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Donald Trump Tests Culture And Character Priorities For Evangelicals

Donald Trump supporters pray while waiting to hear him speak at a campaign event in Mississippi.

Donald Trump has not only caused deep divisions in the GOP establishment, but he's also exposed a stark divide within the evangelical community.

On one side, the bombastic billionaire has Jerry Falwell Jr., the son of the famed televangelist and Moral Majority founder, in his corner. An official endorsement came after the Liberty University president heaped praised on Trump during his appearance at the Christian college in Virginia. At that event, Falwell called Trump someone who "lives a life of loving and helping others, as Jesus taught in the New Testament" and "one of the greatest visionaries of our time."

Campaigning with Trump in Iowa on Saturday, just ahead of Monday's vote, the scion of one of the most-well known families of the Religious Right admitted his blessing may seem strange to some, given Trump's past. Trump was once a supporter of abortion rights, has been divorced twice, admitted to multiple affairs and has a history of vulgar language, including on the campaign trail.

"It's just like when you have a sick child," Falwell argued. "You look for the best doctor you can find. It may not be a doctor who goes to your church, but it's the one who has best experience with that particular illness. We need a businessman."

But for other religious leaders, such as Russell Moore, head of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and a frequent critic of Trump, such rationale is almost heretical.

"You have someone who has reaffirmed that he doesn't think he's done anything wrong, for which he needs to seek forgiveness," Moore told NPR just after Trump's talk at Liberty. "Despite the fact that you have a train wreck of activity over many years, culminating in this presidential campaign. And there's nothing but bragging and boasting about it."

But it's exactly that strong man approach that Trump provides — unapologetically promising to "Make America Great Again" and to win so much against world leaders and in creating jobs here at home "you'll get bored of winning" — that has an appeal to religious voters who feel they've been abandoned by the Republican Party.

His blunt talk went even further last month when he called for a ban on Muslims coming into the U.S. amid concerns of terrorism. Many Christian leaders were aghast at what they saw as an affront to religious liberty with his singling out an entire faith group. But other big names such as Franklin Graham, son of the famed evangelist and presidential counselor Billy Graham, supported Trump on it. While Graham has not endorsed Trump, he has spoken favorably toward him.

Still, the fact that Trump's rhetoric has won over religious voters and leaders shouldn't be that shocking, according to John C. Green, a political science professor at the University of Akron who studies religious trends and American evangelicals.

"For a number of these leaders that have spoken out recently, there's an argument that Trump is a strong leader and will be effective," Green said. "It shows a real dissatisfaction with the leadership of the mainstream Republican Party. They say, 'Our community has supported you election after election, and nothing seems to get done on our agenda.'"

At the heart of the schism is that evangelicals, contrary to popular stereotypes, are not a monolithic voting group. For more conservative voters, social issues such as abortion and gay marriage may be deal breakers.

But for more moderate, often younger, evangelicals, "they care about a mix of issues," Green said. "It's not just a concern for a social issues — they're also interested in economic questions and are concerned about the environment."

So while these fault lines within the evangelical community are nothing new and are something widening between generations, they just haven't been this exposed before in recent history. And probably only such a radical candidate like Trump could do so.

Even though previous GOP nominees who weren't completely satiable to the most conservative evangelicals — for example, Mitt Romney was Mormon and viewed skeptically by many in the church — his personal life and the core of his political beliefs didn't completely alienate influential leaders. Trump, on the other hand, has done just that.

What's more, it's Trump's insistence that he is one of them — and the lack of any rebuke from Christians leaders who embrace Trump — that has completely rattled people like Moore.

"I think presenting Donald Trump as though he were a Christian is dangerous to the mission of the church and then glossing over real character issues," he said, "when evangelicals have been very clear about character issues when it comes to politicians with whom we disagree on multiple issues. That's sending a signal that, I think, hurts our witness."

And on core issues that remain important to evangelicals, many say Trump is still just paying lip service. A group of conservative, anti-abortion female leaders released a letter this week blasting Trump on abortion — even before he brushed aside specific questions on the trail about his past support for late-term abortion and wouldn't even answer whether he supported Plan B, the so-called morning-after pill.

The first test to see which way actual voters will come down is Monday evening when Iowa's sizable evangelical population heads to the polls. Will they put their faith in Trump or turn out in big numbers for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who's positioned himself as the top alternative.

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