Trump, Pence Make Their Pitch To Christian Conservatives
RAY SUAREZ, HOST:
Now to another big story of the day here in Washington. Social conservatives are gathering for the 2016 Values Voter Summit. Many conservative Christian leaders were slow to endorse Donald Trump or publicly struggled with the idea of Trump at the top of the GOP ticket. But social conservatives look to be rallying around the nominee and perhaps even more so against Hillary Clinton. NPR's Sarah McCammon has been traveling with the Trump campaign this week and covered him at the summit. Sarah, thanks for joining us.
SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: You're welcome.
SUAREZ: Donald Trump addressed the summit Friday. And we'll get to his remarks a little later, but I want to begin with his running mate's comments today because Indiana Governor Mike Pence used his address to the Values Voters Summit to swing back at some controversial comments by Hillary Clinton.
MCCAMMON: That's right. And Hillary Clinton is getting some flak for something. She's actually been saying something like this for a couple of weeks, talking about separating Trump voters into categories, into baskets - one of them being deplorables - what she describes as racists, homophobes, xenophobes, among other things.
But last night at a fundraiser in New York City, she said half are in the basket called deplorables. She said that she regrets it, but the Trump campaign is jumping on it, sending out multiple statements and tweets about this. And here's what Mike Pence said.
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MIKE PENCE: So let me just say from the bottom of my heart. Hillary, they are not a basket of anything. They are Americans, and they deserve your respect.
MCCAMMON: So, as you can hear, he got on a lot of applause for that line, and he linked that comment to a famous gaffe by President Obama when Obama was running in 2008, when he talked about small-town voters clinging to guns and religion. The Trump campaign is characterizing Clinton's comments as evidence of what they say is her disdain for average Americans.
SUAREZ: Mike Pence is a social conservative himself. His presence at the gathering, the Values Voters Summit makes perfect sense. How was Donald Trump received?
MCCAMMON: Well, like you said, at the beginning a lot of religious conservatives struggled with Trump's tone, his multiple marriages and also his policies, like his past support for abortion rights. But now, you know, evangelicals are overwhelmingly Republican voting bloc, and Hillary Clinton is very unpopular with them. So there's been a lot of talk at this summit about how elections are choices, and many people here see Trump as the best choice. Peter Wypynszinski came to the summit from New Orleans, and here's how he put it to me.
PETER WYPYNSZINSKI: I think Trump is a clear and distinct alternative to Hillary Clinton, and while I don't necessarily line up philosophically with everything that he stands for, Hillary Clinton lines up philosophically with everything that I stand against.
MCCAMMON: So that's the kind of thing I've been hearing.
SUAREZ: In Trump's remarks Friday night, he criticized the Johnson Amendment. Now more than 60 years old, a provision of the tax code prohibiting tax exempt organizations like churches from getting too far into electoral politics.
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DONALD TRUMP: If they want to talk about Christianity, if they want to preach, if they want to talk about politics, they're unable to do so. If they want to do it, they take a tremendous risk that they lose their tax-exempt status.
SUAREZ: Well, that might not be exactly right. They don't take a tremendous risk if they want to preach and talk about Christianity. But they do put their tax-exempt status in jeopardy if they campaign from the pulpit. Donald Trump wants to do away with the Johnson Amendment, doesn't he?
MCCAMMON: Right. He wants to get rid of it altogether, and this is something he's been stressing for months in front of evangelical audiences. But, you know, it's not clear what it would mean to actually get rid of that. He'd have to get it through Congress, which might be a challenge. But the rule is actually rarely enforced. The IRS does occasionally enforce it and certainly has the power to enforce it.
And it also - as you say - it doesn't prevent pastors from speaking from the pulpit or about issues, about morality and even from endorsing candidates as individuals. So it wouldn't change what pastors can do on their own time, though, it would give them more latitude to talk explicitly about politics and political candidates from the pulpit of their church.
SUAREZ: Hillary Clinton has called herself for a long time an old-fashioned Methodist then has written and spoken about the impact of church teachings on her life and her profession as a public servant politician. How does her faith identity compare to Donald Trump's and do the people at something like the Values Voters Summit accept her Christian bona fides?
MCCAMMON: You know, neither Clinton nor Trump come from the evangelical tradition which a lot of people at the Values Voter Summit do. It tends to be a bit more open and expressive and emotional about publicly talking about faith. Faith is often described as a relationship with God in the evangelical tradition, whereas mainline Protestant churches like Methodists, like Hillary Clinton, Presbyterians, like Donald Trump's tradition, tend to be a bit more restrained, a little more private about the way they talk about faith and spirituality.
So it's kind of a cultural difference and really neither Trump nor Clinton are entirely fluent in the language and culture of evangelical Christianity. But Trump needs to reach out to these conservative Christian voters because they are such an important part of his party's base.
SUAREZ: That's NPR's Sarah McCammon who's been traveling with the Trump campaign. Sarah, thanks.
MCCAMMON: Thank you.
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