Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump met with Christian conservatives in New York City. Trump talked about Supreme Court nominees, the-ban on tax-exempt groups' – including churches — politicking, and religious liberty. (Claritza Jimenez/The Washington Post)

Donald Trump won a standing ovation from hundreds of Christian conservatives who came to New York City on Tuesday with a somewhat skeptical but willing attitude toward a man who has divided their group with comments on women, immigrants and Islam. In his comments, the presumptive GOP presidential nominee said he would end the decades-old ban on tax-exempt groups’ — including churches — politicking, called religious liberty “the No. 1 question,” and promised to appoint antiabortion Supreme Court justices.

“I think maybe that will be my greatest contribution to Christianity — and other religions — is to allow you, when you talk religious liberty, to go and speak openly, and if you like somebody or want somebody to represent you, you should have the right to do it,” Trump said. A ban was put in place by then-U.S. senator Lyndon Johnson on tax-exempt groups making explicit political endorsements. Religious leaders in America today, Trump said, “are petrified.”

As president, he said, he’d work on things including: “freeing up your religion, freeing up your thoughts. You talk about religious liberty and religious freedom, you don’t have any religious freedom if you think about it,” he told the group, which broke in many times with applause.

Throughout the talk Trump emphasized that America was hurting due to what he described as Christianity’s slide to become “weaker, weaker, weaker.” He said he’d get department store employees to say “Merry Christmas” and would fight restrictions on public employees, such as public school coaches, from being allowed to lead sectarian prayer on the field.

The audience included leaders and founders of many segments of the Christian Right, the evangelical movement that began in the 1970s under people including the late Jerry Falwell. Among those present and involved in the program Tuesday were Focus on the Family founder James Dobson (who is no longer with that group), former Christian Coalition head Ralph Reed and evangelist Franklin Graham (son of evangelical icon Billy Graham).


A group of interfaith religious leaders protests  Donald Trump outside a hotel where he met with evangelical leaders in New York on June 21. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

While polls show that the majority of evangelicals — who make up about a fifth of the country — are favorable toward Trump, his campaign has bitterly divided Christian conservatives in general. Those who oppose him do so strongly, and later Tuesday, a separate group of conservatives — including leading evangelicals — were meeting to strategize about a possible third candidate. Some leading Christian conservatives used the meeting to speak out against Trump and his comments about immigrants, women, Muslims and others.

“This meeting marks the end of the Christian Right,” Michael Farris, a national homeschooling pioneer and longtime figure of the Christian Right, wrote on his Facebook page Tuesday. He noted that he was present at the first gathering of the Moral Majority in 1980: “The premise of the meeting in 1980 was that only candidates that reflected a biblical worldview and good character would gain our support. … Today, a candidate whose worldview is greed and whose god is his appetites (Philippians 3) is being tacitly endorsed by this throng. … This is a day of mourning.”

Catholic conservative Robert George, former chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and a Princeton professor, declined to attend the meeting, saying that while he may think even lower of Hillary Clinton, he fears Trump will “in the end, bring disgrace upon those individuals and organizations who publicly embrace him. For those of us who believe in limited government, the rule of law, flourishing institutions of civil society and traditional Judeo-Christian moral principles, and who believe that our leaders must be persons of integrity and good character, this election is presenting a horrible choice. May God help us.”

Also Tuesday, Clinton picked up the endorsement of Deborah Fikes, well-known for her years as a leader with the National Association of Evangelicals and the World Evangelical Alliance.

Many conservative evangelicals — particularly their leaders, many of whom were supporters of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) — are skeptical about Trump’s commitment  to everything from abortion opposition to religious liberty. But they see him as more of an ally than they do Clinton, and many are attracted to his nostalgic framework about taking America “back” to a better time. Some are hopeful that Trump, as a political neophyte, is open to their perspective.

Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life of America, said she didn’t identify as a millennial with the nostalgia and anger of older conservatives, and was waiting for Trump to give a more hopeful and detailed description for how he came to call himself anti-abortion. She also wanted to hear him address comments he’s made about women that many consider sexist.

“Yes, we know he’s definitely better than Clinton [on abortion issues], but are we going to work for a candidate who has said these things? I’m sitting here thinking: How will pro-life millennials hear the things he said? How hard will they work for him?” Hawkins said. The meeting, she said, “was like the dating site ‘Just Lunch.’ It was just lunch.”

Some of those attending said the reception for Trump was very warm. Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, Dobson and others who spoke from the stage praised Trump and thanked him for spending time with the group.

