Trump to meet with 700 evangelical leaders in Florida this week

WASHINGTON — Donald Trump is going to his first Pastors and Pews meeting to face a gantlet of questions from evangelical Christians about how he'd bring about a more Christian nation.

It will be a friendly room for the GOP presidential nominee, but there will be high expectations from the 700 conservative pastors and spouses at the private meeting sponsored by the American Renewal Project Thursday in Florida, organizers told Bloomberg Politics.

Trump's central appeal on the campaign trail to religious conservatives is his promise to repeal the Johnson Amendment, an IRS rule that prohibits churches from using their tax-exempt resources to promote political candidates.

"That's a good first step," said David Lane, the American Renewal Project's founder. "But what about the religious liberty of Christian photographers, Christian bakers, Christian retreat centers, and pastors who believe same-sex intercourse and marriage is sin? These Christians were simply living out their deeply held convictions of their Christian faith when they politely refused to provide services for a same-sex wedding. Doesn't the First Amendment give us all a right to our beliefs?"

Lane added: "Homosexual totalitarianism is out of the closet, the militants are trying herd Christians there."

The series of Pastors and Pews meetings became influential in the presidential race during the 2012 election cycle as a way to mobilize pastors and their congregations to push to re-establish a biblically based culture and to encourage them to dive into conservative politics via voter registration drives, get-out-the-vote efforts and by running for elected office themselves. The Christian Broadcasting Network also broke the news about Trump's appearance at Thursday's meeting.

All of the 2016 presidential hopefuls were invited to events during the primaries and caucuses, but only Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, then-Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio agreed to come to the closed-door sessions.

Democrat Hillary Clinton was invited to this week's Pastors and Pews, which will take place in Orlando on Thursday and Friday, Lane said. She is not scheduled to attend.

Polls show that Trump is solidly leading among white evangelical Protestants, who make up one-fifth of all registered voters in the United States, according to the Pew Research Center.

Trump received support from 76 percent of those surveyed, while 18 percent favor Clinton, a Washington Post/ABC News poll taken Aug. 1-4 found.

Trump is polling ahead of where Republican Mitt Romney, a devout Mormon, was with evangelicals the summer before the 2012 election.

Four years ago, 73 percent of white evangelical Protestant registered voters said they planned to vote for Romney, and 23 percent described their support as "strong," a Pew poll conducted that June found. In June this year, 78 percent planned to vote for Trump, and 36 percent strongly supported him, Pew polling showed.

Romney ended up carrying 79 percent of the bloc, exit polls found. The GOP nominee in 2008, John McCain, took 73 percent. George W. Bush carried 79 percent in 2004.

Renewal Project organizers want Trump to help mobilize an evangelical army to sway the vote against Clinton, who is leading Trump nationally by 7 points, according to the rolling average of polling compiled by RealClearPolitics.com.

"Trump cannot make the same mistake that Romney did in 2012: talking to evangelical national heads through conference calls and national meetings, thinking that that will trickle down to evangelical and pro-life Catholic Christians," Lane said. "Those type of calls are necessary, but they don't produce a ground game."

Trump's personal resume doesn't seem tailored for this audience: He's on his third marriage, doesn't regularly attend church, has demonstrated a lack of familiarity with Bible passages, said last summer during a question-and-answer session at another Christian forum that he has never asked God for forgiveness, and has changed his stances on abortion issues several times.

But he was given rave reviews for his speech to about 1,000 evangelical conservatives at a closed-door meeting in June in New York organized by United in Purpose. One of his biggest applause lines came when he said "we're going to be saying 'Merry Christmas' again" instead of the secular "happy holidays" greeting, those in attendance told Bloomberg.

Pew polling released in July shows white evangelical Protestants think the New York real estate entrepreneur would be stronger than Clinton on gun policy, defending against terrorist attacks, improving the economy, selecting United States Supreme Court justices, and better reflects their views on abortion and many other matters.

Trump joins one other special guest at Pastors and Pews: Rubio. When it was announced last week that Rubio will speak on Friday morning to the group, the news quickly caused tension with gay rights activists.

Rubio for months had flatly denied any intention of seeking re-election to his Senate seat but changed his mind about a week after the June 12 terrorist attack at a gay nightclub in Orlando, saying the massacre of 49 people "deeply impacted" him.

Rubio tried to tamp down concerns about the divisive American Renewal Project agenda, telling the Tampa Bay Times that the Pastors and Pews event is simply a gathering of local faith leaders. "Leave it to the media and liberal activists to label a gathering of faith leaders as an anti-LGBT event," he said. "It is nothing of the sort. It is a celebration of faith.”