It’s easy to lose track of specific alarming things that Trump or other major GOP leaders have said or done recently, as they quickly become buried under mountains of other alarming things. Just this week Donald Trump has implied that it might be cool if someone shot his political rival and explicitly claimed that the nation’s president founded an international terrorist organization, so the fact that today he and former rival Marco Rubio visited 700 evangelical leaders at a religious conference in Florida is in some ways just a blip. In other ways, though, it’s worth looking into a bit more.
Trump went to the Pastors and Pews meeting to court the evangelical vote; although Trump is doing well with xenophobic far-right voters, he very obviously doesn’t have religious credentials. The evangelical base takes the authenticity of their candidates’ faith very seriously, and Trump’s three marriages and publicly materialistic lifestyle may not sit well with people who were hoping to vote for openly God-fearing Huckabee or Rubio — likely why Rubio is by Trump’s side. As the Miami Herald notes, Trump “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.” Some evangelical donors are trying to avoid giving Trump money when donating to conservative causes, although they don’t necessarily represent individual voters.
Trump was ostensibly supposed to be talking about his vow to repeal the Johnson Amendment, which prohibits religious institutions from using their tax-exempt funds to support political candidates. It’s a major issue; many religious institutions are very wealthy, and many have vested interests in controlling both local and national politics. It’s also a major issue because Trump has never been much for actually explaining how he’ll accomplish the things he says he will while he’s in office, and so it will be interesting if he feels pressured to in this instance by the importance of the evangelical bloc and Hillary’s rising poll numbers.
Did he actually do that? As of the publication of this piece, there didn’t seem to be official transcripts of the event — especially since according to reporter Jacob Kornbluh, Trump refused to use his professionally written speech and spoke off the top of his head.
Trump, speaking at a Pastors and Pews meeting, says he has decided to drop prepared speech on prompter because "it was boring" text.
— Jacob Kornbluh (@jacobkornbluh) August 11, 2016
According to reporter Jennifer Bendery, Trump also asked evangelicals for their help, especially in important swing states like Ohio and Pennsylvania and also in Utah, a bit of an ill-conceived move since Utah’s religious power players are generally Mormons, not evangelicals. In terms of what he could offer evangelical voters in return for their support, he seems to have discussed the power of the religious demographic, telling his audience that they aren’t as powerful as they should be, and that he could help them fix that.
In addition to the gravity of the Johnson Amendment, visiting Pastors and Pews was also a notable and offensive move on Rubio and Trump’s part because of the larger context of the Pastors and Pews conference: it’s happening in Orlando, just two months after the Pulse shooting that killed 49 people in a homophobic attack. Several of the speakers at the meeting are notably anti-gay, like David Lane, founder of the American Renewal Project, a sponsor of the event. In reference to the repeal of the Johnson Amendment, which Trump is promising, Lane said:
“That’s a good first step… 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?”
Everyone from HRC to the National LGBTQ Task Force to Florida Dems to People for the American Way and more has condemned the GOP leaders’ decision to attend the event based on its antigay lineup. Although the other attendees of Pastors and Pews won’t care about this and might even consider it a plus, the attention that’s being called to this speaking event means some contradiction for Trump and Rubio. Trump has made vague statements about support of LGBT people in the past, and Rubio still says he “supports traditional marriage” but is savvy enough to also say that “a significant number of Americans hold a different view”, and it should be left up to the states. Trump seems comfortable with outright contradiction of his views, so this juxtaposition may not be an issue for him. But for Rubio, who has been steadily working on his rise throughout the Republican party, it may be a lingering stain, especially as Florida watches and remembers the choices their senator made in the wake of tragedy. Trump is already starting to make statements acknowledging he may not win the election, like “And if at the end of 90 days, I fall short because I’m somewhat politically correct even though I’m supposed to be the smart one and even though I’m supposed to have a lot of good ideas, it’s OK. You know, I go back to a very good way of life.” Rubio, though, presumably goes back to a real career in politics; what does it mean that he’s willing to hitch his wagon to this disaster?
The most obvious answer is that the GOP, and party loyalists like Rubio by association, don’t know what’s going on and are making desperate moves. The GOP themselves may not even think Trump can win — really, they might well not want him to, and thus see someone they have no control over gain even more power — but they’ve put themselves in a position where they need to stay in step with someone whose decisions seem to be made with no long-term plan in mind and in the interests of no one but himself. So far it’s not working out great for anyone in America; it’s not really that much of a consolation that the GOP is included in that number.