Donald Trump's meeting with over 900 evangelical leaders Tuesday morning helped move the conservative evangelical needle in his direction, however, some prominent evangelicals are not ready to fully back the real estate mogul.
The 70-year-old Trump met with evangelical pastors and leaders in New York City for a "conversation" at the Marriott Marquis that was designed to allow the evangelical community to get to know the billionaire better, while allowing Trump to get to know the concerns of evangelicals better.
Ultimately, Trump participated in three different meetings with evangelical leaders Tuesday morning. First, Trump met with a small group of selected evangelical leaders at Trump Tower around 8 a.m. Then, he met with another small group of select leaders at the Marriott Marquis before he addressed the 900 other evangelical leaders in attendance for the large-group meeting at the hotel.
Reactions from evangelical leaders following the meeting indicate that the meeting was positive and helped many of the leaders to better understand where the candidate stands on issues like religious freedom, the sanctity of life and the Supreme Court.
In a press conference following the meeting, Family Research Council president Tony Perkins, who endorsed Texas Sen. Ted Cruz during the GOP primary, said that the meeting helped "move the needle" a bit in Trump's favor. However, Perkins said that questions still remain before many of the leaders in attendance can fully embrace Trump.
"I kind of did my own survey of the room. ... One of the things that I've heard is 'he's not what we've seen in the media.' He's actually a likable guy. I like him. I like what I've heard. I think this is a good start. I feel much more comfortable … he gained a lot by coming here today and having this conversation," Perkins explained. "I don't think people are leaving here with their minds made up but I think they have moved the needle today and I think now he has a little bit growing, increasing wind in his sails from the grassroots."
As Trump comes into the general election without any history of holding public office and has espoused liberal views on issues like abortion in the past, Perkins said that he is still waiting to see who Trump picks as a vice-presidential running mate before he can issue any kind of concrete support for Trump.
"The best indicator of future performance is past performance. We don't have that in this case and I think that's why it's going to be extremely important who he chooses as his running mate," Perkins said. "Is it someone who does have a conservative track record? Is it someone who has a relationship with evangelicals that will be part of his inner circle of advisors? Which then gives us the ability to know that these things he said, there is an anchor to them."
Trump helped ease the concern of many in attendance by vowing to appoint pro-life justices to the Supreme Court and by also vowing to get rid of the Johnson amendment, which allows the federal government to strip tax-exempt statuses from churches and nonprofit organizations if they get involved in political activities or endorse candidates for public office.
Although Trump said he would end the decades-old ban on church politicking, some questions remain about how serious Trump is in defending religious freedom rights from being trampled by LGBT activism.
When Trump was asked by First Liberty Institute's Kelly Shackleford during the large-group meeting about the rights of wedding vendors and others to refuse servicing gay weddings, Trump said that it was ultimately the courts that were going to decide cases of that nature.
Trump insinuated that he would appoint justices and judges that would uphold religious freedom rights by saying that "if it's my judges, you know how they're going to decide. And if it's her judges, you also know how they're going to decide."
American Family Association President Tim Wildmon feels that Trump didn't answer the religious freedom questions clearly enough for his liking.
"Trump's weakness is that he did not clearly state his views in answer to the questions asked by Perkins and Shackelford about when religious freedom and the LGBT movement come into conflict, other than to say that these matters will be decided by the courts," Wildmon wrote in an op-ed. "He repeatedly said he was for religious freedom and his fallback position was that he would appoint judges who would defend religious freedom."
However, Wildmon came away from the meeting feeling that Trump is "coachable" because he is willing to sit down and listen to the concerns of "great men of God" in order to understand Christians better.
In an effort to prioritize the concerns of conservative Christians, Trump created an evangelical executive advisory board that includes 25 prominent evangelical leaders. A number of the members of that board have not issued their endorsement of Trump, such as Ronnie Floyd, Richard Land and Harry Jackson.
Former Southern Baptist Convention President Jack Graham, who is also on the advisory board, told The Christian Post on Tuesday that he feels he is ready to "champion Trump."
In an op-ed for Fox News titled "Of Course, Evangelicals Can Vote For Trump," Graham wrote that although he is not endorsing any candidates, he has reached a point where he can now vote for Trump.
"After spending much of my morning yesterday with Mr. Trump in a small meeting in his office and in a larger meeting attended by 1,000 of the nation's most influential Christian leaders, I would vote for Donald Trump because he has convinced me he will fight for the issues that matter most to conservatives," Graham wrote. "And one thing is certain with Mr. Trump – for better or worse, he's not afraid of a fight."
"Actually, it's not that difficult," Graham continued. "Donald Trump says he will support those issues that conservative evangelicals care about. Hillary Clinton promises she won't."
James Merritt, another former Southern Baptist Convention president, maintains a more negative view of Trump.
"Does character matter? Does the life of the unborn matter? If u answer yes and mean it then you have a real problem with the POTUS election," Merritt tweeted on Thursday.
Does character matter? Does the life of the unborn matter? If u answer yes and mean it then you have a real problem with the POTUS election.— James Merritt (@drjamesmerritt) June 23, 2016