Evangelicals and Trump: A story of forgiveness

CNN correspondents and commentators experienced the 2016 presidential election in unique and interesting ways. This recollection and others were produced in conjunction with CNN's election project, "A Race Like No Other: The Unprecedented Election of 2016."

(CNN)I realized Donald Trump could win the presidency on a frosty January morning in Albia, Iowa, 151 hours before the start of the caucuses. Ted Cruz had just sauntered inside Bogie's Steakhouse, in his barn jacket and cowboy boots, with former Texas Gov. Rick Perry at his side. The event opened with both men bowing their heads in prayer under a mounted 38-point buck (reportedly the largest white-tail buck ever harvested by a hunter).

Moments before, Cruz had insisted to reporters that he was finally seeing conservatives come together because "the stakes are too high for us to get this choice wrong." He predicted they would choose the proven conservative, and asked, "Who's stood and defended life and marriage and religious liberty?"
But the numbers were telling a different story: Trump was rising among evangelicals. That morning, he had received the jaw-dropping endorsement of Jerry Falwell Jr.
For so long, students of politics thought the key to winning the Republican nomination was a candidate's ability to win over conservative evangelicals. We had wrongly assumed they would never embrace the thrice-married Donald Trump, with his shifting views on abortion and luminous praise for Planned Parenthood.
    But lingering at Bogie's talking to voters as the bleak winter light streamed through the blinds, many self-described Christian conservatives told me they were wavering between Cruz and Trump.
    How could that be? I asked one of them. How could so many evangelicals look beyond Trump's lifestyle, the way he talked about God and church — drinking his "little wine" and having his "little cracker."
    He just looked at me, scribbling away at my notes.
    "America," he said, "is a forgiving nation."