The GOP front-runner isn’t much of a conservative Christian, but he is finding a way to play one on TV.
Donald Trump has found his kind of Christians.
In a bid to consolidate support among evangelicals and keep his momentum from ebbing, Trump is courting charismatic televangelists who believe God wants you to be rich.
Still winning with evangelical voters but unpopular with their leaders, his campaign has begun training its outreach efforts on media-friendly pastors and advocates of the prosperity gospel — including a Jews for Jesus preacher with a television show and a Christian broadcasting executive known for her taste in oversized pink wigs — who are less turned off by his brash style and history of socially liberal positions. And that’s critical if he intends to keep Ben Carson’s strength with evangelicals from growing.
“They’re very comfortable with big personalities and TV personalities,” said Gary Marx, a former executive director of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, of so-called “charismatic” evangelicals and televangelists. “If he’s going to build a bridge into the faith-based community, that’s really the best way for him to start. It’s not going to be with the high-minded Presbyterians and Episcopalians.”
This week, the differences in reception were clear.
Before he spoke at the Values Voter Summit in Washington on Friday, Trump asked around the green room how other candidates had fared and what had been their biggest applause lines. He took notes. Then he went onstage, got booed for dissing Marco Rubio and came in fifth in the presidential straw poll of evangelical activists.
On Monday, on the 26th floor of Trump Tower, he had more luck. At a gathering dominated by preachers of the prosperity gospel and media-savvy faith leaders, televangelist Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Dallas, and Jews for Jesus evangelist Kirt Schneider challenged Trump on his habit of personally attacking rivals and critics.
After some back and forth, Cleveland Pentecostal pastor Darrell Scott got up and defended Trump, saying, “To be quite honest, if you tone it down too much, you won’t be you.” Many in the room applauded.
“You do need to refrain somewhat from calling someone a moron or something, but you can’t turn into a milquetoast neither for the sake of winning a vote,” Scott, whose church owns its own radio station and who first met Trump at a similar meeting four years ago, told POLITICO.
Roughly three dozen leaders attended the 2½-hour meeting at Trump Tower, including televangelists Gloria and Kenneth Copeland and Trinity Broadcasting Network co-founder Jan Crouch, who is also the president of a Christian theme park in Orlando.
As it came to an end, televangelist Paula White said Trump wanted them to pray for him. Trump nodded, and the faith leaders laid hands on him and prayed.
Many evangelical leaders look askance at the crowd the businessman is courting. “The people that Trump has so far identified as his evangelical outreach are mostly prosperity gospel types, which are considered by mainstream evangelicals to be heretics,” said outspoken Trump critic Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, the country’s largest Protestant denomination at 16 million members.
“Trump seems to be positioning himself as a secular version of the health-and-wealth televangelists. … What Donald Trump is doing in terms of promises for the future is very similar to what’s going on among these prosperity gospel hawkers.”
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