Donald Trump made his pitch to a national gathering of more than 1,000 evangelical leaders in New York City Tuesday, seeking their support as his presidential campaign faces increasing questions about its organization, fundraising, and poll numbers.
The event, dubbed "A Conversation with Donald Trump and Ben Carson," was billed as a way for politically active Christian leaders to get to know Trump, and for the presumptive Republican nominee to understand their concerns heading into the November election.
The conference was closed to the media.
One of the attendees, former Virginia lieutenant governor candidate E.W. Jackson, told a group of fellow evangelicals on a conference call Tuesday that lingering doubts among some evangelicals about the sincerity of Trump's religious faith are unfounded.
"I’ve had my doubts," about Trump's faith, Jackson said, "and I probably still do. But hearing [event speakers such as Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell, Jr.] who I really respect say Trump is a Christian — maybe not as far along in his development — they attested to his being a Christian. Clearly and unequivocally."
Jackson added that Trump "may not be a born-again charismatic, but he’s still a Christian."
During his appearance before members of the event's steering committee, Trump "made clear he believes Christian values have played a role in his life, particularly in raising his children," said Jackson, who is a member of the committee.
Another former Virginia lieutenant governor nominee and evangelical leader, Michael Farris, came to a much different conclusion about Trump's faith.
In an op-ed in the Christian Post on Tuesday, Farris wrote that the meeting in New York "marks the end of the Christian Right."
"Today, a candidate whose worldview is greed and whose god is his appetites ... is being tacitly endorsed by this throng," Farris wrote. "This is a day of mourning."
Trump's campaign has struggled of late, with the firing of his longtime campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski on Monday, and with his latest Federal Election Commission report, posted Tuesday, showing him with just $1.3 million cash in hand at the beginning of June.
Hillary Clinton's campaign reported $42 million cash in hand at the beginning of the month.
Polling data complied by RealClear Politics also shows Trump trailing Clinton by five percentage points, in addition to losing ground in key swing states, such as Florida, where Clinton leads Trump by eight percentage points, and Ohio, where the candidates are tied.
Chris Freund, vice-president of the Family Foundation in Richmond, Virginia, and a longtime lobbyist on faith-based issues in the General Assembly, told AMI Newswire that Trump's effort to cultivate evangelicals is essential to his general election prospects in a swing state such as Virginia.
Freund said that when Bob McDonnell was elected governor of Virginia in 2009, exit polls showed "somewhere around half of his voters were self-identified evangelicals. They made up over one-third of the electorate that year, and McDonnell won running away."
"In statewide elections after 2009, evangelicals have made up around a quarter of the electorate," he said, "Virginia went with Obama, and a Republican hasn't won statewide office since."
Freund cautioned that, while evangelicals are not an easily defined voting bloc, their frustration with Republicans is real and growing. "That isn't a good sign for Republicans in future elections."
He attributed some of the frustration among evangelical voters to "political fatigue."
He said the bigger problem for Republicans in general is "the message from a lot of Republican candidates and consultants is that evangelicals simply aren't welcome any more."
Trump seemed to pick up on evangelical frustration with politicians.
In a video Jackson released on his Twitter feed, Trump said "some of the people were saying let's pray for our leaders. And I said well, you can pray for your leaders, and I agree with that. But what you really have to do is pray to get everybody out to vote. For one specific person.
"And we can't be politically correct and say we'll pray for all of our leaders," Trump added, "because all of your leaders are selling Christianity down the tubes, selling the evangelicals down the tubes. It's a very, very bad thing that's happened."