Evangelicals mixed as Trump surges in polls

Will Donald Trump win the Evangelical vote?
Will Donald Trump win the Evangelical vote?

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Will Donald Trump win the Evangelical vote? 02:32

Story highlights

  • Trump told the Iowa Family Leadership Forum last month that he isn't sure if he's ever asked God for forgiveness
  • Since his comments, Trump has continued to surge to the top of national polls

Nashville (CNN)Donald Trump gave an unexpected answer last month when he was asked if he had ever asked God for forgiveness for his actions.

"I am not sure I have. I just go on and try to do a better job from there. I don't think so," he said at the Iowa Family Leadership Forum. "If I do something wrong, I think, I just try and make it right. I don't bring God into that picture. I don't."
It was a surprisingly honest answer from a politician, especially from a Republican at a forum hosted by a Christian organization. Trump said he was a Presbyterian who loves God and takes part in communion at his church, but his comments about forgiveness -- which spoke to a fundamental belief among Christians -- sparked immediate speculation over whether Trump could carry Iowa's influential voting bloc of evangelicals in the caucuses next year.
    But since his comments, Trump has continued to surge to the top of national polls and now commands a double-digit lead over his next closest rivals, Jeb Bush and Scott Walker, in the race for the Republican nomination.
    This week, 13,000 evangelicals gathered in Nashville for the Send North America conference, a gathering sponsored in part by the Southern Baptist Convention. In conversations with 10 voters, most said Trump wasn't their favorite candidate in the race, but it wasn't because of his faith.
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    "I do think that recognizing my sin and knowing that I have to humble myself and recognize that I need Christ first is important," said Savannah Howard, a student from Tampa who identified herself as an independent. "But a candidate's faith is not a deal breaker. I'm not going to agree with everything that a candidate says."
    Cherylann Haley, a thrift store manager for a hospice, noted that the conference's two political speakers -- Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio -- are both Catholic. But, she said, she still lines up with their political views on issues like abortion and same-sex marriage, even though she may not agree entirely with their religious beliefs.
    A candidate's faith, she acknowledged, is important because it shapes that person's platform, but she added that it's not "the defining factor" in who she decides to vote for.
    "For Trump to say that -- more important than me voting for him -- is that I know that I have to pray for him," said Haley, who described herself as a huge "Celebrity Apprentice" fan.
    Trump's campaign declined to comment. But Russell Moore, the president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, said most evangelicals aren't looking to "identity politics," meaning they're not single-issue voters who zero in on one facet of a candidate's platform or personality.
    "They're looking for someone who will lead with justice for the common good ... which is one of the reasons why I'm not spending a lot of time asking politicians to outline for me their personal testimonies, which I think in the past has often led to politicians learning what evangelical testimonies sound like in order to win evangelical voters," Moore told reporters. "That in and of itself is not an issue for me."
    However, Moore added, evangelicals will certainly look at Trump's "character" and argued there's a "series of questions" that Trump will have to answer involving his past.
    "Someone who has divorced two wives, someone who has been involved in the casino industry that is predatory of the poor, and yet says that he has nothing to be forgiven of, nothing to apologize for," Moore said. "I think that speaks to someone's character."
    He also noted that last year Trump tweeted that Ebola-infected aid workers -- some of whom were Christian missionaries -- should not be allowed back in the U.S. and said Trump should apologize. Moore also took issue with Trump's comments about some Mexican immigrants being "rapists."
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    "Mexican immigrants are far more likely to be Bible-believing Christians than to be criminals," Moore said.
    Trump was not invited to speak at the conference, according to organizers. Even though he's leading in the polls now, he did not meet the 10% threshold earlier this summer that organizers set as criteria for an invitation.
    The real estate titan will take the center spot in the debate lineup Thursday when Republican candidates face off for the first time. Interviewing Bush on stage at the conference Tuesday, Moore joked with the former Florida governor that he probably never imagined as a kid that one day he'd appear on television with Trump.
    "When I was growing up we didn't have reality TV, either," Bush quipped, drawing big laughs from the audience.
    Bush, who lives in Miami with his Mexican wife, has notably gone after Trump for his comments about Mexicans. "I respect the guy who is the frontrunner in the Republican nomination," Bush said on stage Tuesday. "This is a serious thing. But I think to win and to govern the right way we have to unite, rather than divide."
    Some voters, however, were open to a Trump presidency. Elicia Horton, a church planter who identified herself as an independent and part Hispanic, said she was leaning towards Trump because of his business experience.
    "Even though being an Hispanic and all the backfire that's come on Donald Trump, I'm really interested to see what he's going to do 'cause he just has a whole different perspective on business and the economy," she said.
    David Brody, the chief political news correspondent for the Christian Broadcasting Network, explained why Trump has appeal among some evangelicals, saying they appreciate his honesty about his faith and like how he speaks in "absolutes."
    "Now, think of conservative evangelicals. In their quest to champion biblical values, their mindset is much the same. It is a world of absolutes," he wrote in a blog post. "They believe the Bible to be the inerrant word of God. Non-negotiable. They believe there is only one way to heaven and that is through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Non-negotiable."
    Some voters at the conference, however, had a harder time imagining the outspoken candidate in the Oval Office.
    "I absolutely adore him. He's fantastic in so many ways, but running for president, he is so unattractive because -- he has a lot of money and he's really good at being a business man -- but as far as taking care of the most powerful country in the world, he can't do that," said Spencer Morris, a college student from Louisiana.
    Pam Lyon of Hopkinsville, Kentucky, described Trump as a "loose cannon" and didn't like the way he "grandstands."
    "I think, even for the presidency, there should be some decorum there," she said.
    Her husband, Wally, both of whom are retired, also didn't like Trump's approach to politics -- saying he was "too radical." And when asked about Trump's comments on his faith, Lyon lowered his head and looked at the ground.
    "We've gotten so far away from God's teachings and principles," Lyon said with disappointment. "I'm looking for a man to go back to those and at least try to make some laws based on that."