CLEVELAND — The leadership of the religious right once looked like a promising stronghold for the Never Trump movement, a bastion of the GOP deeply at odds with a man who is heretical on many of the political and personal values the country’s most prominent Christian leaders hold dear.
But in an exclusive roundtable conversation with POLITICO, five of America’s most influential religious conservatives said they are committed to supporting the GOP nominee, and some committed to activating their extensive grass-roots networks on his behalf this fall.
Ralph Reed of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, Marjorie Dannenfelser of the Susan B. Anthony List, longtime conservative activist and former presidential candidate Gary Bauer and Penny Nance of Concerned Women for America gathered during the Republican National Convention at Hyde Park Prime Steakhouse in downtown Cleveland for a wide-ranging conversation about the values vote and the GOP nominee.
These pillars of the evangelical and social conservative movements entered primary season with varying degrees of opposition to Trump, and they now feel varying degrees of enthusiasm about his general election campaign.
But they largely agreed that to sit on the sidelines would be “irresponsible,” a word they used repeatedly in a conversation that took place hours before Ted Cruz — the candidate several of them had preferred — declined to endorse Trump and urged conservatives to “vote your conscience.”
In the eyes of most of the leaders gathered at the table, the options are considerably narrower.
“When you have a binary choice, you must make a decision,” Dannenfelser said. “It’s frankly irresponsible to stay on the sidelines right now, given where the republic is heading.”
The attendees acknowledged they have had serious disagreements with Trump — and they note that the evangelical world is not a natural fit for the thrice-married, often-crude Trump, who on social issues, especially gay rights, tends toward a more moderate position. And certainly, there are other leaders in the religious conservative world — most vocally, Russell Moore, a prominent Southern Baptist, along witha host of other pastors and religious grass-roots activists — who won’t be voting for him, and the extent of evangelical turnout this year remains an open question.
But while Trump has changed his position on multiple issues throughout the 2016 race so far, the leaders at this roundtable suggested they had little choice but to believe him when he says he would appoint judges who oppose a woman’s right to end a pregnancy — the single most important issue for many on the religious right.
Besides, these roundtable participants noted, other candidates have moved to the right before on social issues, including Mitt Romney and George H.W. Bush. And the selection of Indiana Gov. Mike Pence went a long way toward assuaging concerns with almost everyone at the table.
Below are excerpts, edited for clarity and organization, from the hourlong conversation.
POLITICO: First, let’s get everyone on the record. Who here is prepared to say they are supporting Donald Trump for president?
GARY BAUER: I’ll jump in. I endorsed Cruz during the campaign; that obviously didn’t work. I don’t really have that much hesitation about Donald Trump. I think he’s a populist conservative. There’s always been a conservative coalition, and one part of it has been Main Street blue-collar workers, what we used to call Reagan Democrats.
PENNY NANCE: Yes, I’m supporting. Alongside Gary, it took some time to get here. But it’s very clear to me, we have two choices. It became clearer to me, sooner than some other folks, that we can’t just stand by and allow Hillary Clinton to be our next president. I look forward to having a woman president someday, but not that one.
POLITICO: Who here is prepared to say you are putting the strength of your grass-roots and political networks behind his campaign?
MARJORIE DANNENFELSER: While our selection committee and I have not endorsed anybody yet, that work has been going on. I am indeed myself supporting him, but we have not taken the step of endorsing. With our endorsement comes a lot of money, shoe leather and hours, so after the convention, we’ll take a look at it.
RALPH REED: In our voter guides, voter mail, digital ad campaigns, phone calls, our door knocking, we’ll be sharing with voters of faith, both faithful Catholics and evangelical Christians, where Trump stands on life, marriage, the Iran nuclear deal, on judges, on religious freedom. Not just those, but definitely those, and where Hillary Clinton stands.
TONY PERKINS: From my standpoint, we have to allow people to make that journey. Our constituencies, the people we influence most [via the Family Research Council], were really right where I was in the primary. I was out front for Ted Cruz. I felt so much was at stake, I wanted to get involved in the primary, I endorsed and campaigned for Ted. When Ted dropped out, [there were] three things I put out publicly and to the campaign that I thought would be important if Trump really wanted to gain conservative support.
Those issues, Perkins said, were: Whether Trump would appoint conservative justices, and he noted Trump has promised to do so; how Trump’s allies would approach the GOP platform — “they left the brass knuckles at home,” he said, praising the platform as the “most conservative platform the party’s ever had”; and his selection of a running mate.
