at a massive closed-door gathering in New York City on Tuesday as he sought to frame himself as a reliable advocate on causes important to the Christian right.
“I am so on your side,” Trump told a several dozen Christian leaders invited to meet with him ahead of a larger town hall event with grassroots conservatives later in the day. “I’m a tremendous believer, and we’re going to straighten it out.”
For many of those on hand, Trump was not their first choice for president.
Trump likes to boast about having outperformed his GOP rivals in the primary among evangelical voters, but he has struggled to convince skeptical Christian leaders, many of whom interacted with him for the first time on Tuesday, that he can be trusted on issues like abortion, religious liberty and gay marriage.
Tuesday’s meeting was meant to address concerns those leaders have about Trump’s positions and potentially pave the way for their supporters to get the vote out for him. The event was closed to the press, but video of some of Trump’s remarks was posted online.
And there were small signs of progress.
“He did himself a favor today,” said Kelly Shackelford, president and CEO of the First Liberty Institute, a religious liberty group that has not endorsed a presidential candidate this year. “He started the conversation.”
But there is also a lingering suspicion of Trump, who, as a thrice-married former Manhattan playboy, is an unlikely champion for socially conservative causes.
“I don’t think he hurt himself, but there was a general lack of specificity on some of these issues,” said Penny Nance, president of Concerned Women for America, who helped arrange the meeting. “I don’t know that he did anything to bring new people over to his side.”
Trump was shepherded through the event by advisers and supporters who have the closest ties to the evangelical community.
Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) and former GOP candidate Ben Carson introduced Trump to influential figures in the Christian movement before he made remarks to a select few behind closed doors.
Later, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee moderated a town hall where Trump fielded questions from an audience of about 1,000 conservatives who had traveled from all over the country to learn more about where he stands.
Many of those on hand said they were appreciative that Trump had made the effort. He received standing ovations upon entering and leaving the event, and appears to have made some new allies.
A handful of prominent Christian leaders who have so far declined to endorse Trump — Southern Baptist Convention President Ronnie Floyd and Focus on the Family’s James Dobson among them — have joined Trump’s evangelical advisory board in hopes of influencing his policies going forward.
However, the event did not unleash a torrent of endorsements for Trump.
At a press conference later in the day, a reporter asked eight of those who had arranged the conference whether they would endorse Trump for president now.