Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump met with nearly 1,000 evangelical Christians Tuesday morning in attempt to win over the GOP’s most reliable voting bloc at a pivotal moment in his campaign.
Taking the stage to a standing ovation, the presumptive Republican nominee participated in a carefully orchestrated question-and-answer session in a hotel ballroom. The event was billed as a conversation where pre-selected conservative Christian leaders would ask Trump questions culled from a survey of all participants, on such topics as religious liberty, the military, abortion and attacks against religious minorities in the Middle East.
Former Arkansas governor and presidential candidate Mike Huckabee moderated the conversation, subtly nodding to Trump’s lifestyle by joking that “this is not a pastoral search committee.”
It was intimate as a gathering of 1,000 people can be, and as private. A sign at the event told the audience that photos were not allowed. “I’m not going to tell you who to vote for, but use your brain, which God gave you,” retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson told the room as they prepared to welcome Trump, according to a tweet from a participant.
Women were noticeably absent from the event. Programing for the day’s conference, which included the main question and answer session, listed 13 men and no women as the speakers. Trump was asked only about half a dozen questions, all by men, including Family Research Council president Tony Perkins, president of the First Liberty Institute law firm Kelly Shackelford, Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, president of the Southern Baptist Convention Ronnie Floyd, and president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Coalition Samuel Rodriguez, Jr.
President of the Susan B. Anthony List Marjorie Dannenfelser and Concerned Women of America president Penny Nance were slated to ask a question, but they did not.
Organizer Bill Dallas had insisted that the event would be back and forth. “If it is a question, and one long answer, that is not a conversation,” Dallas told TIME on Monday—but those asking the questions for the large part did not press Trump on his answers.
Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn—who has suggested she’d be open to being Trump’s running mate and was not listed on the program—addressed the group before Trump’s arrival and discussed her work on the Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives, which is investigating sales of fetal tissue. “What we are seeing is an assault on American values that affects the church and the pro-life movement,” Blackburn tells TIME.
Rodriguez, whose network of Hispanic evangelical churches is 40,000-strong, asked Trump what his strategy is to protect borders and build a bridge with the Hispanic community, a “wonderful community.” More than eight in ten Hispanics have an unfavorable view of Trump, according to recent polls. E.W. Jackson, a conservative lawyer and pastor, told a conference call of his supporters after the event that Trump had told them, “‘I know the polls says that I’m losing Hispanics big time, but anecdotally, every time I hear a Hispanic, they are supporting me. Hispanic citizens understand their jobs and livelihoods are at stake too.’”
Immediate reactions suggest that the event was a win for Trump, who has repeatedly got himself in trouble with evangelical voters for fluctuating on their key policy issues and repeating that he does not ask for forgiveness. “The tenor in the room was really positive,” Charmaine Yoest, past president of the Americans United For Life who was in attendance, says. “I think he really helped himself, he was so conversational and so low key, it was so different than the rally, very substantive.”
Brian Burch, president of Catholic Vote and one of the few Catholics in the room, agrees. “I thought it was probably a win for both sides,” he says. “He came across as reasonable, not reckless. Probably the biggest takeaway was not what Trump will do for them as president, but what Christians can do if they throw off the perception that they are a significant minority that are not relevant.”
Before the event, Trump met privately early Tuesday morning with his own surrogate group of evangelicals at Trump Tower in preparation to launch a new official evangelical advisory committee. Liberty University president Jerry Falwell, Jr., and president of the Faith & Freedom Coalition Ralph Reed—who have both endorsed Trump—participated, as did pastor Franklin Graham, who leads Samaritan’s Purse and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. Graham maintains that he will not endorse, though he speaks frequently about his support for Trump’s willingness to shake things up.
Shortly after Trump left the event, his campaign plans announced an official Evangelical Executive Advisory Board. A campaign spokesperson said the group is “an advisory council for him to talk with and have an open line of communication on issues important to the Christian community.” There is currently not a separate faith advisory board that includes Catholics, non-evangelical Protestants or members of other faiths.
Before Trump took the main stage for the discussion, he met privately with the group’s steering committee. “I am so on your side, I am a tremendous believer,” he told them, as seen in video of the meeting that Jackson tweeted. “Christianity, I owe so much to it. … The evangelical vote was mostly gotten by me.”
Trump continued: “You can pray for your leaders, and I agree with that, pray for everyone, but what you have to really do is you have to pray to get everybody out to vote for one specific person, and we can’t be again politically correct and say we pray for all of our leaders, because all of your leaders are selling Christianity down the tubes, selling the evangelicals down the tubes, and it is a very, very, it is a very, very bad thing that is happening.”