Trump’s efforts have been heroic—if a little spotty in their execution. On the campaign trail, he refers to the Bible as his “favorite book.” But when he was addressing Liberty University students last month, he bobbled his Biblical reference, saying the verse he was quoting could be found in “Two Corinthians,” a New Testament book that is universally called “Second Corinthians.” Trump raised more evangelical eyebrows at Liberty when in his exuberance, he wove a “We don’t know what the hell we’re doing” and a “damn computers” into his remarks—word choices that Liberty University students can be reprimanded and fined for.
Then, in Greenville, South Carolina, when asked about his church attendance, Trump said: “I’m a Presbyterian Protestant. I go to Marble Collegiate Church.” But Marble Collegiate Church, on 5th Avenue and 29th Street in Manhattan, is a progressive Reformed Church in America congregation. To make matters worse, the church issued a statement saying Trump “is not an active member of Marble.” Straining to stay inbounds , the candidate clarified: He travels all the time and attends church “as often as I can, a lot.” When he goes, he says, he partakes of the Holy Eucharist, a privilege he described to CNN recently as “I drink my little wine, have my little cracker.”
But it isn’t just these awkward moments that arouse the suspicions of evangelicals. On the central evangelical tenet of repentance, one pastor I spoke to observed: “Donald Trump says, ‘My faith is in my own goodness. That is what will get me into Heaven.’ But that is not what evangelicals believe. Jesus said, ‘Unless you repent, you will perish. Forgiveness can only be received on the basis of my death on the cross.’”
And, well, evangelicals think Trump has plenty to be repentant about.
“Other than honoring his father and mother, and just saying he’s going to kill someone on 5th Avenue but not actually doing it, I’d say, one by one, he’s publicly shredded the other eight Commandments and bragged about it,” said one pastor I spoke to.
Then there’s abortion. In January, the hugely influential evangelical talk-radio host, Mark Levin, played a recording from October 1999 of Donald Trump appearing on Meet the Press. Host Tim Russert asks, “Would President Trump ban partial-birth abortion?” Stressing his “New York” values, Trump replied: “No, I am pro-choice in every respect as far as it goes.” And yet, this campaign season, Trump swears he is pro-life.
Evangelicals are looking for a candidate with the strong moral compass necessary to halt the moral decay they see being inscribed into federal law. The question is: Will evangelicals coalesce around one candidate and beat Trump, or will they splinter and hand Trump the win?