Trump is counting on equal or stronger support from evangelicals during his reelection bid, and he garnered some of the loudest applause of the event when he promised to deliver more from the community's agenda, announcing that he'll "very soon" move to "safeguard students' and teachers' First Amendment rights to pray in our schools."
And he drew boisterous applause again when he denounced socialism — a line of attack he has used against the field of Democratic candidates vying to take him on in November's election.
"America was not built by religion-hating socialists," Trump said. "America was built by churchgoing, God-worshiping, freedom-loving patriots."
He began the event by defending his decision to greenlight the killing of Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, one of Iran's top military figures, in Baghdad early Friday but spent the rest of his time on remarks tailored to the evangelical audience seated before him.
The president appeared at the Miami megachurch led by Guillermo Maldonado, one of the most prominent Hispanic evangelical leaders in the nation, who has been a key ally and adviser to Trump.
But the decision to appear at a church attended by thousands of Latinos also underscored a tense subject for Trump with the community: the hard-line immigration policies that have been a hallmark for Trump since the first day of his 2016 presidential campaign.
That was highlighted by assurances Maldonado gave his congregation earlier this week that members did not have to be U.S. citizens to attend the event, which was held about 90 miles south of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Fla., where the president has been staying since Dec. 20.
“It’s certainly a good opportunity for the president,” said former congressman Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.), who until 2019 represented the district where the church is located. But the appearance, he added, is “not without risk, because I don’t think the president’s immigration policies are very popular among the congregation.”
Yet Trump’s references Friday to immigration — his boasting about the border wall and criticisms of “loopholes” in U.S. immigration law — drew a loud ovation from the crowd.
The Trump campaign called El Rey Jesús, also known as King Jesus International Ministry, a “natural fit” as the launch spot for the new coalition, Evangelicals for Trump. Maldonado’s backing of the president reflects the “great and overwhelming support President Trump has among the evangelical community at large,” campaign spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany said.
Maldonado declined an interview request made through the church. But he offered reassurances to immigrants during Sunday’s services, according to the Miami Herald.
“I ask you: Do you think I would do something where I would endanger my people?” Maldonado said. “I’m not that dumb.”
Gabriel Salguero, president of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition, said Latino evangelicals have been put off by Trump’s remarks about people of Mexican descent, his repeal of an Obama-era program that granted work permits to undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children, and the name-calling of his political opponents.
However, he said, they have appreciated his efforts on criminal justice reform and on antiabortion policies.
“The nation is waking up to the reality that Latino evangelicals are an independent voting bloc,” Salguero said. “They have their own spokespersons, their own leaders. As people have been drilling down deeper into evangelicalism, they recognize they’re not a monolith.”
Latino evangelicals say Maldonado is one of the most respected Hispanic leaders in the country. He is a Honduran immigrant with a bilingual ministry, a show on Trinity Broadcasting Network and 2.7 million followers on Facebook.
Maldonado is considered part of the prosperity gospel, a movement within some churches that teach that God blesses followers with health and material wealth. The prosperity gospel, generally considered to be on the fringes of U.S. Christianity, has grown globally and received attention under Trump because several of his faith advisers are part of the movement.
Samuel Rodriguez, a nationally known Hispanic evangelical leader who is part of a core dozen evangelical leaders who have been advising the administration, called Trump’s decision to show up at Maldonado’s church “politically brilliant” because it could shore up support from a Latino slice of evangelicals in a key swing state.
Curbelo also said many congregants at King Jesus International are non-Cuban Hispanics, who tend to be less aligned to the GOP and are more likely to be swing voters, allowing Trump to simultaneously reach evangelicals — a core part of his base — and persuadable voters.
“You have to choose whether to go for your base voters or your swing voters,” said Curbelo, a critic of Trump during his time in Congress. “In that congregation [on Friday], you’ll have a lot of people who fit into both categories.”
The event Friday afternoon was designed to be a show of force of evangelical support that comes on the heels of a scathing editorial from a major Christian publication calling for Trump’s ouster after he was impeached by the House last month. Nearly 40 influential evangelical leaders from across the nation planned to attend the launch, according to the campaign.
The opinion piece, from Christianity Today, argued that Trump has a “grossly immoral character” and harshly criticized his attempts to pressure Ukraine to investigate a political rival — actions that made him just the third impeached U.S. president in history.
It also provoked a furious response from Trump, who took to Twitter to inaccurately criticize Christianity Today as a “far left magazine” and to tout his record on issues important to evangelical voters. It’s that policy record — opposing abortion, nominating conservative jurists and moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem — that has attracted many evangelicals to Trump and that his campaign is emphasizing as part of his reelection effort. “He’s done some things that I didn’t necessarily agree with, but you know, he’s not a preacher,” said Pastor Jentezen Franklin, who leads Free Chapel in Gainesville, Ga., and was to participate in Friday’s event. “He’s not a perfect person, but he is a leader and he gets a lot done in the midst of tremendous opposition.”
Since the publication of the editorial, Trump has worked hard to remain in front of evangelicals, appearing at a Southern Baptist church on Christmas Eve instead of worshiping in a mainline Protestant church as he normally does. And Rodriguez, who sat on Christianity Today’s board until earlier this week, said Trump’s decision to launch the new group at one of the largest Latino evangelical churches in the nation was “without a doubt” a reaction to that editorial.
The Pew Research Center’s 2018 national survey of Latinos found that 36 percent of Hispanic evangelical Christians approved of Trump’s job performance in summer and early fall of that year — a figure that was just about half the level of approval Pew has found among white evangelical Protestants, which was 69 percent in early 2019 and similar in more recent polling. The 2018 Pew survey on Latinos found that 55 percent of Hispanic evangelical Christians disapproved of Trump.
An NPR-PBS NewsHour-Marist poll from early December found that 75 percent of white evangelical Christians approved of Trump, compared with 42 percent of U.S. adults overall.
Even though they share similar beliefs about Jesus and about the Bible, white evangelical attitudes diverge from those of Latino evangelicals on many policy issues, including immigration reform, climate change, health care and taxing the wealthy, said Janelle Wong, a professor of American studies at the University of Maryland.
A statement published on the church’s website says Maldonado is participating in the evangelical coalition in his personal capacity and that King Jesus International Ministry does not endorse any political candidates. The Trump campaign is picking up the tab for the use of the church, which is receiving “fair compensation” in exchange, according to the statement.
The Trump campaign expects Evangelicals for Trump to grow ahead of the Nov. 3 election, and it also plans to continue outreach to Hispanic and black voters through its other coalitions: Latinos for Trump and Black Voices for Trump.
Campaign officials have said that even a small surge in support among black or Latino voters could help make the difference for Trump in key swing states, including Florida.
“Promises and principles, those two words come to mind,” said Jack Graham, the pastor of Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Tex., who is also a part of the campaign coalition. “President Trump is the best leader for America and for evangelicals.”
Pulliam Bailey reported from New York. Scott Clement in Washington contributed to this report.