Donald Trump claimed it was “faith in God” that would lead a divided America “back to unity” as he attempted to woo US evangelicals at the annual Values Voter Summit in Washington DC on Friday. Under a Trump administration, the Republican presidential nominee promised, “Our Christian heritage will be cherished, protected, defended like you have never seen before.”
The annual summit, one of the largest gatherings of social conservatives on the presidential campaign trail, is organised by the Family Research Council, a lobby group that touts itself as “defending religious liberty, the unborn and families,” but which its liberal critics consider little more than an anti-LGBT hate group.
Mr Trump wielded a Bible onstage when he attended the same event last year, a performance that failed to impress many Christian conservatives. At the time, polls suggested the thrice-married property mogul had attracted only around half of white evangelical Republican and Republican-leaning registered voters during primary season.
Yet a CNN/ORC poll released this week suggested 73 per cent of white evangelicals preferred Mr Trump to his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton. That may have a lot to do with his choice of running mate: Indiana Governor Mike Pence, who is also due to speak at the summit, is a social conservative who last year signed a controversial “religious freedom” law in his state.
Appearing on Thursday before a receptive crowd, Mr Trump said “one of the greatest privileges” of his campaign for the presidency had been “the time I’ve spent with the evangelical community,” boasting: “A lot of people said, ‘I wonder if Donald will get the evangelicals.’ I got the evangelicals.”
Decrying the media and politicians for mocking or ignoring people of faith, The GOP nominee offered, as his headline pledge, the repeal of the so-called “Johnson Amendment”, a little-known, rarely enforced 1954 measure that threatens churches and other religious institutions with the loss of their tax-exempt status should they endorse or oppose a political candidate.
The amendment was named after former President Lyndon Johnson, who introduced it during his time as a US Senator. Its repeal would “give our churches their voice back,” Mr Trump said, insisting that he had come up with the policy personally, and joking: “I figure it’s the only way I’m getting to heaven.”
Mr Trump’s personal life and past pro-choice pronouncements – which he has since reversed – were thought to be major obstacles to his gaining the support of the Christian community. During his speech, the candidate did not mention abortion, gay marriage or his support for Israel, all issues that his socially conservative audience have traditionally considered crucial.
He won applause, however, for reiterating his vow to nominate “great judges” to the US Supreme Court, in the mould of the late conservative Justice Antonin Scalia. Touting his campaign’s list of 11 potential SCOTUS nominees, Mr Trump said he would ensure the next court would “protect religious liberty."
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