Trump’s God Machine

13 minute read

The Donald Trump charm campaign can be overwhelming, even to the sophisticated. It can include free strappy Ivanka Trump heels, top New York City restaurant reservations and an offer of his private cell-phone number, which he answers himself. You might also get phone access to his children, who are all involved in the campaign in some way. Jerry Falwell Jr., the first evangelical leader to endorse the thrice-married billionaire, learned all of this firsthand.

And for Falwell, the son of the popular televangelist who founded the Moral Majority in the 1970s, the personal touch is part of his own family’s business. Falwell remembers meeting Ted Cruz at the Charleston, S.C., GOP debate in January and shaking the Texan’s hand. “He acted like he didn’t have a clue who he was talking to,” Falwell recalls of Cruz. “I wasn’t offended, but if he is going to be in politics, he needs to be more personal.” Trump, by contrast, was a blur of charm, working the room that night with a warmth Falwell recognized from his namesake, who died in 2007. “He was so personable–my father was like that–so politically incorrect,” says Falwell.

Less than a week later, Trump arrived at Falwell’s campus to speak in the very auditorium Cruz had chosen to launch his presidential campaign. Falwell endorsed Trump days later. “They call him a populist. That is what we’ve been accused of being for a long time,” Falwell says. “I don’t know why to be President you have to mirror a good pastor.”

At the time, Falwell’s endorsement shocked the conservative evangelical movement, whose leaders considered Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party unlikely and his candidacy heretical. Trump’s life seemed to represent everything evangelicals and social conservatives stood against: excess, indulgence, opulence, cynicism. Trump had long boasted of supporting access to abortion and being a playboy, using the crudest language to sexualize women. He was a onetime supporter of amending the Civil Rights Act to protect gay people. And as a businessman, he was proud of his ability to get even and make money at others’ expense. Iowa evangelical activist Bob Vander Plaats said he was “flabbergasted” by Falwell’s endorsement, and he mocked Trump for his biblical illiteracy–calling a book of the Bible “2 Corinthians” instead of the more common Second Corinthians. There was no way, said Vander Plaats, Cruz and dozens of others, that evangelicals would vote for him once they learned what he really stood for.

What no one understood at the time was the degree to which Trump had been working for years to win over social conservatives. Before the primaries were over, Trump won the GOP nomination with the evangelical base, besting Bible thumpers like Cruz and Mike Huckabee and doing so without most of the movement’s power brokers. He set out to do it as he does everything, on his own terms.

It took some time. Trump began charming the Liberty University president as far back as 2012, when he accepted an honorary degree in business there, spoke but waived his fee, assumed his own travel costs and then delayed his return flight to tour the campus. When Hurricane Sandy hit New York a month later, Falwell remembers how his wife Becki got a call from a longtime Trump adviser to say that Trump had been inspired by Liberty’s hospitality and had opened one of his hotel lobbies to displaced people for free food and coffee. Two years later, when the Falwells visited the Big Apple, Trump’s team helped them get restaurant reservations, which led to a photo op with Adam Sandler. In December, Trump called to say he was proud of Falwell’s decision to let students carry concealed weapons on campus–“‘Whatever you do, don’t apologize,'” Falwell remembers Trump saying. And after Trump spoke to the student body again in January, his daughter Ivanka sent four pairs of her signature designer shoes–heels and flats–to Becki and the Falwell girls, in their exact sizes, as a thank-you gift.

Meanwhile, Trump has given speaking spots at his rallies to an obscure group of “prosperity gospel” pastors who preach that God wants Americans to be rich and successful. Several of these, like televangelist Paula White, have large followings. He has tried to use traditional evangelical support for Israel to find votes among the booming Hispanic evangelical movement, despite his commitment to deporting 11 million undocumented people. And after he clinched the GOP nomination, he wooed other conservative Christians by promising to nominate specifically “pro-life” Justices to the Supreme Court.

These moves have won converts, and as a result, Trump has begun to force the hand of the social-conservative leaders who oppose him. Penny Nance, president of Concerned Women for America, has spoken publicly about the hard choice they face in the months ahead. “I did everything I could do to blow up the tracks in front of the Trump train, and it didn’t work, and so at this point you either jump on or stand on the sidelines and wave,” she says. “We are going to have to try to move forward.” In short, fear of Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton is proving greater than fear of a future with Trump.

