It's the (oh, no, not again) art of Trump’s deal with many old-guard evangelicals

From the You Can’t Make This Up Department: During Donald Trump’s summit with nearly 1,000 evangelicals (GetReligion podcast here), Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. proudly tweeted out a photo of himself and wife Becki greeting the man who would be president.

Seen on the wall behind them was a framed Playboy magazine photo of Trump alongside a nubile Playmate.

Online liberal satirist Sarah Wood noted the Playmate is currently in prison for drug smuggling, and wondered why Falwell was “honored” to associate with “a thrice-married man who has more than insinuated that he wants to date his daughter, is currently racist, made money off screwing people over, and has posed for Playboy. Praise Jesus!”

Less derisively, Professor Tobin Grant, a Religion News Service columnist, quoted Trump’s new friends who not long ago warned he “can’t be trusted,” needs to “repent,” is “embarrassing,” a “scam,” and a“misogynist and philanderer” laden with “untruthfulness.” 

A second Grant piece listed words Trump never uttered during the 90-minute encounter: that would be Jesus, Christ, Bible, prayer, faith. “God” was mentioned once, however.

Trump’s big promises were to pick conservative Supreme Court appointees and defend religious liberty. Journalistic congrats to for scooping up audio of the closed-door session and rapidly posting a very revealing transcript reporters should analyze. There are still uncovered stories between the lines in this document.

Though Trump demeaned Hillary Clinton’s faith, Historian Randall Balmer contended via NPR that the Republican would be the first U.S. president who “makes no credible claims to religiosity.” Now there's a topic worth debating.

Meanwhile, second-hand quotes from veteran activist James Dobson explained away Trump’s religious flubs because he only recently “made a commitment” to Jesus so is “a baby Christian.” Amid the carefully staged and soft if not obsequious  questioning of Trump, Franklin Graham (Son of the Rev. Billy) preached that biblical heroes were also sinners (Abraham, David, faithless apostles).

Enough! You probably know all of that. What’s the ongoing news significance here?

As the Religion Guy (and friend tmatt) have noted, the media somehow ignore that this election will likely turn on white Catholics. Rust Belt, anyone? (And don’t forget research indicating white evangelical churches over-all are the least likely to be politicized versus “mainline” Protestant, black Protestant, Catholic and Jewish congregations.) Still, RNS’s David Gibson reminded us, Trump badly needs to boost his current 62 percent support among white evangelicals (per CBS polling) since Romney got 79 percent and McCain 73 percent (per Pew) and yet lost.

It’s predictable when outsiders smirk about unloved evangelicals. More notable for the future is what certain evangelicals thought. Columnist Michael Gerson, once George W. Bush’s chief speechwriter, said the meeting was a “sad parody” that summarized “all the faults and failures of the religious right.” Or consider Michael Farris, a Moral Majority founder, top homeschooling strategist and president of Patrick Henry College, who declared, “This meeting marks the end of the Christian Right. ... This is a day of mourning."

Will a Christian Right crackup parallel a Republican Party crackup in the Trump Era?  Both scenarios may be overblown, but newswriters should be watching the chaos closely.

The other obvious story here is emerging power alignments. The meeting’s  handpicked questioners were former Southern Baptist President Ronnie Floyd, Christian Zionist David Jeremiah, First Liberty Institute’s Kelly Shackelford, and Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins. Former Trump opponents Ben Carson and Mike Huckabee facilitated the event along with a lesser-known comer, C.E.O. Bill Dallas of This P.R. firm hopes to rally conservative religious organizations to bring a U.S. “culture change” that’s “based on Judeo-Christian principles.”

Members of Trump’s new 26-member “evangelical advisory board” include Dobson, Falwell, longtime toiler Ralph Reed, influential African-American Pastor A.R. Bernard, former Congresswoman Michele Bachman and Southern Baptist mega-pastors Ronnie Floyd, Jack Graham and Robert Jeffress.

Not all have or will endorse Trump, and other influential evangelicals remain devout #NeverTrump figures, especially the Rev. Russell Moore, the official Southern Baptist voice inside the Beltway.

Journalists: At the very least, how about a thorough rundown of the players walking up to Cleveland? Who will change his or her stance and who will refuse to do so?

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