Evangelicals were supposed to hate Donald Trump.
His ostentatious wealth, his colorful language, his serial marriages—he was supposed to be the anti-Huckabee, the candidate least appealing to conservative Christians and their reality TV-unfriendly sensibilities.
Then there was Trump’s cavalier discussion of his faith at the Ames, Iowa, Family Leadership Summit in July—where he said he doesn’t ask God for forgiveness.
The Washington Examiner’s Byron York argued that comment would hurt him more than his disparagement of Senator John McCain’s war record.
And The New York Times noted that Trump’s comments on his faith and multiple marriages “prompted the most muttering and unease in the audience.”
Fast-forward a month, and that looks like little more than misguided concern trolling. In reality, many top evangelical leaders admire Trump’s chutzpah—and his conservative conversion story.
Pam Olsen, who helms an influential evangelical prayer group in Florida, said she was particularly impressed by his opposition to abortion.
“His story of turning from pro-choice to pro-life is a very good story,” she said, “and with what happened with the Planned Parenthood videos coming out, we are praying as leaders in the evangelical movement that multitudes of people would have that same story that Donald Trump has, to become aware of what abortion really means and to become pro-life.”
Poll numbers show the real estate mogul is leading the field among evangelical voters, and that his support from that key demographic went up after his controversial debate performance.
Look: This shouldn’t have surprised anyone.
Turns out, Trump has been courting the evangelical vote for quite some time. The Donald J. Trump Foundation has made donations to evangelical groups like Iowa’s The Family Leader ($10,000 in 2013, PDF), Samaritan’s Purse ($10,000 in 2013, PDF) and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association ($100,000 in 2012, PDF), according to IRS forms posted on Guidestar.org.
Earlier this month, Graham’s son, Franklin, praised Trump’s debate performance on Facebook.
“[H]e’s shaking up the Republican party and the political process overall. And it needs shaking up!” Franklin Graham wrote.
But beyond the financial investment, the conservative Christian voters who play a key role in helping Republican candidates win primaries and general elections like him for some pretty understandable reasons. And that helps explain why his candidacy has had staying power that leaves many beltway graybeards scratching their heads—and why he could be an even bigger problem for the Republican establishment than some expect.
A clever observer could have foretold all of this by watching Trump’s appearance at Liberty University on September 24, 2012. The college—a powerhouse of conservative influence where virtually every Republican presidential contender speaks—invited Trump to deliver one of their convocation addresses, and he agreed, taking care to note that he waived his classy, hefty, yuuuge speaking fee.
Jerry Falwell Jr., the son of the college’s late founder, Jerry Falwell, introduced Trump to raucous applause, calling him “one of the great visionaries of our time.”
“Here at Liberty University, we plan to start replacing our oldest dorms in the dorm circle with residential towers in January and I think we need a Trump Tower or two here on campus, don’t you?” he said to laughter and cheers.
Falwell also praised Trump’s accomplishments in the political realm.
“In 2011, after failed attempts by Senator John McCain and Hillary Clinton, Mr. Trump singlehandedly forced President Obama to release his birth certificate,” he said without irony, drawing more applause.
When Trump rose to speak—his daffodil-yellow hair and eyebrows glowing against the stage’s muted blue backdrop—students' cheers were lengthy and loud. A school press release said the event drew a record audience, even though convocation attendance was mandatory for students. Trump praised Jerry Falwell, described himself as “a very proud Christian and a real Christian,” and reminisced about his Sunday school days. And he even sparked a minor controversy by advising students to “get even” if they were wronged in the business world.
“I always say it but I won’t say it to you because this is a different audience,” he continued, of his advice that students extract revenge from their adversaries.
“You don’t want to get even, do you?” he asked, shaking his hand from side to side as the audience laughed. “Yeah, I think you do.”
And he doubled down, giving more life tips that students at the conservative school would have been unlikely to hear from another speaker in his spot.
“I always say, always have a prenuptial agreement,” he continued. “But I won’t say it here because you people don’t get divorced, right? Nobody gets divorced! OK, so I will not say have a prenuptial agreement to anybody in this room! I just want to end—who else would say that but Trump, right? See? I said I should say it, but I won’t say it—how do I get my point across without saying it, I just did it, right?”
And before Falwell dismissed students after Trump’s speech, he made a prescient joke.
“It’s not too late to get back in the presidential race, is it?” he said. “I don’t know!”
Trump’s revenge comments drew critical coverage, but Liberty circled the wagons and sent their top leaders to make the rounds on Christian radio to defend the mogul’s tip.
Johnnie Moore, an author and consultant as well as former senior vice president of Liberty University, helped oversee Trump’s visit. He said the mogul made an overwhelmingly good impression on the students and faculty. The event’s organizers had expected Trump to leave immediately after the speech, but instead he made the rounds on campus, chatting up campus leaders, posing for pictures, and soaking it all in.
“He wasn’t in a hurry,” said Moore. “He wasn’t arrogant, he wasn’t too busy for the community, he literally just stayed around all afternoon. It was really, really interesting.”
Moore added that other evangelical and conservative Catholic institutions had similar experiences with Trump in the years before he announced his presidential bid.
“I know many, many evangelical and Catholic organizations that have had that same experience with him,” Moore said. “I think long before anyone thought that he would seriously run for president, he was making outreaches to evangelicals and Catholics who are involved in the political process.”
But he hasn’t gotten to know all of them. Olsen, who helms the Florida Prayer Network, said she hasn’t yet met the mogul, and she’ll have at least one thing to say to him when she does.
“I’d say, ‘Be wise and ask God’s forgiveness!’” she said.
That said, Olsen added that many evangelicals take heart in his shift from being ambivalent about abortion to being pro-life. Sin, forgiveness, and redemption are key to the evangelical view of how God works. And Trump, in his own way, exemplifies that. She added that there’s an appeal in his eagerness to needle Republican Party leadership.
“He’s holding the feet to the fire of the Republican Party, which isn’t a bad thing,” she said.
Ray Moore, the director of South Carolina-based Exodus Mandate (“a Christian ministry to encourage and assist Christian families to leave Pharaoh’s school system (i.e., government schools),” per its site), held a similar view. He won’t endorse a candidate, but said Trump’s appeal to evangelicals makes a lot of sense.
“They get in office and they just give us the back of the hand as soon as they get elected,” he said, referring to top Washington Republicans. “Look at the Planned Parenthood issue, they can’t seem to defund Planned Parenthood, and it’s just amazing to watch that go on for years.”
“He’s been hard on them, and I like that,” he added.
A bill to eliminate federal funding for Planned Parenthood would certainly draw a presidential veto. But it would also be a symbolic effort that conservatives say they would appreciate. So that puts congressional Republicans in a tight spot—how much of their political capital do they expend on symbolic gestures? For many evangelicals, they haven't spent enough.
That includes Steve Scheffler, Iowa’s Republican National Committeeman and the head of the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition, who said that same frustration—enflamed by the failure of congressional Republicans to send Obama a bill that defunded Planned Parenthood—is common among Trump’s backers.
“They’re looking for an outlet to vent their frustrations,” he said.
For many evangelical voters, Trump is that outlet.
But for others, he’s still an enigma.
“I find it surprising, but then again, I tell myself it’s very early on in the race,” said Cindy Costa, South Carolina’s Republican National Committeewoman.
“I think he would be much better than Hillary Clinton or any of the Democratic contenders,” she continued. “God works in strange ways. Sometimes you just have to believe that he’s involved in the affairs of men—who knows?”