Trump’s courtship is not yet a wedding. He won only a plurality of evangelicals in the primary; he will need a majority to win the election. Many Christian leaders still find Trump an unlikely prophet, and some are actively building a third-party coalition. In February, a group of evangelicals and social conservatives quietly formed a coalition of “not Trump now or ever” believers and called themselves Conservatives Against Trump.

Led by South Dakota furniture-store owner Bob Fischer, they started organizing on daily conference calls and email chains, twice flying to Washington from across the country for meetings. Now their core campaign team includes more than 60 people, including supporters of former GOP candidates, donors, electoral-data crunchers and convention delegates. They have several task forces–one aims to stop Trump before, during and after the nominating convention; another is working to actively recruit an alternative person to run as a third-party or write-in candidate. “We would do it as soon as we got a firm yes of someone who would [run],” Deborah DeMoss Fonseca, the group’s spokeswoman and a longtime surrogate for Jeb Bush, says. “I’d still say it is about 50-50 that we can do this.”

Others see 2016 as a lost cause. They are focused less on trying to stop Trump than on trying to salvage evangelical principles. Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s public-policy arm, who has been one of the most outspoken evangelical voices against Trump, revamped his annual conference in August to talk about issues like character, race and politics. Otherwise, he wonders, what happens when evangelicals “who were screaming that ‘character matters’ throughout the 1990s … now are willing to say character doesn’t matter?”

Moore goes further, saying evangelical support for Trump may leave a damaging mark on the movement even if he loses. Since the next generation of evangelicals is increasingly multiethnic, Moore notes, it is dangerous to “say that we simply don’t care about issues of blatant race-baiting.” The wave of Trump endorsements, he adds, “shows us that the religious right needs a reformation–this is what happens when you have years of vacuous civil religion with little or bad theology combined with conspiracy-theory fundraising.”

Trump’s avowed policy of forced deportations risks alienating not only Hispanics who are increasingly evangelical, but also mainline evangelicals who believe in broadening the born-again flock. Trump has sent mixed signals to these groups: He delivered a video message in May to the annual conference of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Coalition, the largest Latino evangelical organization in the U.S., with more than 40,000 churches, and said nothing to address fears about his commitment to deport millions by force. But behind closed doors a week earlier, Trump met privately with NHCLC representative Mario Bramnick, a Cuban-American pastor who leads the group’s Hispanic Israel Leadership Coalition and who had advised Cruz in the primary. Trump signaled an openness to working with the Hispanic community on immigration, even though he did not commit to changing his policies. “We all came out really sensing his genuineness,” Bramnick says.

That may not be enough. Samuel Rodriguez Jr., NHCLC’s president, still hopes Trump will apologize to Latino immigrants for his “hurtful, erroneous and dangerous” comments. “Latino evangelicals are more divided than white evangelicals on Trump,” he warns.

Others in the evangelical movement have shifted from opposition to a delicate, painful reconsideration. On June 21, Trump will meet with some 500 leading social-conservative groups in New York–most of which opposed him in the primaries–at their request. Former presidential candidate Ben Carson is working with Family Research Council president Tony Perkins and Bill Dallas, who leads United in Purpose, to plan the closed-door session, which will include leaders like Vander Plaats, Nance, American Values president Gary Bauer, televangelist Pat Robertson and Focus on the Family founder James Dobson. It is, if nothing else, a reminder that misery loves company. Perkins says the meeting won’t focus on endorsements. “We are looking for a way forward,” he says, describing the meeting as “a starting point for many.”

Catholic groups have had more trouble taking that step. The day after Trump became the presumptive nominee, the lay Catholic organization Catholic Vote–part of United in Purpose–called Trump too “problematic in too many ways” to receive its endorsement, citing concerns over his moral judgment, his past support for abortion and his lack of “foundational principles from which he proposes to govern.” The group said it would “not necessarily” work actively to defeat Trump but would turn its resources to critical congressional races.

