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'He was sent to us': at church rally, evangelicals worship God and Trump

Richard Luscombe in Miami Sat 4 Jan 2020 01.00 EST Last modified on Sat 4 Jan 2020 15.42 EST

They came to pray with their president, though in truth many came just to worship him. Donald Trump’s Friday launch of his so-called “coalition of evangelicals”, an attempt to shore up the support of the religious right ahead of November’s election, had the feel of any other campaign rally, except this time with gospel music.

An estimated 7,000 “supporters of faith” packed the King Jesus international ministry megachurch in Miami to hear the word of the president, and decided that it was good. The Maga hat-wearing faithful cheered Trump’s comments on issues calculated to resonate with his churchgoing audience, including abortion, freedoms of speech and religion, and what he claimed was a “crusade” from Democrats against religious tolerance.

“My administration will never stop fighting for Americans of faith,” Trump said at the conclusion of an often freewheeling 75-minute speech. “We will restore the faith as the true foundation of American life.”

Trump also gloated about Thursday’s military strike that took out the Iranian general Qassem Suleimani in Baghdad. “It was flawless strike that eliminated the terrorist ringleader,” he said, insisting the killing would save the lives of “hundreds and hundreds of Americans. “His atrocities have been stopped for good. He was planning a very major attack and we got him.”

Absent from his remarks, however, was any discussion of one of his signature policies, the hardline crackdown on immigration that has seen thousands of undocumented migrants deported.

At this Hispanic megachurch, where even the pastor acknowledges many in his congregation are in the country illegally, perhaps that was no surprise. Trump did concede he had made it harder for foreigners to enter or stay in the US, but only to “make sure foreign terrorists cannot obtain admission”.

It was exactly what evangelical Christians in the audience wanted to hear. Some, like Michael David Layne, a 62-year-old US army veteran who regularly attends the King Jesus church, marries what he sees as Trump’s “strong leadership” with “solid Christian values”, which he said the president showed in Thursday’s military strike. “We can get anybody, anywhere, anytime, anywhere there is terrorism,” he said.

Layne acknowledges that Trump’s life – which includes three marriages, adultery and alleged affairs with porn stars – might appear less than pious, but is able to overlook it. “He might be a little rough around the edges for some people, but he says it like it is, and if some of the things he says or the actions he takes upset some people it doesn’t make him less of a man of God.”

Others who came to hear Trump preach were similarly unfazed by the president’s questionable religious credentials.

“I believe he has moral character and that he is a man of God,” said Steven Johnson, 65, from New Jersey. “I also believe that he believes people have to pick up the banner and do what’s right. If you don’t pick up the banner then are you really Christian?

“It sickens me the people that say they’re Christian, and they’re praying for people, but they’re stabbing them in the back. It’s a shame. We need a revival in this country and get back to common sense, moral values. We’ve gone way off the deep end.”

The need for some kind of national restoration of faith was a topic Trump returned to more than once.

“For America to thrive in the 21st century we must renew faith and family as the center of American life,” the president said during one plainly scripted part of his speech.

“Faith-based schools, charities, hospitals, adoption agencies, pastors were systematically targeted by federal bureaucrats and ordered to stop following their beliefs,” he said, without evidence.

Friday’s rally, hastily organized in the wake of a stinging Christianity Today editorial last month, recognized Trump’s need to retain the loyalty of the evangelical voting bloc that propelled him to victory in 2016. Four years ago, he won 80% backing from white evangelical voters nationwide.

“In 2016 evangelical Christians went out and helped us in numbers never seen before. We’re going to blow those numbers away in 2020,” Trump said. “I really believe we have God on our side.” For Rose Ann Farrell, 74, from Florida  the claim rang true. “I really believe he was sent to us,” she said. “From one to ten, he’s a ten. He lives in a Christian world and we needed a strong Christian, somebody who is not afraid. He speaks for us, has the guts and courage to speak what we want to say. His actions, his intentions, are Christian.”

Not everybody agreed. Francisco Morales, 47, traveled 30 miles from Fort Lauderdale with placards highlighting the Ten Commandments he says Trump has violated.

“He’s everything a Christian shouldn’t be. He’s about money and himself, he uses God’s word to his benefit, he doesn’t respect Christian holidays, he insults everyone. And he dishonors his wife, his daughter and all women,” Morales said.

“These people waiting in line for five hours, listening to wonderful Christian music, once they get to that sacred auditorium they hear Trump insult other people … It’s a holy place but Trump does not respect that.”

Florida’s Democratic party, meanwhile, rolled out some religious figures of their own to counter Trump’s appearance.

Doug Pagitt, a pastor and executive director of Vote Common Good, an organization that mobilizes voters of faith, decried Trump’s event as a sham.

“He’s trying to use this rally and this base to give cover for his broken promises and his immoral policies,” Pagitt said.

“It is Trump’s desperate response to the realization that he’s losing his primary voting bloc, faith voters. He realizes he needs every last vote if he wants a shot at re-election [and] losing even five per cent ends his chances.

“Voters know that their faith does not depend on the power of the presidency.”

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