About halfway through a press conference with seven conservative Christian leaders who had just met with Donald Trump in New York City, a reporter asked the attendees to raise their hands if they were endorsing him.
No one raised their hands.
The “Conversation on America’s Future with Donald Trump and Ben Carson,” a massive conference that drew hundreds to the Marriott Marquis near Times Square, wasn’t about endorsing Trump, the leaders said. It was about beginning a conversation with him to see how he was going to protect religious liberty after two terms of a president they thought started to destroy it.
“This is a process as I’ve stated,” Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council told reporters. “There are some very concrete things that have to take place. Donald Trump does not have a track record when it comes to being in public office. The best indicator of future performance is past performance.”
Perkins, who - like many top evangelical leaders - previously supported Ted Cruz’s campaign— said that it will be important to see if Trump willingly accepts the tenets of the party platform at the upcoming Republican National Convention.
He is just one of many evangelical leaders who have cold feet about fully backing Trump, a candidate who has graduated from being pro-choice to wanting punishments for women who have abortions; who has mispronounced biblical terms, said he’s never asked for forgiveness and questioned whether heaven and hell really exist.
Throughout the press conference, Perkins and the other leaders in attendance found themselves in awkward spots as they tried to defend a person they once condemned as amoral.
As recently as March, Perkins expressed concern that Trump’s past dalliances with women would make him a problematic candidate for many evangelicals.
“I am very concerned about what may happen in a general election, especially once a lot of focus is placed on Donald Trump, his past positions, his personal affairs, conduct, various things — I think that’s going to have an impact on the way evangelicals respond in the general election,” he said just three months ago.
Perkins, as well as Susan B. Anthony List president Marjorie Dannenfelser, found themselves on the defensive on Tuesday as they attempted to legitimize their lukewarm support of Trump months after blasting him during various stages of the primary.
“I will be the first to say that he was not my first choice. We were very vocally opposed to his nomination,” Dannenfelser told reporters on Tuesday.
In January, her pro-life organization encouraged caucus-goers in Iowa to vote for anyone but Trump, calling him “unacceptable.” But they later praised Trump’s list of proposed Supreme Court justice replacements, something Dannenfelser reiterated after Tuesday’s conference.
Still, she and the other leaders were impressed with Trump’s address earlier in the day which took place behind closed doors.
According to reports from attendees inside, the presumptive Republican nominee emphasized that he would appoint pro-life Supreme Court justices and end the ban on tax-exempt groups’ ability to endorse and be involved in the political process (a result of the decades-old Johnson Amendment). His campaign did not respond to a request for comment about the remarks.
“I think maybe that will be my greatest contribution to Christianity — and other religions, is to allow you, when you talk religious liberty, to go and speak openly, and if you like somebody or want somebody to represent you, you should have the right to do it,” Trump said at the conference, according to The Washington Post.
Some of the big names in attendance included Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, former Christian Coalition head Ralph Reed and Franklin Graham, Billy Graham’s son.
Former presidential candidates Mike Huckabee (who moderated a question-and-answer session) and Ben Carson were also in attendance at the enormous confab.
But, as is the case with most of his speeches, Trump’s address was not without controversy.
The firebrand real estate mogul raised eyebrows after a video from his speech leaked in which Trump seemed to question his opponent Hillary Clinton’s faith.
“We don’t know anything about Hillary in terms of religion,” Trump said of the candidate who has publicly discussed her Methodist faith.
“She’s been in the public eye for years and years, and yet there’s no—there’s nothing out there,” Trump continued.
Leaders in attendance were forced to reckon with these remarks after a day that was supposed to focus on Trump’s positives rather than Clinton’s negatives.
“We’ve seen very little public conversation about her faith,” Dannenfelser told reporters seemingly agreeing with Trump when asked about his remarks.
“One thing that is very true,” Dannenfelser continued. “Her church, her Methodist church has moved away from her abortion position.”
(Clinton has emphasized during this presidential cycle that she is pro-choice, while the United Methodist Church, according to its website, is pro-life.)
Dannenfelser added that Clinton had been invited to participate in a similar conference in the future.
Trump has been endorsed by prominent evangelical figures in the past, the most high-profile being Jerry Falwell Jr., whose backing drew the ire of a close associate of his father.
In March, shortly after the endorsement, Mark DeMoss, who worked closely with Falwell Sr., condemned the former reality television star.
“Donald Trump is the only candidate who has dealt almost exclusively in the politics of personal insult,” DeMoss said at the time. “The bullying tactics of personal insult have no defense — and certainly not for anyone who claims to be a follower of Christ. That’s what’s disturbing to so many people. It’s not Christ-like behavior that Liberty has spent 40 years promoting with its students.”
Trump’s penchant for insulting minorities and his tanking unfavorable ratings with Hispanic and black voters was something that bothered at least one of the leaders in attendance at the conference.
“We hope he will be more welcoming,” Pastor Mark Gonzales, the founder of the Hispanic Action Network told reporters regarding Trump’s remarks about Hispanic citizens. “We can begin to taper that message.”
Later, Gonzales told The Daily Beast that Trump’s immigration plan had to consist of more than boastful claims about building a wall that divides the United States with Mexico.
“We want to know what are you going to do beyond the wall,” Gonzales said of the Hispanic community. “How are we going to fix immigration because it’s still broken? We have to do something about that. You’re going to have to extend an olive branch.” Trump also favors mass deportations as a solution for immigration issues.
After the meeting ended, Trump’s campaign announced the formation of an Evangelical Executive Advisory Board meant to “provide advisory support to Mr. Trump on those issues important to Evangelicals and other people of faith in America.” None of the leaders who spoke at the press conference were listed.
At the top of the list is none other than former congresswoman and fellow conspiracy theory enthusiast Michele Bachmann.
“I spoke one on one with Mr. Trump at the first meeting and at the second one about a million people were asked what their question was for Mr. Trump,” Bachmann told The Daily Beast before ordering cheesecake at Junior’s in Times Square. “Their number one question had to do with religious freedom because a lot of people feel like their religious freedoms are being taken away from them; their freedom of expression, freedom of worship in this country. Mr. Trump said he’s very committed to the First Amendment.”
Bachmann, carrying a suitcase that was mostly empty save for Paul Johnson’s “A History of the Jews,” said that people left the meetings feeling more comfortable about backing Trump than they had in the past.
“I think people needed that time to be able to hear him because a lot of the debates that have been on TV haven’t necessarily been on issues that people care about. And this was very good. With Mr. Trump, what you see is what you get.”
After his refined comments catering to conservative Christians today, evangelicals hope that is the case.