Trump grabbing white, born-again Christian voters

NEW YORK (AP) — The list of prominent evangelicals denouncing Donald Trump is growing, but is anyone in the flock listening? The bloc of voters powering the real estate mogul through the Republican primaries is significantly weighted with white born-again Christians.

As Trump's ascendancy forces the GOP establishment to confront how it lost touch with so many conservative voters, top evangelicals are facing their own dark night, wondering what has drawn so many Christians to a twice-divorced, profane casino magnate with a muddled record on abortion and gay marriage.

John Stemberger, a Trump critic and head of the Florida Family Policy Council, an affiliate of Focus on the Family, said many evangelicals have changed. Litmus tests that for so long defined the boundaries for morally acceptable candidates seem to have been abandoned by many Christians this year, he said, no matter how much evangelical leaders try to uphold those standards.

"Evangelicals are looking at those issues less and less. They've just become too worldly, letting anger and frustration control them, as opposed to trusting in God," Stemberger said.

Trump has won the support of one-third of self-identified born-again Christians across the dozen or so states that have held GOP contests and where exit polls were conducted. In eight of the presidential primaries, he won more evangelicals than Ted Cruz, a Southern Baptist who has made appeals to conservative Christians the core of his campaign, according to polling.

"We're leading with evangelicals all over the country," Trump said Saturday at a rally in Wichita, Kansas. "Leading big, because they don't want to vote for a liar. You have lying Ted Cruz. ... He holds up the Bible and then he tells you exactly what I didn't say."

Trump is a Presbyterian who has said he has never sought God's forgiveness for his sins, botches Bible references and, on a recent campaign visit to a church, mistook a communion plate for a donation plate.

Critics insist exit polls have overstated Trump's share of evangelical support, arguing that many voters identifying themselves as "born again" in primaries are only nominally Christian.

An October survey from the Public Religion Research Institute backs this view. In the poll, white evangelical Republicans and those leaning toward the GOP who attended religious services weekly were far less likely to support Trump than those who attended infrequently.

"There's a form of cultural Christianity that causes people to respond with 'evangelical' and 'born-again' as long as they're not Catholic, even though they haven't been in a church since Vacation Bible School as a kid," said the Rev. Russell Moore, head of the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention. Moore was an early and vocal opponent of Trump.

Trump's biggest evangelical endorsement of the race — from Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University, who said the billionaire businessman "lives a life of loving and helping others." — reflected the rift among Christians and even within the university itself. Trump only got 90 of nearly 1,200 votes cast in the university's precinct in the Virginia GOP primary last Tuesday.

In remarkably public criticism, Mark DeMoss, a Liberty board member and longtime adviser to the school's founder, the late Rev. Jerry Falwell Sr., called the endorsement a mistake.

"My concern, thinking about evangelicalism and Liberty University, is more about a style and a behavior and a demeanor and a vocabulary that you can't find any support for in Scripture," said DeMoss, who had advised Republican Mitt Romney's presidential campaigns. "I think the potential damage — and time will tell if there was real damage — was an erosion of trust in the school."

Yet it's not clear whether conservative Christian voters are paying attention. Trump's candidacy has revealed a distance between evangelical leaders and rank-and-file Christians similar to the one coming to light in the GOP. "The laity has its own attitudes and impulses," Anderson wrote.

While Moore and others are urging Christians to evaluate candidates using the Bible, many evangelicals are using other criteria, such as seeking a candidate who can protect them from the Islamic State group, liberalism, growing secularism among Americans and economic insecurity for the country and their families. The Public Religion Research Institute found that white, working-class evangelicals are more than twice as likely to support Trump than are evangelicals with a college degree.

The Rev. Carl Gallups, a Southern Baptist pastor from Milton, Florida, who gave the invocation at Trump's Pensacola rally last January, said he has had many conversations with fellow conservative Christians about making a pragmatic choice in favor of Trump.

"I tell them, if you are not thoroughly satisfied with what you might interpret the depth of his faith might be, then the next thing we must look at is the candidate who will best preserve your First Amendment rights and allow you to express your Christian faith," Gallups said. "We're not electing a priest, a pope or a pastor. We're electing a president, a CEO, a commander in chief. I'm not perfectly happy with Donald Trump either, but I'm a realist."

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AP News Survey Specialist Emily Swanson in Washington, and Associated Press writers Travis Loller in Nashville, Tennessee, Meg Kinnard in Columbia, South Carolina, and Tamara Lush in Tampa, Florida, contributed to this report.

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Follow Rachel Zoll on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/rzollAP

| Mar. 7, 2016 3:51 AM EST

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