By Matt Hadro and Adelaide Mena
A meeting with Donald Trump in New York City on Tuesday was intended to answer the questions that some Christian leaders have about the presumptive Republican nominee.
But after the event, those in attendance had mixed reactions, with some saying it only raised further concerns.
“Donald Trump definitely won over the room, but the bigger story to me was why weren’t the big leaders there?” asked Christopher Hale, executive director at Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, who attended the meeting.
“I think it’s important that a lot of the leaders within the Christian community are refusing to support him,” he told CNA, noting the absence of Christian leaders like Dr. Russell Moore, and adding that “I think they have the same concerns I do.”
The billionaire-turned-politician has run a presidential campaign brimming with controversy. He has drawn criticism for what many consider inflammatory rhetoric and derogatory comments aimed at women and minorities. His supporters say they find his blunt approach to politics refreshing.
Prominent Christian leaders, as well as influential members within the Republican Party, have been split on whether to support Trump, despite the fact that he has secured enough delegates to clinch the party’s nomination.
On Tuesday, he met with around 1,000 conservative and Christian leaders – mostly evangelicals – at his Manhattan hotel. He answered pre-selected questions from the audience on various issues like the family, abortion, guns, and foreign policy.
Some Christian leaders were noticeably absent from the meeting. Dr. Robert George, former chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, “declined to attend,” the Washington Post reported. Dr. Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, was not there.
One evangelical pastor in attendance, Dr. Jeremy Roberts, said that he entered the meeting with “skepticism” but came out “more optimistic.”
The candidate was “receptive” and “very conversational,” he said, and the meeting was not a “photo-op” but rather a “genuine conversation between Evangelical leaders and Donald Trump, for him to hear the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
But according to another person in attendance, who wished to remain anonymous, the meeting was more a chance for Trump to say what he wanted rather than answer tough questions.
“There was a lot of teeing up,” the attendee told CNA, calling the questions asked of Trump “softball” and adding that he still “barely answered them.” Yet at the meeting Trump was compared to figures like Moses and David “who had great sins in their lives who turned out to be great leaders.”
On the family, “the only thing Trump said was that he told his kids not to do drugs, get in trouble,” the attendee continued, saying he “barely talked about abortion.”
“Going in my expectations were – I was open minded, but they were very low. But there was little of substance,” the attendee said, concluding that the meeting was “an enormous waste of time.”
Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List, told supporters in an email that Trump “related well, coming across confident and comfortable in such a large crowd of thought leaders whose opinions and actions will be so critical as we approach November.”
She said that she was encouraged when Trump reiterated a commitment to appoint pro-life justices to the Supreme Court.
Hale said that he did not doubt that Trump believes in pro-life policies, but added that “he doesn’t sound like someone who this is a bread-and-butter issue for.”
On religious liberty, which was also brought up at the meeting, Trump didn’t sound as if “he knows the specifics of religious liberty concerns” that are talked about by Catholics today, Hale continued.
He pointed to one incident, in which a photo of Trump with Jerry Falwell, Jr. – the president of Liberty University who endorsed Trump and has been named to his evangelical advisory committee – made headlines because of a Playboy magazine cover hanging on the wall of Trump’s office in the background of the photo.
“I think that image epitomizes the difficult dance a Christian has supporting Donald Trump,” Hale said, voicing his agreement with Dr. Robert George who said that Trump is “manifestly unfit to be President of the United States.”
“Nothing he said yesterday changes my opinion of that,” Hale said.
Another Catholic in attendance, Joshua Mercer, co-founder of CatholicVote.org, said it was “good” that Trump met with Christian leaders, but recommended that he meet with Catholic leaders as well to “get advice” from them.
Eric Teetsel, who was the director of faith outreach for Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign, protested the meeting with a sign saying that various practices like torture, racism, misogyny, and murdering the children of terrorists were “not pro-life,” implicitly accusing Trump of supporting or condoning these practices at some point in his life.
Teetsel “wasn’t invited” to the meeting, he later tweeted, but said if he had gone he would have asked Trump the following question:
“Mr. Trump, you are a very wealthy man. You claim to be a Christian. You say you are pro-life, pro-religious liberty, and pro-marriage. There are many fine organizations working on life, marriage and religious liberty. Which ones do you personally support financially?”
Brian Burch, president of CatholicVote.org, was in attendance at the meeting. He told TIME magazine that Trump “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,” he added.