Top evangelical and social conservative leaders are planning a private meeting with Donald Trump to see if they will be able to address longstanding concern about his candidacy.
Former presidential candidate Ben Carson is working with Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, and Bill Dallas, who leads United in Purpose, to plan a closed-door session for about 400 social conservative leaders to meet with Trump in the coming weeks in New York City. A broader steering group of about 20 people includes people like American Values president Gary Bauer, Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, and Family Leader president Bob Vander Plaats.
“We are looking for a way forward,” Perkins says. “The main thing here is this is to have a conversation.” He described the planned meeting as “a starting point for many.” The Trump campaign has not publicly confirmed that the meeting will take place.
For many of the expected attendees at the event, Trump was not their first choice as a presidential candidates. With the exception of Carson, who has endorsed Trump, the event organizers were not supportive of Trump in the primary, says Perkins, who supported Sen. Ted Cruz. The event is expected to be a closed-door interactive forum for attendees to ask questions of the candidate, likely in an interview format, not prepared speeches. This event is also not intended to focus on rolling out endorsements. “I don’t even know what it will lead to,” Perkins says. “It is just to have an honest conversation so that these leaders know what they need to do.”
Trump campaign surrogates are separately organizing a more official faith advisory committee for the candidate, with Mike Huckabee being discussed as a possible national chairman. Televangelist Paula White, a Trump supporter and a senior pastor of New Destiny Christian Center in Florida, have been organizing the group behind-the-scenes with Tim Clinton, president of the 50,000-member American Association of Christian Counselors, according to several people familiar with the project.
Trump’s team meanwhile announced Wednesday that he would send a video message to a conference of Latino evangelical leaders this weekend in Anaheim, organized by Samuel Rodriguez Jr., the president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference. Hillary Clinton is also sending a video message.
All of these moves signal an attempt to unite a social conservative base that has been deeply fractured over the presumptive GOP nominee. Both the campaign and the constituents groups are testing whether Trump can win their support despite division in the primary—especially over Trump’s public refusal to ask for forgiveness, his past support for abortion, and his harsh rhetoric about women and non-whites, all things that have left leaders of many large coalitions in the lurch.
The day after Trump became the presumptive nominee, for example, the lay Catholic organization Catholic Vote—one of United in Purpose’s partners—called Trump too “problematic in too many ways” to receive their endorsement, citing concerns over his moral judgment, his past support for abortion, and his lack of “foundational principles from which he proposes to govern.” The group said it would “not necessarily” work actively to defeat Trump, but would turn its resources to critical Senate and House seats.
That is an issue Carson hopes to address with social conservatives. “Donald Trump is pro-life,” Carson says of these types of concerns. “Now he might not be quite as pro-life as I am, but he definitely believes in the sanctity of life, does not believe in abortion on demand. That is a misconception that people have.”
Carson is facilitating the gathering as the chairman of MyFaithVotes, a nonpartisan effort to mobilize 25 million Christian voters this election cycle. Invitations to the meeting are being organized by Perkins, the founder of the MyFaithVotes initiative Sealy Yates, and Dallas of United in Purpose, a 501c4 that helps conservative groups change American culture toward Judeo-Christian principles. United in Purpose has previously worked closely with Perkins, and has several dozen partners, including groups like Americans United for Life, Concerned Women for America, Catholic Vote, and the Faith and Freedom Coalition.
The ideal event, says Carson, would be “very similar to what happened a couple of weeks ago with Mr. Trump and people on Capitol Hill, getting an opportunity really to sit down face to face and interact with each other, and that allays a lot of anxiety on both sides.”
Ronnie Floyd, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, says Perkins has invited him to the meeting. The purpose is to have a conversation with Trump, says Floyd, “to get to know him, and for him to get to know us…who we are and what we care about.” For Floyd, that includes Trump’s positions on Supreme Court nominations, abortion and racial justice, and religious liberty.