On July 17, 2015, Donald Trump received a caps lock–heavy campaign memo from one of his advisers containing instructions on how to communicate with a voter species that was especially exotic to the candidate at the time.
“The audience is CHRISTIAN SOCIAL CONSERVATIVES,” the Trump adviser wrote on the eve of the the 2015 Family Leadership Summit in Iowa. “They are open to your candidacy but NEED TO KNOW that their issues are IMPORTANT TO YOU.”
The document — along with several other internal Trump camp memos recently obtained by BuzzFeed News — illustrates just how tenuous the New York billionaire's connection was to his party's religious base at the outset of this election cycle. Throughout 2014 and 2015, Trump's small political team coached him on how to make himself more palatable to conservative Christians.
On the issue of abortion, one memo urged, "Unless you are specifically asked, it is not beneficial to state that you support the exceptions of life of the mother, rape, and incest." Another suggested that Trump "DEFLECT" any debate questions about school prayer by saying, "I employ thousands of individuals and make sure my employees have the freedom to express their faith however they see fit." If asked whether he believed in "creationism or evolution," an adviser suggested the candidate respond, "I believe in both" — and then added in a parenthetical, "(Mr. Trump — we may want to follow up on this.)"
For all his advisers' best efforts, of course, Trump never did master the language of the religious right — but it has hardly held him back. Not only has Trump succeeded in capturing the Republican nomination, but according to a recent Pew survey, he is also currently polling better among white evangelicals than any GOP nominee on record. This success has dismayed many of Trump’s Christian critics, who have spent much of this year fretting that a biblically illiterate adulterer was fleecing their fellow believers.
But in fact, some devout detractors argue, the real threat Trump poses to the conservative Christian movement may be in just how many of his god-fearing supporters know exactly what they’re getting. Never before has the Republican Party nominated a standard-bearer so nakedly illiterate on religious matters — and so unwilling to even pretend.
Eric Teetsel, who served as a faith adviser to Marco Rubio, noted that during the GOP primaries Trump performed best with evangelicals who did not regularly attend church, and tended to repel more religious voters. Since Trump clinched the nomination, that distinction has all but vanished.
“Those Bible-reading evangelicals may be somewhere on a scale of enthusiastic support to almost devastated resignation...but they really are mostly voting for Donald Trump,” he said.
Teetsel, who stood outside protesting Trump's meeting with conservative Christian leaders in June, said that the evangelical establishment has set a dangerous precedent with its willful surrender to a nominee who pays only the most perfunctory lip service to its agenda. “Donald Trump is a liar. That’s who he is. … He’ll burn us like he has burned everyone else in his life.”
Such skepticism is not entirely unwarranted. Trump's reinvention as a social conservative took place less than five years before he cannonballed into the Republican presidential race. Early in 2011, Trump delivered a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference in which he casually papered over a long history of socially liberal statements.
"Just very briefly," he said 12 minutes into his remarks, "I'm pro-life, I'm against gun control, and I will fight to end Obamacare." (In interviews shortly thereafter, he declared himself an opponent of same-sex marriage as well.)
Nick Everhart, a Republican consultant whose firm briefly advised Trump around this time, was taken aback by the brazenness of the flip-flops.
"To be so craven about changing what he believed is absolutely unprecedented in American politics," said Everhart, who has advised numerous evangelical clients. "It's like being a Republican was the college degree and becoming pro-life was a General Education class he could check the box on quickly his first semester in school."
Trump's 2011 conversion to social conservatism immediately caught the attention of evangelical powerbroker Ralph Reed, and the two became fast friends. They spoke frequently that year as Trump flirted with a presidential bid, and according to two sources close to the businessman, Reed privately agreed to run Trump's campaign if he decided to enter the 2012 race. The alliance would have made for a head-scratching headline if it had ever come to fruition, and likely would have drawn accusations of opportunism from some of Reed's Christian cohorts.
Reed declined to comment specifically on his private conversations with Trump. But he said he sees no reason now for evangelicals to withhold their support for the thrice-married GOP nominee.
"Evangelical voters are far more forgiving and ready to extend mercy to others than the predominant cultural stereotype," Reed said, adding, "On the sanctity of life, traditional marriage, religious freedom, support for Israel, the appointment of judicial conservatives to the Supreme Court and other federal courts, and opposition to the Iran nuclear deal, Donald Trump shares the public policy views of evangelical voters, and they believe his commitment to these issues is genuine."
While it's true that Trump has, however haltingly, found his way into alignment with the religious right this year, it's less clear how many of those voters are actually convinced of his "genuineness." At times, Trump's pitch to evangelicals has had an almost winking quality to it — particularly during the early primaries, when he could be seen brandishing a Bible during speeches, or swaying to "Amazing Grace" at church services, or grandly doling out giant cardboard charity checks onstage alongside his holy-rolling super-surrogate Jerry Falwell Jr.
While pundits snickered at the ham-handed pandering, many failed to recognize that his evangelical supporters were in on the joke.
Outside a Trump rally in Davenport, Iowa, just days before the January caucuses, Greg Cromer shrugged off questions about the candidate's religiosity. "Yeah, so he doesn't know what 2 Thessalonians is ... If that were the only thing the electorate cared about — which one's more moral? — I'd go with Ted [Cruz]. But Donald has the skill set we're looking for. So yeah, we'll put our blinders on."
Chuckling a bit sardonically, Cromer added, "God has used worse people."
Even Trump's earliest and most enthusiastic evangelical surrogates — a motley crowd of televangelists and prosperity preachers — have embraced this message as they vouch for the candidate.
"Is Donald Trump able to lead anyone's congregation? Absolutely not," said Pastor Mark Burns, a South Carolina-based minister who delivered a prayer at last month's Republican convention. "Is Donald Trump the Bible-totin', scripture-quotin' Christian? To me, that's irrelevant. We're not voting for the next pastor of the United States, we're voting for the next president ... [Trump] himself knows that he has not been the churchgoing choirboy, and he admits to his former lifestyle."
Of course, such campaign-season rationalizations have become common to the point of cliche among conservative Christians. "This kind of willingness to make convenient exceptions to the moral code is not new," said Michael Wear, an evangelical and former faith adviser to President Obama. "But Trump is new because he has never even asked for forgiveness. Trump is, in evangelical parlance, an unrepentant sinner."
With Antonin Scalia's sudden death earlier this year, control of the Supreme Court has become a popular justification for supporting Trump. Wear said the candidate won over many evangelicals looking for an excuse to vote for him when he released a list of potential nominees in May. His selection of Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, a mainstream social conservative, as his running mate also helped. But Trump's greatest advantage in wooing the religious right, Wear said, is probably his opponent.
"It's saddening to many who have built this movement to see it prop up someone like Donald Trump," he said. "But disliking Hillary Clinton is basically a supplement to the Nicene Creed for many evangelicals."