Trump bids to shore up evangelical support with visit to Miami megachurch

Richard Luscombe in Miami
Photograph: Evan Vucci/AP

Donald Trump will be praying with the religious right at his first campaign event of 2020 in Miami on Friday where his Evangelicals for Trump “coalition launch” will take place at a Hispanic megachurch in a clear attempt to shore up the support of one his most loyal voting blocs.

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The rally was hastily put together in the wake of a blistering December editorial in Christianity Today calling for the “morally lost and confused” president’s removal from office. Stung by the criticism from an unexpected quarter, Trump attacked the influential Christian newspaper as a “far-left magazine”

Yet in attempting to put out that fire by assembling dozens of evangelical leaders from across the nation to speak with and for him in Miami, Trump has ignited another controversy over immigration.

His choice of venue – a Hispanic church in the south of a city with the nation’s largest foreign-born population – angered activists already upset with his hardline immigration policies, such as terminating the deferred action for childhood arrivals (Daca) program for so-called Dreamers, which the US supreme court will rule on this year, and placing immigrant children in cages at America’s southern border.

Even Guillermo Maldonado, the pastor of the King Jesus international ministry and Trump loyalist who has prayed with the president at the White House, felt the need to reassure concerned members of his congregation who were not legal immigrants that they would not be at risk of deportation if they attended.

“Do you think I would do something where I would endanger my people? I’m not that dumb,” Maldonado told congregants during a sermon at the church last Sunday, at which he said he heard some people might be put off by the Trump administration’s increasing immigration raids.

Still, with an estimated 27,000 Dreamers in Florida, almost half of them living in the Miami metro area and neighboring cities, advocates are furious that Trump is courting fervently anti-immigrant evangelical voters on their doorstep.

“Trump’s hateful rhetoric on immigration has not only led to the detention and deportation of millions of immigrants, but they’ve also inspired deadly attacks like the shooting in El Paso and most recently a woman who ran over a child because she was Mexican,” said Bruna Sollod, communications director for United We Dream.

“Trump and his advisers encourage the white supremacist belief that immigrants and people of color are inferior and must be rooted out. Every person in our country should denounce white supremacy and the evil actions that follow it.”

Guillermo Maldonado, a Trump loyalist and the pastor of King Jesus international ministry. Photograph: MBR/AP

Despite such opposition, Trump is calculating that by appealing to evangelicals he can again lock in the support of a large power base of voters that helped propel him to the White House in 2016.

In that election he secured 81% support from white born-again/evangelical Christians, a thumping majority that helped secure crucial swing states such as Florida, Missouri and Pennsylvania.

Even though researchers later determined that more white evangelicals were voting against the beaten Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton than voting for Trump, by a 51 to 45% margin, the president retains a 75% favorable rating among that group in December polling, likely driven by the appointment of a flood of social conservatives in judicial system – including two supreme court judge – and Trump’s embracing of a hardline anti-abortion stance.

With his overall approval rating mired in the low 40s for almost a year, and non-white evangelical support below 30% in other recent polling, Trump realizes he must appeal to and hold on to those mostly older, white religious voters if he is to have any chance of a second term.

Yet some observers believe it is a marriage of convenience, rather than any deeply held theological conviction on the part of the president. Even his choice of which Palm Beach church he and first lady Melania Trump attended on Christmas Eve was perceived as a political maneuver designed to impress evangelicals.

“Trump bows to the ageing white evangelical agenda, but I don’t think he cares for them, they’re not the folks he has sought out in the past and not the kind of people he would choose to go golfing with,” said Dr Alan Bean, a Texas hospice chaplain and commentator for Baptist News.

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“But they need each other. They really feel they are losing their country and cannot imagine an America where white evangelicals like themselves are not predominant. They know it’s slipping away, they’re trying to hang on as long as they can and that means they come out and vote in force. Trump is the only politician with the clout and inclination to work with them. They know he needs them and he feels their desperation, it’s very reciprocal.”

Meanwhile, other evangelical demographics sense an opportunity to have their voices heard.

“No party should take us for granted,” said Father Gabriel Salguero, founder and president of the national Latino evangelical coalition. “Hispanic evangelicals are the quintessential swing voter. There are about 9 million Hispanic evangelicals in the US, and many of us live in key swing states like Florida, Colorado, Ohio and Pennsylvania. It’s incumbent on any candidate to speak to the Latino evangelical community.

“The president understands this and if anything it shows there’s been a real awakening, in both parties, to the reality of the growth and influence of evangelical Latinos.”

Salguero, a pastor at a large multinational church in Orlando, urged Hispanics to listen to what Trump has to say. “The truth is that Hispanic evangelicals are politically homeless,” he said. “We do not fall neatly into any category, our allegiance is not to any party or partisan allegiance, it is to the gospel of Christ and the community we serve. [But] at the end of the day we have to make a choice.”