(Bloomberg) -- Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump made his pitch at a gathering of social conservatives Friday without mentioning two of their key issues: abortion and same-sex marriage.
Trump instead promised to protect Christians’ “religious liberty” broadly, casting them as the target of unfair treatment by the media and U.S. tax rules.
The appearance at the annual Values Voter Summit in Washington underscored Trump’s delicate relationship with the religious right, which has long viewed the thrice-married New York real-estate developer skeptically.
A CNN poll conducted this month found he is now performing with white evangelicals near the same level Mitt Romney did in the 2012 election. His speech was warmly received by a crowd that particularly appreciated his praise of the late activist Phyllis Schlafly and the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, two icons among social conservatives.
America is “in serious, serious trouble,” Trump said. “Our media culture often mocks and demeans people of faith,” whose “values of love, charity and faith built this nation.”
He ran through his agenda on the Supreme Court, Islamic terrorism, Syrian refugees, and trade. He drew applause for saying that if elected in November, he’d repeal the 1954 Johnson Amendment barring tax-exempt organizations like churches from supporting or opposing candidates for political office.
“I figure it’s the only way I'll get into heaven,” he joked.
He also talked up his education agenda—including expanding home-schooling rights—and repeated a line he recently introduced into his stump speech as an appeal to African-American and Hispanic voters: “What do you have to lose?”
And, despite having called for the suspension of immigration from Syria to the U.S. because of terrorism concerns, Trump criticized the Obama administration for making it “almost impossible to get a Christian in from Syria. They take others, but they don’t take Christians. Very rare, very rare.”
Trump’s speech capped a week of strident debate with Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, including a televised forum on military issues Wednesday where Trump sparked a new round of criticism from across the political spectrum for praising Russian President Vladimir Putin as a stronger leader than U.S. President Barack Obama.
Trump on Friday attacked Clinton at length for saying at the forum that no U.S. ground troops would return to Iraq “ever again,” suggesting she was broadcasting the American military’s plans too openly to its enemies. Clinton meant that “she doesn’t think it’s appropriate to get into another ground war there right now,” campaign manager Robby Mook said on MSNBC on Thursday.
Trump said Clinton’s judicial nominations would be extreme and threaten Americans’ religious liberty and Second Amendment right to bear arms. If she's elected, “you can kiss the Second Amendment goodbye,” he said.
Voters who identified themselves as white, born-again Christians made up 26 percent of the electorate in the 2012 presidential election, according to exit polls published by CNN. Romney well outperformed Obama with them, winning 78 percent to Obama’s 21 percent.
Trump and his running mate, Indiana Governor Mike Pence, have the support of 73 percent of white evangelicals who are likely to vote, according to a CNN poll Sept. 1-4 that included the Libertarian and Green Party candidates. Clinton and her running mate, Virginia Senator Tim Kaine, had 14 percent.
Dark quips and conspiracy theories about Clinton’s health were commonplace among other speakers at the gathering.
Representative Louie Gohmert of Texas said Clinton “has made clear she is mentally impaired,” citing no evidence other than a concussion she suffered in 2012. Social conservative activist Gary Bauer said, “I think I figured out why she’s having these unfortunate coughing jags,” which Clinton attributes to seasonal allergies. “Even she chokes on her lies.”
The crowd laughed and applauded.
Actor Jon Voight, a Trump supporter, defended the nominee’s praise of Putin.
“He’s an honest man. He says a lot of things that people will try to find problems with. I have no problem with what he said,” Voight said in an interview before his speech at the summit. “He’s being honest. It’s his opinion. I respect it.”
Trump was set to hold one final public event Friday night, a rally in Pensacola, Florida. Pence, an evangelical Christian who has governed Indiana on a socially conservative agenda, was set to speak to the Values Voter Summit on Saturday, while Trump said he would attend Schlafly’s funeral. The Trump campaign hadn’t announced any events for Sunday, the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Clinton will attend a memorial event in New York City, her campaign said.
Before Trump spoke at the summit Friday, supporter Rudy Giuliani made a surprise appearance. The man who was mayor of New York City during the terrorist attack, said the U.S. “is in more danger today than it was on Sept. 11.”