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Evangelicals see Trump as man of conviction, if not faith

Buford Arning, a retired building-supply executive in Statesville, North Carolina, went to church each week until a pinched nerve made it hard for him to leave his house. He believes in living a faith-filled life. But he does not demand piety of his preferred presidential candidate, Donald Trump.

"Am I a Bible toter that gets out and preaches on the side of the street and tries to convert everybody? No," said Arning, 62, who calls himself an evangelical voter. He said he believed that Trump was "a Christian man," and that was good enough.

Trump may not be as spiritually minded as former Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, who was a Southern Baptist minister, "but I think his values are very much the same," Arning said.

"His personal life is saintlike compared to Bill Clinton's," he added.

Brash, thrice-married, cosseted in a gilded tower high above Fifth Avenue and fond of swearing from the stage at his rallies, Trump, who has spent his career in pursuit, and praise, of wealth, would seem an odd fit for voters who place greater value on faith, hope and charity.

Yet polls increasingly show Trump well in front of the crowded Republican field among white evangelical voters, despite competition including Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, whose father is an evangelical pastor; Huckabee, the 2008 Iowa caucus winner; former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, a Roman Catholic whose story of raising a daughter with a disability struck a chord with voters and helped push him to victory in the 2012 Iowa caucuses; and Ben Carson, a Seventh-day Adventist who brought prayer into the operating room as a neurosurgeon and has spoken frequently about his Christian beliefs as a candidate. A New York Times/CBS News poll last week showed Trump, a Presbyterian, dominating the field with 42 percent of evangelical voters; Cruz was second with 25 percent.

In dozens of interviews with evangelical voters in 16 states, from every region of the country outside the Northeast, those supporting Trump sounded a familiar refrain: that his heart was in the right place, that his intentions for the country were pure, that he alone was capable of delivering to a troubled country salvation in the here-and-now.

"He is the only one who can pull us back from the abyss," said John Juvenal, 67, a lifelong Republican and retired police officer from Oklahoma City.

Strong support among conservative Christians could help Trump regain his lead in Iowa, where Cruz has pulled ahead in the polls. And Trump is making an effort to convert them.

On Sunday, he assured CNN that he had "a great relationship with God."

"I try and do nothing that's bad," he said. "I live a very different life than probably a lot of people would think."

On Monday, Trump spoke at Liberty University, the Lynchburg, Virginia, institution founded by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell. Trump has been wooing Jerry Falwell Jr., and Falwell lavished praise on him, comparing Trump to Jesus and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., for voicing unpopular thoughts.

In the interviews, many evangelicals said they saw Trump as a decent man who simply wanted to get things done.

"We've had an administration the last eight years of someone that never ever hired anybody and was responsible for a payroll, who filled 90 percent of his cabinet with academia, teachers and professors," Arning said. "I want a guy that's run a business. I don't care if it's a bulldozer and he's cleared lots for 20 years."

For many others, Trump speaks the truth and mirrors what they are feeling: fevered anger at President Barack Obama, distress about the economy and fear that terrorists could pose as Syrian refugees to infiltrate the U.S. heartland. Rather than recoiling from his harsh language about immigrants and insults of people he dislikes, these voters said Trump was merely being honest.

"Spirituality is a big issue, but we need somebody who's strong," said Charles E. Henderson, 61, a disabled veteran from Lexington, Kentucky, who grew up attending a Nazarene church. He called Trump outspoken and decisive, adding, "Lots of times the preachers and everything, they have a tendency to be just a little bit weak."

Despite their own strong beliefs, a number of voters interviewed shied away from judging Trump's faithfulness.

Craig Wright, 69, from Goldthwaite, Texas, who said he wrote to Trump to urge him to run and who described himself as "sick and tired of politicians," said Trump cleared one important bar: He does not deny God's existence. "None of us know if there really is a God, you just hope there is," said Wright, a Methodist. "If he was an avowed atheist, then I would know he was crazy."

And others said they did not believe it was necessary for candidates they support to trumpet their faith. "At my church, our pastor is saying just be careful about who you're looking at as the election comes closer, because some of them are like wolves in sheep's clothing," said Cheryl Freeman, 57, from Thousand Oaks, California, who produces and distributes faith- and family-oriented films.

Freeman said it was clear that Trump's family "means everything to him," but she did not know how religious he was. "Is he one that believes in the Lord and tries to do good and everything? I don't really know that, to be honest with you," she said. But she added, "I also believe that you don't have to scream to the world that you're a Christian."

Evangelical voters are hardly monolithic in their political views, and plenty said they were leery of Trump.

Margaret Chapman, 83, a retired nurse from Sierra Vista, Arizona, who attends a nondenominational Christian church, said she supported Cruz, whom she deemed "a man of faith" and "a total family man." She noted Trump's past, saying: "Just from his past life, he didn't seem very godly. I can't see that he has really changed, but maybe he has."

Deryck Mullady, 34, of Cincinnati said Trump had said things that were "totally against what Jesus taught and what we read in the Bible." He said he disapproved of some of his Christian friends who, in past elections, emphasized the religious conviction of the candidates they voted for but "say it doesn't matter now" and are backing Trump.

And Sherrie Haussecker, 55, who attends a nondenominational church every week in Indianapolis, said she found Trump's message deeply negative. "Not all Christians that say they're Christians are Christians," she said.

"If he's a Christian, then he's probably a baby Christian, because there's a lot of not having the self-control," she added, suggesting that he was immature in his faith.

At Liberty University on Monday, several students questioned whether Trump was introspective enough for high office. "I can't see him leading the nation," said Yanni Allen, 19, a freshman, who also suggested that Trump was not quite capable of impressing evangelicals with his grasp of theology: "It's definitely deep water for him to come into here."

Caleb Grow, 24, a graduate student, said Trump was unnecessarily hard "on certain minorities and religious groups," adding, "I think he needs to tone back his rhetoric a bit, because it's kind of hateful."

But for Juvenal, a Methodist with two grown children who had the opportunity to meet Trump at a rally in Oklahoma last year, Trump's willingness to dispense with the usual political filters is part of the allure.

"He is like I am," he said. "He speaks like I do. He doesn't hide what he's saying. And he comes across very, very truthful."

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