WASHINGTON — Like most things about Donald Trump, his religion does not fit neatly into political tradition.
Trump says he can’t remember ever asking God for forgiveness for anything. If he has a favorite Bible verse, he refuses to name it. He has downplayed the importance of Holy Communion, flippantly saying, “I drink the little wine, which is about the only wine I drink, and I eat the little cracker.”
He does, at least sometimes, attend church; the Presbyterian church in Manhattan where Trump married his first wife is where he struck up a romance with the woman who would become his second wife.
And yet polls show the thrice-married longtime casino magnate who once posed on the cover of Playboy magazine with a lightly clothed woman is winning the backing of conservative evangelical voters in the GOP presidential primary.
National polls show him trouncing candidates who have much more actively courted Christian voters — such as Mike Huckabee, an ordained Southern Baptist preacher, Rick Santorum, who frequently evokes the Bible, and Ted Cruz, a preacher’s son who announced his campaign on the campus of Liberty University.
“I love the evangelicals,” Trump said recently.
Trump had long been in favor of abortion rights (“I support a woman’s right to choose,” he wrote in a 2000 book), before heswitched his position several years ago. He has said gay marriage has been decided by the Supreme Court and therefore should not be a subject for further debate. While he says he favors marriage between a man and a woman, he has attended a gay wedding.
Why is Trump so attractive to conservative Christians? “Here’s a guy who is out there unfettered by the political correctness,” said Tony Perkins, who has not endorsed anyone and is president of the Family Research Council, a Washington conservative Christian organization. “He’s not afraid to say what he thinks. That’s attractive.”
Some of his opponents see a vulnerability in the disconnect between Trump’s support from Christian conservatives and his actual record. They are starting to point out that he is unreliable on some of the issues evangelicals care about most — a message they may air Wednesday in the next Republican presidential debate, a high-profile venue.
The debate is being sponsored by CNN and will be held at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Library in Simi Valley, Calif.
Ben Carson, whose book about his life story has been distributed by a Christian publisher, is the one giving Trump the strongest challenge for Christian conservative voters. Carson last week suggested that Trump — who has called himself “a very proud Christian. And a real Christian” — was not sincere about his religion. He went on to quote a Bible verse about humility.
Trump fired back on CNN, saying “Who is he to question my faith? I don’t know him.” Carson apologized.
Carson has also surged in the polls recently, and has a narrow lead among evangelicals in Iowa even though Trump is ahead among evangelicals nationally.
In a national poll of Republicans, 32 percent of white evangelicals said they would vote for Trump. Carson was second, with 28 percent, according to the CNN poll released Thursday, with no other candidate even in double digits.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll released Monday showed that Trump’s numbers are better among white evangelicals than almost any other subgroup of voters. In the survey — which also showed Trump surging among voters overall — 54 percent of evangelicals support him on immigration, 62 percent think he is qualified to be president, and 50 percent think he is honest and trustworthy.
The Post-ABC poll found Trump to be the favorite of 33 percent of registered Republicans and Republican-leaning independents overall.
Much like Trump’s appeal nationally among the full spectrum of Republicans, he is embraced by the rank and file in a way that is baffling to longtime leaders who say many voters may view his brash outspokenness as refreshing but are unfamiliar with some of Trump’s past positions.
“It’s like people put their fingers in the ears and go, ‘La, la, la, la, la,’ when you try and tell them the truth about Trump,” said Oran P. Smith, head of the Palmetto Family Council, a Christian conservative group based in South Carolina.
“The thinking is, ‘Don’t confuse me with the facts. I’m up for a fight, and so is this guy. So let’s get behind him and fight back,’” Smith added. “While his specific agenda isn’t a Christian agenda or evangelical agenda, it represents a willingness to push back hard against things.”
An evangelical magazine called WORLD has been polling 100 evangelical leaders each month, and the results show how there is a split between evangelical leadership — which remains skeptical of Trump — and the people in the pews: The magazine’s survey showed Marco Rubio has been the overwhelming favorite of the evangelical leadership. In the August survey, only two of those leaders said Trump is their preferred candidate — and 81 percent said they “absolutely” would not consider voting for Trump.
“If you vote for Donald Trump and you’re a social conservative, you’re either schizophrenic or you’ve got a large, large dose of naiveté,” said Richard Land, president of Charlotte, N.C.-based Southern Evangelical Seminary. “There are too many people in the race that have far more social conservative and religious credentials than Donald Trump — and fewer wives.”
Starting in 2011, when Trump was weighing whether to run for president in 2012, he began talking more openly about his faith, mostly in a series of interviews with the Christian Broadcasting Network. He also cultivated a relationship with Franklin Graham, the son of evangelist Billy Graham, and nearly two years ago attended Billy Graham’s 95th birthday party in Asheville, N.C.
In 2012, he delivered an address at Liberty University, a school in Virginia for evangelicals, and began showing crowds of conservatives his 1953 confirmation class photo, which has him in the back row in jacket and tie, his pastor seated in the center.
“I was a brat,” Trump confessed in the address, offering a rare bit of humility. “I was a terrible brat, actually.”
“You know I used to love going to Sunday school. People don’t know this about Trump. They think, ‘Oh, Trump, you know, Trump,’” Trump said. “But the truth is, I went to Sunday school. . . . I learned a lot. And I learned about God. And that was probably the greatest thing I ever learned, forget all the business stuff.”
Trump has said that his mother, Mary, was the driving force behind the family’s regular church attendance at First Presbyterian Church in Jamaica, Queens, N.Y.
As an adult, Trump began attending Marble Collegiate Church in Manhattan, and it became the place for major family events. It’s where he was married to Ivana in 1977, where his sister was married, and where funerals for Trump’s father and mother were held.
The longtime pastor, Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, was the author of the self-help book “The Power of Positive Thinking” and became a national celebrity for his philosophy of dreaming big and then prayfully seeking success. (Peale in 1988 told The New York Times that Trump was “one of America’s top positive thinkers and positive doers.”)
“He was so great,” Trump told a crowd of Iowans in July. “I still remember his sermons. It was unbelievable. . . . When you left the church, you were disappointed that it was over.”
It is also where the 43-year-old Trump met the 26-year-old Marla Maples, according to news reports at the time. He began sitting regularly with her, and then began seeking counseling from minister Arthur Caliandro about his relationship with Maples and his marriage with Ivana.
Around this time, Maples declared on the front page of the New York Post that Trump was the “Best Sex I Ever Had.” (Several years later, Caliandro performed the wedding for Trump and Maples).
The church confirmed that Trump has a history there, but said in a statement that unlike his parents, he is not an active member.
Trump, who declined several requests for an interview to discuss his faith and his appeal among evangelicals, says the Bible is his favorite book (his own book, “The Art of the Deal,” runs a close second). He also has said that people often send him Bibles in the mail, which he either gives away or keeps in “a very, very nice place.”
“Believe me, if I run and I win,” Trump told the Christian Broadcasting Network in 2015, “I will be the greatest representative of the Christians that they’ve had in a long time.”Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @mviser.