As Ralph Reed, the longtime evangelical leader, sees it, Donald Trump did two smart things in his appearance before Reed’s Faith & Freedom Coalition Road to Majority conference in Washington recently.
First, Trump showed up. “Showing up really matters, and we have not had, either at Faith & Freedom or my preceding work at Christian Coalition, a nominee show up, announced, with a full-dress speech, since George H.W. Bush in 1992,” Reed told a small group of reporters after Trump’s appearance. (Bob Dole did an unannounced drop-by in 1996, Reed said.)
Second, Trump hit the right notes, according to Reed, focusing on the issues that resonated with the activists in the audience: right to life, traditional marriage, religious freedom, support for Israel, opposition to the Iran nuclear deal.
Yes, Trump did indeed say all the right things. But Trump has often said the right things on Reed’s issues. The bigger question is whether there is sufficient basis for conservative voters to believe him.
As an example, I asked Reed about Trump’s list of possible Supreme Court justices. Most conservatives said it was a great list, of top-notch candidates. It’s just that some of those same conservatives don’t trust a President Trump to actually do what he says.
Reed’s answer was both confident and nuanced. I trust him, Reed said — and by the way, what has trust gotten us in the past?
Reed explained that he met Trump in 2011 after he, Reed, saw Trump discuss abortion with Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly. In a later interview with a religious blogger, Reed praised Trump’s performance, and almost immediately after the post hit the internet, Reed’s cellphone rang. It was Trump. Reed invited Trump to that year’s Road to Majority gathering. Trump came, and the two have kept in touch ever since.
Based on that experience, Reed said he has faith in Trump to do what he says. “Trump and I developed a relationship,” Reed said. “And when he says that’s what he’s going to do, based on my interaction with him, I don’t really have any questions about whether or not he means it.”
But that wasn’t Reed’s entire answer. “The other thing I would say is, compared to what?” he continued. “Compared to whom? Reagan, who told us those things, and then appointed Sandra Day O’Connor as his first nominee? More than George H.W. Bush, who appointed Souter? I mean who are we talking about?”
“By that argument, you would never be for any candidate,” Reed concluded. “Because you would just cross your arms and say, ‘I don’t trust them.'”
Of course, that’s exactly what some evangelical leaders say about Trump. I asked Reed about one, the Southern Baptist Convention’s Russell Moore, who has called Trump representative of the “reality television moral sewage coming through all over our culture.” (Moore’s shot earned a response from Trump calling Moore “truly a terrible representative of evangelicals” and “a nasty guy with no heart.”) Is Moore wrong? I asked Reed.
“I have a great deal of respect for Russell, he’s a good friend,” Reed began. (Reed, who has been in evangelical politics for a long time, answers a lot of questions that way.) “I just think that it’s a binary choice between one of two candidates, and given the fact that Hillary Clinton is not only advancing, but I would argue enthusiastically advancing, what we consider to be great moral evils — I just think you have to choose between these two candidates.”
During his speech to the Road to Majority gathering a little earlier, Reed took an obvious shot at those faith leaders who can’t accept Trump. Describing the extensive voter contact effort his group will launch this fall, Reed said no one should sit on the sidelines.
“There are some who counsel timidity and retreat,” Reed said. “And they recommend that people of faith retreat to the cold comfort of a stained glass ghetto and decline to muddy our boots with the mire and the muck of politics. But that is not an option for followers of Christ. You see, we’re called to put away our my-way-or-the-highway pride.”
Reed stayed publicly neutral during the long Republican primary fight. But now he is touting plans for his group’s biggest-ever voter turnout operation. The Faith & Freedom Coalition will distribute 35 million “nonpartisan” voter guides in 117,000 churches, Reed told the crowd. It will make 15 million phone calls. Send 20 million emails and texts to seven million evangelicals in the key swing states of Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Colorado. Knock on a million doors in those states.
All on behalf of Donald Trump. After all, Trump showed up, which is more than a lot of presumptive nominees have done. In the years before a big race — 2007, 2011, 2015, the primary candidates fall all over themselves to speak before groups like Reed’s. In the election year, after the nomination is in the bag — not so much. Trump, who after a miserable week mired in controversy over his attacks on the judge in the Trump University case, had reasons of his own for coming. But in return he got the message from Reed that there is at least one (large) part of the evangelical world that’s on his side.
Byron York is chief political correspondent for The Washington Examiner.