- The Washington Times - Monday, December 26, 2016

Nobody would describe Donald Trump as more religiously devout than Mitt Romney or George W. Bush, but the casino-building billionaire outperformed previous GOP presidential candidates with white evangelical voters.

Why? Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University, said Mr. Trump made an enormous impact with the religious community in May by taking the unusual step of releasing his prospective U.S. Supreme Court nominees ahead of the election.

“He made it very clear who his Supreme Court picks would be if he was elected,” Mr. Falwell told “Fox News Sunday.” “I think that was a big factor.”

Mr. Trump won 80 percent of the white evangelical vote, surpassing Mr. Romney, who took 78 percent in 2012, as well as Mr. Bush, who won 78 percent in 2004. Republican presidential nominee John McCain drew 74 percent in his 2008 bid.

That short list of 11 top jurists — five state Supreme Court justices and six federal appeals court judges — was applauded by Republicans and helped ease concerns about the first-time candidate’s commitment to conservative principles.

Mr. Trump also said on the campaign trail that he would appoint pro-life justices, a pivotal issue for social conservatives who have long advocated for the high court to overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 abortion decision.

“He told us what Supreme Court justices he would appoint. That’s about all a president can do on the abortion issue is to appoint the right justices,” said Mr. Falwell, an adviser to the Trump campaign.

As for Mr. Trump’s biblical bona fides, “he never pretended to be a theologian,” Mr. Falwell said.

“I said through the campaign that we’re not electing a pastor in chief,” said Mr. Falwell, whose father founded Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, and was a key figure in the development of the contemporary “Religious Right.” “It’s just like when you have a sick child. You look for the best doctor for that child. You don’t look for the doctor that shares your faith or your theology.”

Mr. Falwell also cited the president-elect’s call for the repeal of the so-called Johnson Amendment, which prohibits nonprofit organizations, including churches, from supporting specific candidates for office.

The 1954 provision pushed by then-Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson “has been used by the government to silence conservatives and pastors,” Mr. Falwell said.

“And so all those things — they just resounded with evangelicals and with Christians,” said Mr. Falwell, adding that Mr. Trump’s victory has brought “a new hope, an optimism.”

Mr. Trump’s candidacy created something of a divide among Christian leaders, but the election outcome showed that the rift had little effect on rank-and-file evangelical voters.

Another reason for Mr. Trump’s strong showing: the evangelical community’s dislike of Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. A Washington Post-ABC News poll taken a month before the Nov. 8 election found 70 percent of white evangelicals held an unfavorable view of Mrs. Clinton.

Mr. Trump is expected to make an immediate impact on the high court by nominating a jurist to fill the vacancy left by the Feb. 13 death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

• Valerie Richardson can be reached at vrichardson@washingtontimes.com.

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