I don’t want to put any spin on this. I know not everyone agrees with me. I wasn’t excited about Mike Pence, because he caved on religious liberty [during the Religious Freedom Restoration Act fight in Indiana], to me the most fundamental important issue, courage being the most desirable characteristic of a leader.
However, I give Donald Trump immense credit for selecting someone who, other than that, connected with the conservative movement. He’s trying extremely hard, more so than I’ve seen any other [nominee] that has worked hard to listen to and connect with social conservatives.
… You see that reflected in that he changed his positions on some things when he was wrong. That, to me, is impressive.
DANNENFELSER: I thought it was instructive that when he has made mistakes, from our perspective — it’s the only issue I’ve seen him think deeply, I believe, and then completely retract a comment that was ill-considered. She notes that he retracted, for example, his comment that women seeking abortions should be punished.
I really do think he speaks with the zeal of a fresh convert. Now I cannot speak to his soul, how deep it is, wide it is … but I can say he understands the consequences of a position he has taken. So he’ll say things like “pro-life Supreme Court justices,” which no candidate has ever said.
DANNENFELSER: They all say strict constructionists, they say traditionalists, all kinds of things, but they never say what they actually mean.
BAUER: They specifically say no litmus test, they reject the very idea.
DANNENFELSER: There is something attractive about the fact he understands the consequences of positions he takes …he’s not afraid to make mistakes, he’s also not afraid to admit when he’s wrong.
REED, after praising the Trump campaign’s handling of the GOP platform and his support for removing a statute from the tax code that limits religious organizations’ political activity, something Trump mentioned in his convention speech: There have been more traditional, conventional politicians, including those who share our faith, who, when we share these things with them, I might as well have been pulling a shrapnel grenade out of my briefcase, there were so many people diving under the furniture.
Marjorie talked about the zeal of a new convert, I think every one of us can talk about when we were baby Christians, we first had our faith experience — I mean, we’d walk up to the shoeshine guy at the airport and share. … That’s kind of what you see with him. It’s not surprising at all he’s doing well with these voters, and I think the kinds of things we’re talking about are why.
POLITICO: Tony, what is your level of engagement going to be on behalf of Trump? You were very active on behalf of Cruz. Can we expect the same activity for Trump?
PERKINS: I’m getting closer to that point. We’ll see what happens. … Look, he’s clearly different; he doesn’t fit within our mold. But what I found is, he’s open, he’s receptive, he puts the right people around him. Here’s my commitment, and I’ve committed this to him: I want him to be successful, because if he’s successful, America survives. That’s the bottom line.
NANCE: None of us are deluded into thinking he’s a Bible-banging evangelical. He’s certainly different from many of us here at the table. He comes from a different experience; he spent most of his life in Manhattan, New York …
REED: New York values? [laughter]
NANCE: I’m willing to commit to the fact that [we] will be active in voter registration … we’ll be doing a lot of phone banking. … I would say Mike Pence does bring some confidence for me on what the commitment is for a Trump administration to the pro-life community.
POLITICO: There are no Never Trumpers at this table, in part because several of those with whom I spoke, who are also part of the evangelical movement, did not want to attend his convention. So let me represent their view for a moment: The Bible says you judge a man by his actions, the fruits of his life; in addition, Trump has reversed course on so many priority issues for the evangelical community, it makes it difficult to trust his stated commitments on pro-life judges and legislation.
How do you square the Bible’s instruction to judge the record of a man against Trump’s inconsistency on issues important to you?
NANCE: I think we can all agree, Jimmy Carter is a very moral man. He called himself a born-again believer, but he was a horrible president.
There’s things I hope to see change in the demeanor of Donald Trump, the civility factor. But the bottom line is, he is, of two candidates, the one most closely aligned with my values, the values of my members.
DANNENFELSER: I know everyone at this table, and not one of you got involved because you thought politics was a comfortable place to be. Comfort is not the question. When you have a binary choice, you must make a decision. I think it’s frankly irresponsible to stay on the sidelines right now, given where the republic is heading.
The idea that you could ever roll the court back from the disastrous consequences of a Hillary Clinton presidency presumes upon time, presumes upon mercy.
Do you think irresponsible is too strong a word?
PERKINS: No, not at all. I actually take offense at some of those making statements who didn’t get involved in the primary. … When they didn’t take advantage of the opportunity to shape the outcome because they wanted to stay in the comfort of the sidelines, and now they’re critical because of what the outcome is.
