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GOP Mystery: Why Do Many Evangelicals Back Donald Trump?


One of the many mysteries of this election season is why a thrice married casino mogul who glorifies wealth and has boasted of his adultery is attracting the support of self-identified devout Christians. And we are talking about Donald Trump. He has won primaries across the Bible Belt and polls well among Republican evangelical Protestants and Catholics. Ralph Reed knows this group of Christian voters well, and he joins us now to help explain what's going on. Good morning.

RALPH REED: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Now, you know, if there is a single name associated with organizing the Christian vote, it might well be yours. You were the head of the Christian coalition in the 1990s, the group that helped usher in a Republican Congress. And you agree that this has mystified a lot of people. So tell us how - what you've come to in the way of the reason why.

REED: Well, first of all, I should preface my analysis by making it clear that both I and Faith and Freedom Coalition are strictly and assiduously neutral in the primary. I've got a lot of friends running for president, and I'm for my friends. But I think first of all, we need a reality check - he is winning a plurality of that vote. And it's impressive in a crowded field, no question about it.

But right now, Donald Trump is winning about a third of the self-identified evangelical vote, which, by the way, was 51 percent of primary votes cast in 2012. So it's a very significant constituency. But still, that's about the same percentage that a Republican front-runner traditionally wins in the primaries. That's what McCain won; it's what Romney won. So I think when you put it in context why - number one, they don't vote primarily based on identity politics.

MONTAGNE: Although - although, but - although I must say that they often describe themselves - I'm talking about evangelical voters especially - as values voters.

REED: Sure.

MONTAGNE: So what would those values be?

REED: Well, under that rubric they would not have voted for Ronald Reagan, the first divorced man who ever ran for president, who was ever elected president, over Jimmy Carter, who was a very pious Southern Baptist. He was a member of their denomination, many of them, yet they voted for Reagan. They voted for Mitt Romney, who was a Mormon, a denomination whose theology many find anathema over Barack Obama, who was a self-professed Christian. Why?

MONTAGNE: OK, so they will - yeah, why? They will...

REED: Because...

MONTAGNE: ...Forgive a lot...

REED: Because they are like all voters. They're driven by issues. And on the social and moral issues - marriage, abortion, religious liberty, support for Israel - Trump not only checks all those boxes, Renee, but if you go to one of his rallies, as I did, it's surprising how much of his stump speech speaks to those issues. And secondly, like all voters, many believers - not just evangelicals but Catholics and those of other faiths - are also driven by economic anxiety and some of the issues that Trump talks about in terms of projecting U.S. strength on the international stage. They're not immune from those appeals.

MONTAGNE: Let me ask you about something though that does tend to make news, a comment that reflects other comments that Donald Trump has made. He told CNN recently Islam hates us. How much does that speak to the conservative Christian support for Donald Trump?

REED: You know, I think if you took a poll, I think most evangelicals would not say that all Muslims hate America. But I do think they would agree not only with Trump but with a lot of other critiques of the state of Islam today that there's a problem in their ranks that for whatever reason they have not been able to deal with. You know, if you've gotten members invoking your faith to cut off the heads of Christians and to massacre people and to blow up innocent people at a Jewish wedding, that's a problem that needs to be dealt with. I think that message does resonate. Even though I personally don't agree that all Muslims hate America, I don't believe the love Muslim faith ipso facto is a religion of hatred.

MONTAGNE: Well, we're going to have to end it there. Thank you very much for joining us.

REED: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Ralph Reed is the head of the Faith and Freedom Coalition. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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