President Trump launched his campaign outreach to evangelical voters Friday, telling thousands of Christian supporters at a megachurch in Florida that “God is on our side.”
“With your help, your prayers and your tireless effort to mobilize Christian communities across our land,” Mr. Trump said, “we’re going to win another monumental victory for faith and family, God and country, prayer and freedom.”
Referring to his victory in 2016 despite strong opposition from the media, the president told the faithful, “I really do believe we have God on our side. We’re going to blow away those numbers in 2020.” He urged the faithful to get their friends and neighbors to register to vote.
The president also drew cheers from the crowd at El Rey Jesus Ministry, a church in Miami featuring nearly a dozen jumbo TV screens, when he pledged to fight to restore school prayer.
“Very soon, I’ll be taking action to safeguard students’ and teachers’ First Amendment right to pray in our schools,” the president said. “We’re doing a big action [with] Attorney General Bill Barr. They [Democrats] want to take that right. We will not allow faithful Americans to be bullied by the hard left.”“
More than 80% of white evangelicals preferred Mr. Trump over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election, according to Pew Research, so retaining their support will be critical for the president’s reelection prospects.
A crack in his firewall appeared to form in recent weeks, when a prominent faith-based magazine — Christianity Today — published an op-ed slamming Mr. Trump as a “grossly immoral character.”
It said Mr. Trump abused his office by requesting investigations from Ukraine at the same time he held up military aid. The editorial slammed Mr. Trump’s behavior in business and with women.
The president thanked prominent evangelical leaders in the audience, including Pastor Robert Jeffress of Texas and James and Shirley Dobson. He said “evangelicals … have never had a greater champion in the White House” than him.
“My administration will never stop fighting for Americans of faith,” he said.
During the opening prayers, audience members stood with both of their arms outstretched as faith leaders huddled around Mr. Trump onstage. One supporter, evangelist Angel Belcher of Florida, later came up on stage and said she would pray for the media to start telling the truth about the president.
“Make sure you say that which is right,” Ms. Belcher told the press. “I want him [Mr. Trump] to stand strong.”
She turned to the president and urged him, “Never give up. Keep standing.”
The president basked in the support from more than 5,000 of the faithful.
“There is no better place to begin the new year than right here with so many friends and families, pastors and patriots, who believe in the power of prayer, the majesty of creation and the love and grace of Jesus Christ,” Mr. Trump said.
The president taunted some of the Democratic presidential candidates, including Pete Buttigieg.
“Alfred E. Neuman tries to pretend he’s very religious,” Mr. Trump said, mocking his likeness to the character from Mad magazine. “All of a sudden he’s become extremely religious.”
“Our opponents want to shut out God from the public square,” the president said.
Mr. Trump also highlighted his pro-life agenda, including cutting off federal funding for Planned Parenthood and fetal tissue research. “We will never shy away from the battle to protect innocent life,” Mr. Trump said. We believe in right to life.”
He also warned, “Today’s Democrat Party has sent pro-life voters into exile.”
G. Terry Madonna, a politics professor at Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania, said the imbroglio over the Christianity Today editorial suggested Mr. Trump has lost some support among evangelicals, however those who do back him have counteracted the trend by coming out strongly for him.
He said any loss of support appears to be centered on young evangelicals and, “importantly, about 20% of evangelicals are non-white and they do not support him.”
“But overall he remains in good shape,” Mr. Madonna said.
Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, a Christian-conservative nonprofit in Washington, told The Washington Times that younger people tend not to vote. He also believes minority groups such as African Americans and Hispanics will be drawn to Mr. Trump in 2020 because the Democratic Party’s platform has become too extreme.
Hitting back, Florida Democrats on Friday argued Mr. Trump’s new coalition is built on a “faulty foundation” and more about the pursuit of power than advancing the gospel.
“It was my deep belief that President Trump and those candidates that supported him were really guilty of co-opting faith and the faith communities for their own political advantages, and were not representative in their policies or their values of what faith is all about,” said Chris King, recounting his unsuccessful run in 2018 as the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor in Florida.
Mr. King and faith leaders faulted Mr. Trump for his personal behavior, his “cruel” immigration policies, crude comments about Haitian immigrants and efforts to dismantle the 2010 health care law.
“I think he shows a disdain for believers all across the country who want to see a president who is genuinely, authentically trying to live out the values of the gospel,” Mr. King said.
Doug Pagitt, a pastor and executive director of Vote Common Good — an organization seeking to peel away Christian support from Mr. Trump — said Friday the president held his Florida event because he is “desperate.”
“He knows he needs every last vote if he wants a shot at reelection,” he said.
He said for Trump backers, the Bible verse about gaining the world — yet forfeiting their souls — is “coming into focus for them.”
“We are not asking Republicans to stop being Republican,” Mr. Pagitt said. “We are simply asking faith voters not to vote for this Republican.”
While discussing recent violence against Jewish Americans and a fatal shooting at a church in Texas, Mr. Trump also suggested that three members of the so-called “squad” of freshman Democratic lawmakers were anti-Semitic.
“These people hate Israel,” Mr. Trump said. “They hate Jewish people. I won’t name them. I won’t bring up the name of Omar, Tlaib, AOC. I won’t bring that name up. Won’t bring it up. I will not bring it up! But where do these people come from?”
He was referring to Reps. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez of New York.