Is Donald Trump a Christian? Evangelicals across the Bible Belt, whose votes he's been winning by increasing margins, seem to think so. Pope Francis finds some of Trump's views on migrants less than Jesus-like. But Jerry Falwell Jr., president of the Christian mega-college Liberty University, son of the late televangelist, endorsed Trump in January. No matter that the candidate has said his "great relationship with God" has never involved asking for forgiveness. When Trump spoke to students at Liberty University that same month, he humbly referred to his "The Art of the Deal" as the second best book in the world after the Bible.
Last weekend I was in southwestern Virginia and I took the opportunity to do some field work and find out firsthand what evangelicals think about Trump's professed faith. I attended the 11 o'clock service at Lynchburg's Thomas Road Baptist Church, next door to the Liberty campus and headed by Jerry Falwell's other son, Jonathan Falwell.
Jerry Jr. and Jonathan are two very different guys. The same day that Jerry Jr. endorsed Trump, Jonathan released a statement saying that it wasn't his responsibility "to point people toward a candidate." There was no mention of politics during the service, which consisted mostly of Christian power ballads played by an impressively polished rock band with two drum sets and some technically masterful singers. Nor were the congregants especially eager to talk about the election as they socialized in the vestibule afterward.
Like people in just about every religious institution I've ever visited, everyone was friendly and eager to welcome me. Like people in just about every situation in which I've said "I'm a newspaper columnist from Los Angeles and I was wondering if I could ask you a few questions," most of them flinched and registered visible dismay, as though I was an only slightly more benign version of Chris Hansen on "To Catch a Predator."
"Do you think Donald Trump is a Christian?" I asked a well-groomed, early middle-age-looking couple who said they'd joined the church about a year ago.
"That's not for me to say," the husband said. "Only God knows that." He added that he had voted for Ted Cruz in the primary.
"Even if Trump is not a Christian, it's possible that he could be saved between now and then," an elderly man told me while hugging me no fewer than four times. He explained that he'd had a stroke and couldn't quite remember whom he'd voted for in the primary, but even the worst candidate had a chance of salvation, so maybe it didn't matter all that much.
I found more Cruz voters when I spoke to two more couples who were recent graduates of Liberty University. They said that they were "still praying over the election" and that ultimately the choice of who would be the next president was in God's hands. Then one of the young men asked me whether I was a Christian, and whether I had anything that needed to be prayed over. After dodging the first question I joked that they could pray for me to come up with material for a column because no one would say much about Trump.
"We can do that," he said. They huddled together and held hands and bowed their heads while the young man asked God to help me find the right people to talk with so I could write a column.
There's no denying the facts: Trump is popular in megachurches. He has poll numbers among evangelicals in some states that utterly befuddle those who can't see how a thrice-married, raunch-talking blowhard could be tolerated, much less embraced, by the religious right. But it's probably worth remembering that much of the Trump-mania we see — the shots of signs at rallies that say "Thank you Lord for President Trump," for example — is happening in the confines of a staged political event. Those optics and that spin aren't the whole story. As Faith and Freedom Coalition founder Ralph Reed wrote in a recent op-ed, only about one-third of evangelicals say they support Trump. As the contest narrows — and as of Tuesday, that mostly means Trump versus the card-carrying Southern Baptist Cruz — Reed suggested we should "expect a fierce neck-and-neck battle for voters of faith."
Based on my highly unscientific sampling at Thomas Road, one-third sounds plausible. I also got the feeling that just about everyone, regardless of religion or region of the country, is already tired of talking about the campaign. Later Sunday afternoon, when I attempted to continue my research at a honky-tonk about an hour from Lynchburg, I was firmly put in my place.
"I don't talk about politics when I'm drinking, sweetie," a woman doing fireball whiskey shots told me. "I might punch someone."
See? In the real world — as opposed to Trump rallies — Americans are capable of impressive restraint.