“I believe that he came across very well as a messenger for everybody in the room, not just as a beneficiary of evangelical votes but as a fellow traveler. That’s not necessarily an easy distance for him to have traveled because people didn’t see him like that before,” said Marjorie Danenfelser of Susan B. Anthony List, which works to oppose abortion. “He made no missteps. There were no explosions.”

She said she couldn’t recall a candidate explicitly stating they would pursue “pro-life” justices. “They usually couch it in other words, like ‘constitutional,’ ” she said.

At the end of the event, the campaign announced an “evangelical executive board,” which included 21 names: 20 men and one woman, former congresswoman Michele Bachmann. Others on the list included Dobson, Jerry Falwell Jr. of Liberty University and Reed.

The event wasn’t described as an endorsement, and there was no vote at the end. While many attendees may lean toward Trump (or are open to leaning), the question the event aimed to answer was how enthusiastically they will work for him.

The meeting was a display of many old-guard conservative Christian leaders. The event opened with former GOP candidate and neurosurgeon Ben Carson talking about unity, and then Graham saying a prayer before Trump spoke. Huckabee moderated a question-and-answer session.

About 50,000 questions were submitted, organizers said; 20 were chosen. Here are the leaders who asked questions and on which topics: Dobson asked about religious liberty; Reed about national security; prominent Latino pastor Samuel Rodriguez about immigration; Texas mega-church pastor Jack Graham about leadership; Maryland Bishop Harry Jackson about marriage; Ronnie Floyd, immediate past president of the Southern Baptist Convention, about racial tensions; and California televangelist David Jeremiah about Israel policy.

The religiosity of the meeting was deliberately light. In introducing Trump, Huckabee told him: “I don’t think anyone here expects you to be theological today. I want to put you at ease. I don’t think anyone here thinks we’re interviewing you to be our next pastor,” he said. “You’re off the hook on the deep theological questions.”

Organizers did hand out a pre- and post-meeting prayer guide, but its direction was more encouraging than theological. “Ask God to help you recognize any tensions that you feel participating in this meeting,” the guide said.

The meeting was closed to most media, but some attendees shared audio clips or reports.

Although Americans in general have been moving away from institutional faith, evangelicals in particular have always been skeptical of such hierarchy, and it’s hard to say how much sway the group will have in firing up the evangelical base.

The crowd responded with applause several times when Trump criticized the ban on tax-exempt groups endorsing candidates.

A 2014 survey by Pew Research found that 63 percent of Americans believe churches and other houses of worship should not come out in favor of candidates, while 32 percent said they should. Support for endorsing was highest among white evangelicals, at 42 percent. The survey found Americans much more split — pretty much evenly — on whether churches should express their views on social and political problems or keep out.

By evening, a very different evangelical effort got going in Manhattan. That included members of a new group called Better for America, a coalition of social conservatives and other moderate Republicans who are opposing Trump. That effort was described a few days ago by my colleague Jennifer Rubin. The meeting Tuesday night, one evangelical leader attending said, will include topics including recruiting a candidate, improving ballot access and “strategies for causing trouble at the [GOP] convention.”

Social conservatives in the group say a hallmark is willingness to compromise — to a degree.

“To be frank, at this point, there’s a widespread feeling it would be hard to do worse than a choice between Trump and Clinton. There are threshold issues like [opposition to abortion], but this is not a group that will be overly strict about ideology. The circle of trust is wide,” said the evangelical leader with Better for America, who wasn’t authorized to speak for the group.

Also Tuesday, Fikes, a longtime leader in major evangelical organizations, in particular on human-rights and religious-freedom issues, said Clinton represents Christian values far more than Trump.

“I feel like years of all the work that has been done on advancing international religious freedom in the last 15 years is in danger of unraveling with the policies of Donald Trump,” said Fikes, who was for years a board member of the National Association of Evangelicals and the United Nations’ representative for the World Evangelical Alliance. The WEA is an umbrella group of national evangelical organizations from dozens of countries.

Fikes said that she hears regularly from evangelicals overseas who are concerned that Trump’s comments on immigration and Islam could harm Christians who are minorities in other nations. Clinton, Fikes said, is associated with things such as health care and anti-poverty work.

“People refer to her as Sister Hillary, evangelicals! They don’t question her faith,” she said.

Here are some quotes from a transcript The Post acquired:

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An earlier version of this story wrongly reported that Lyndon Johnson as president had proposed a change in tax code that forbids tax-exempt groups from endorsing candidates. Johnson proposed the measure as a U.S. senator.

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