I have no respect for their opinions, quite frankly. I think they have no right to speak to this with legitimacy because they sat on the sidelines.
Now we are left with this choice. We have a choice. Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. I gave everything to advance the cause of a candidate I thought was best for America. I didn’t win. I’m now left with a choice. I’m going to be involved in making that choice and encouraging other Christians to vote.
I find it irresponsible — that’s a nice word for what I could say for those who didn’t get involved and now just want to be critical of the outcome and those who are involved in the process.
NANCE: To be fair, there were those that did endorse, and they lost, and I have to be respectful of my brothers and sisters in Christ that come to a different determination than I do.
POLITICO: And just to clarify, I spoke with Never Trump folks who were also parts of several other campaigns in the primary.
REED: And that’s fine, and these are all good friends of ours.
NANCE: They are our friends!
REED: We love and respect them. We have an honest disagreement.
George H.W. Bush ran as a pro-choice candidate for president in 1980. Eight years later almost no one in our community had a problem supporting him over Michael Dukakis. Mitt Romney was pro-choice and pro-gay rights until less than two years before he ran the first time. There were many prominent people in our community, including people who now say they can’t support Trump, who had no problem trusting Mitt Romney’s conversion on this issue.
The way the pro-life movement grows is by welcoming converts, it isn’t by conducting Pharisaic examinations of whether or not their conversion is genuine or kicking them in the teeth and suggesting that until they pay some period of time or penance, that they’re not accepted.
The bar’s been pretty low compared to Trump, in the past, so I think there’s been a double standard there.
NANCE: Can I just say, actions speak louder than words. I mean, all those guys who want to help us behind the scenes, who cares? I’d rather hear ahead of time, “I’m only going to [pick] pro-life justices.”… I think we can quibble over his motives; only God sees his heart. His actions speak a lot louder than words.
BAUER: If they don’t see that not voting is also a moral decision they’re making, I think one that would be highly questionable given what’s at stake here. The libertarian candidate is not a legitimate alternative; he wants to legalize everything …
REED: He’s pro-choice, pro-abortion …
BAUER: If you are a citizen that is motivated by your deeply held faith and you think somehow after a morally based consideration of the situation, you think it is morally acceptable to not be a citizen that votes, or votes for somebody, that is, you’re making some sort of moral statement, I think it’s irresponsible.
I respect everybody’s thought process, but I think it’s deeply flawed. Either we’re going to have a man elected that has, as we’ve already said, has made some extraordinary commitments, that have not been made before by other candidates that worship just like us …
NANCE: Who we worked for!
[Reed and Dannenfelser laugh.]
BAUER: And a Democratic candidate who’s absolutely committed to, it certainly appears, obliterate several segments of the Bill of Rights. … I don’t think there’s room for moral preening right now about, “Look how superior I am, I won’t vote for either one of them.” I think that might be a decision, if things go poorly in November, which I hope they don’t, it might be a decision some people have a very hard time living with after they see what four more years of what we’ve just gone through does to the country.
POLITICO: Are people in the evangelical community being too tough on Trump, then?
REED: I don’t think so.
DANNENFELSER: I think we’re being demanding, and our demands are being met every single step along the way.
NANCE: That’s our job, to ask for what we want.
REED: People have every right to express reservations. I was just saying, in the past, if the issue is, can you trust him, I’m making the point that other people change …
NANCE: And we’re like, yay!
REED: I thought, when somebody walked down the aisle and said, “I accept Him,” I thought we were supposed to embrace them, say, “Welcome to the Kingdom.” I didn’t think we were supposed to say, “What took you so long, where have you been and are you sure you mean it?” You want to try a little honey instead of vinegar. This is how you build a movement.
BAUER: There’s been a lot of identity politics in the last several decades. The Democratic Party lives off of it, but it’s been a factor in our party too. There have been candidates that concluded, I think to some extent correctly, that if they could send a signal that they worshiped like large segments of values voters, or could periodically quote Scripture, say other things that send these signals, they could get away without actually making solid commitments on policy.
If I want to see people who worship like me, I can go to church this Sunday, which I’ll do. But I want to see politicians, whether they worship like me or not, willing to do the hard work in the public policy arena. … George W. Bush, I’m sure, is a wonderful Christian man, but he … never said … he’d only appoint pro-life justices. Donald Trump said that repeatedly, and I’m not sure he’s getting the credit he deserves.