Trump’s team, meanwhile, has been working to promote the faith leaders who have jumped on board. Televangelist Frank Amedia, pastor of Touch Heaven Ministries in Ohio and the Trump campaign’s unofficial “liaison for Christian policy,” arranged a small private meeting for pastors to discuss their priorities, like religious liberty. Trump continues to rely on prosperity-gospel preachers, who link faith and financial success, to spread his support on social media, and many have direct-to-consumer television and radio shows. Mark Burns, a pastor in Easley, S.C., regularly introduces Trump at rallies and hosts conference calls for followers to pray for the candidate. “Jesus said, above all things, I pray that you prosper … It was never Jesus’ intention for us to be broke,” Burns says. “I think that is what Donald Trump represents.”

Trump surrogates are also preparing to launch a faith “advisory committee” for the campaign, and they say Huckabee is being discussed as a possible national chairman of that group. (Huckabee’s daughter and former campaign manager, Sarah, is working with the campaign.) Televangelist White, a Trump supporter and a senior pastor of New Destiny Christian Center in Florida, has been organizing the group behind the scenes with Tim Clinton, president of the 50,000-member American Association of Christian Counselors, according to several people familiar with the project.

Elsewhere, the GOP “faith voter” engagement machine is gearing up to do Trump’s work. Chad Connelly, the Republican National Committee’s director of faith engagement, has visited 40 states to ramp up the evangelical base for the nominee and has hired part-time pastors to help in some states, focusing on Florida and Ohio.

Ralph Reed, the onetime executive director of the Christian Coalition, who was neutral in the primaries, now supports Trump and will host him at a June conference of some 2,500 activists in Washington. Through his current group, the Faith and Freedom Coalition, Reed expects to carry out the largest voter-education program of his career–he says his team plans to make 200 million voter contacts, directed at 32.1 million faith-based voters primarily in battleground states like Iowa, Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, Colorado and Ohio. His voter-education program, which has a budget of $28 million, will include 1 million door knocks, 25 million pieces of mail and, on average, seven digital-messaging impressions per voter. “Evangelicals don’t necessarily vote for the candidate who is most like them in terms of religious identity,” Reed notes. “That is just a myth.”

And for many social-conservative leaders, Trump still looks like a better vehicle than Clinton to advance their issues. “Policy outstrips comfort, gut, anxiety,” says Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, a women’s group that opposes abortion. “The candidate who will nominate pro-life Justices to the Supreme Court and commit to top-priority pro-life legislation gets our aid.”

Falwell’s decision to endorse has not come without heartache. Liberty board member Mark DeMoss resigned over Falwell’s endorsement, saying he didn’t think Trump “best reflects the values of Liberty University.” Even after the endorsement, Trump won only 8% of the Super Tuesday vote in Liberty’s precinct, which is made up largely of Liberty students–Florida Senator Marco Rubio took 44%, while Cruz won 33%.

Dean Inserra, 35, a Liberty graduate and registered Republican, leads the 1,000-person, majority-millennial City Church in Tallahassee, Fla. He insists Falwell has “gained the whole world but lost his soul” in supporting Trump. And when a representative of the Republican National Committee recently tried to get Inserra to support Trump, even possibly to use his church to host events, Inserra got angry. “They are saying things like, We are not electing a pastor in chief,” Inserra says. “Well, no kidding, no one is saying we are. We are also not going to elect someone who makes derogatory statements toward women and toward ethnic minority groups, and who has a joke of a relationship and marriage background. What, we are really as Christians going to like this guy and support this guy simply because he’s a Republican?”

Falwell is unrepentant. He still sees in Trump the same thing he saw at Liberty four years ago. That day in 2012, Trump previewed his 2016 stump speech: the U.S. is like a third-world country, the national debt makes us “patsies,” China is stealing U.S. iPhone production, unemployment was “at 21%” and Trump was “a real Christian” who could take it all on. To be a winner, Trump told the students, you’ve got to think like one.

Besides, Falwell adds, even if his fellow Christian leaders disagree with his endorsement of Trump, he will survive. Business is good, he says, “bulging at the seams.” This fall Liberty University will turn away 3,000 applicants for the first time, and fundraising is up. Falwell is realizing his family’s grand vision for Liberty much sooner, and on a much larger scale, than even his father, the school’s founder, imagined. Little wonder he is optimistic as he contemplates November: “It’s going to be close,” he says of Trump’s prospects. “If he wins, I’ll definitely invite him back.”

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