With attention focused on Donald Trump surrounding his withdrawal from a Jan. 28 Republican presidential debate, Southern Baptists remain divided regarding his candidacy.
Trump drew praise recently from Dallas pastor Robert Jeffress during a joint appearance in Iowa and an endorsement from Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. Meanwhile, Southern Baptist ethicist Russell Moore continued to urge Christians not to vote for Trump with an essay in an issue of the conservative publication National Review dedicated to opposing the New York businessman’s candidacy.
Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, introduced Trump at a rally in Sioux Center, Iowa, Jan. 23, stating according to The Dallas Morning News, “Although as a pastor I cannot officially endorse a candidate, I want you to know I would not be here this morning if I were not absolutely convinced that Donald Trump would make a great president of the United States.”
Jeffress, who has introduced Trump during at least two rallies, continued, “Most Americans know we are in a mess, and as they look at Donald Trump, they believe he is the one leader who can reverse the downward death spiral of this nation we love so dearly.”
Jeffress previously said he believes a Trump presidency would give evangelicals “a friend in the White House.”
Falwell, a Southern Baptist, endorsed Trump Jan. 26, stating in a printed release, “I am proud to offer my endorsement of Donald J. Trump for President of the United States. He is a successful executive and entrepreneur, a wonderful father and a man who I believe can lead our country to greatness again.”
When Trump delivered a speech Jan. 18 at Liberty, Falwell introduced him by stating he “lives a life of loving and helping others as Jesus taught in the Great Commandment.”
Falwell explained in a Jan. 27 Facebook post, “It was not my intent to compare Trump to Jesus Christ in my introduction at Liberty.” He added, “I respect the opinions of those who believe that it is now more important to elect a career politician who shares their constitutional views or someone who shares their faith instead of a business professional but I cannot agree.”
Moore, who has been critical of Trump’s candidacy since at least September, tweeted in response to Trump’s Liberty appearance, “This would be hilarious if it weren’t so counter to the mission of the gospel of Jesus Christ. #TrumpatLiberty.”
‘Issues that Southern Baptists have long championed’
Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, wrote in a Jan. 21 National Review symposium that the protection of life, the sanctity of marriage and the preservation of religious freedom all “would be in jeopardy under a Trump presidency.”
Moore’s essay appeared in the Feb. 15 print issue of National Review, whose cover carries the headline “Against Trump.”
Moore said he contributed to the National Review issue in order to “speak to the issues that Southern Baptists have long championed.”
“Our denomination has insisted that ‘moral character matters to God and should matter to all citizens, especially God’s people, when choosing public leaders,’” Moore said, referencing a 1998 Southern Baptist Convention resolution “on moral character of public officials.” “We have long and rightly stood for issues of human dignity, family stability and religious liberty, and we have long opposed gambling, divorce and abortion.
“Our strong stances on these issues have led many to ask about Mr. Trump’s views, as they seem at odds with what Southern Baptists have expressed down through the decades,” Moore said. “Recently, National Review asked me to contribute a few comments on this question. I didn’t know what the headline would be (and can’t think of any time I’ve written for anything where I have known that in advance), but I was happy to contribute in order to speak to the issues that Southern Baptists have long championed, including moral character, opposition to the gambling industry, opposition to the sexual exploitation of women and religious liberty for all.”
Moore argued in National Review that while Trump claims to be pro-life, his “supposed pro-life conversion is rooted in Nietzschean, social-Darwinist terms.” Moore then referenced Trump’s statement that he “knew a child who was to be aborted who grew up to be a ‘superstar.’”
“Beyond that,” Moore continued, “Trump’s vitriolic – and often racist and sexist – language about immigrants, women, the disabled and others ought to concern anyone who believes that all persons, not just the ‘winners’ of the moment, are created in God’s image.”
Regarding marriage and the family, Moore argued “one cannot help but look at the personal life of the billionaire,” which has included multiple divorces and public admissions of sexual relations outside marriage. “After all that,” Moore wrote, Trump says “he has no need to seek forgiveness.”
Moore added Trump’s investment in the gambling industry “destroys families” and “exploits personal vice.”
Regarding religious liberty, “Trump’s willingness to ban Muslims, even temporarily, from entering the country simply because of their religious affiliation would make [Thomas] Jefferson spin in his grave,” Moore wrote, apparently referencing Trump’s proposal to temporarily ban Muslim immigration to America in an effort to prevent Islamic terrorism.
Moore concluded, “Trump can win only in the sort of celebrity-focused mobocracy” in which “sound moral judgments are displaced by a narcissistic pursuit of power combined with promises of ‘winning’ for the masses. Social and religious conservatives have always seen this tendency as decadent and deviant. For them to view it any other way now would be for them to lose their soul.”
The National Review issue also featured essays critical of Trump by social conservatives R.R. Reno, editor of the journal First Things; Erick Erickson, editor of The Resurgent and a talk-radio host; and Cal Thomas, a nationally syndicated columnist.
Other contributors included radio host Glenn Beck, Media Research Center president Brent Bozell, Weekly Standard editor William Kristol and radio host Michael Medved.
National Review editor Rich Lowry wrote in a Politico op-ed that the essayists’ “basic argument about Trump is simple and unassailable: He is a populist, not a conservative.”
Trump responded to the National Review issue by saying the publication is “a dying paper,” The New York Times reported Jan. 22. The Republican National Committee responded by disinviting the National Review from co-sponsoring a Feb. 25 Republican presidential debate, according to The Times.
Leading among evangelical voters
A Jan. 26 NBC News/Survey Monkey weekly online tracking poll shows more than a third (37 percent) of likely evangelical voters support Trump.
That represents a 17-point lead over Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.
Craig Mitchell, associate professor of philosophy, politics and economics at Criswell College, said that while Trump has “character issues,” some evangelicals believe a Trump presidency would advance religious liberty, contribute to economic prosperity and strengthen America’s national defense.
“I do believe that [Trump] is sincere when he says that he believes Christianity is under attack,” said Mitchell, who has not endorsed Trump. “And I do believe him when he says he intends to do what he can to prevent government from attacking Christians the way it has under this current administration.”
Mitchell, who is African American, said Trump has not “used racist language at all” but has spoken frankly about illegal immigration and Islamic terrorism, subjects that cannot be addressed without speaking of race and nationality.
“I think that he’s being really fair and objective,” Mitchell said of Trump’s statements on Islamic terrorism, adding he is concerned some believers may want “to encourage people to vote for pastor rather than president.”
In other 2016 presidential campaign news, Republican candidate Marco Rubio announced Jan. 19 that Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president R. Albert Mohler Jr. would be part of the Florida senator’s pro-life advisory board along with author and speaker Ravi Zacharias, former Evangelical Theological Society president Francis Beckwith and others.
In December, Moore coauthored a Washington Post op-ed with Rubio calling readers to “remember slaughtered Christians in the Middle East.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service.)