MIAMI —President Donald Trump launched his campaign's new coalition to court evangelical voters at a Latino megachurch Friday, part of efforts to shore up support in the community for his re-election bid as well as broaden it in the wake of a prominent evangelical magazine coming out in support of his impeachment.
“Every Democratic candidate running for president is trying to punish religious believers and silence our churches,” Trump told a crowd of thousands at the Ministerio Internacional El Rey Jesús. "This election is about the survival of our nation."
The rally-style event, which included everything from a prayer session and brief remarks by a young woman who chose not to get an abortion after becoming pregnant unexpectedly in college, saw Trump acknowledge the power of the evangelical voters who helped put him in office in 2016 and boast of conservative accomplishments both real and exaggerated while promising more to come.
A win in November, Trump said, would be “another monumental victory for faith and family, God and country."
After beginning by thanking the military and addressing the U.S. drone strike he ordered that killed Iranian military leader Qassem Soleimani Thursday, the president took credit for department stores using the phrase "Merry Christmas" and ending what he claimed was a government "war on religion" in America.
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"We’ve confirmed 187 unbelievably talented, young, brilliant, judges — they’ll be there for 40 years, some of them more," he said.
He spoke at length about abortion, championing his administration’s restriction on Title X funding that forced Planned Parenthood out of the federal family planning grant program as well as his administration's restriction on fetal tissue research.
Trump claimed he’d “stopped” the Johnson Amendment, the tax provision that limits the kind of political action tax-exempt churches can take. The amendment is still on the books, though Trump signed an executive order to try and loosen its restrictions in May 2017. Some critics have said Friday's event actually violates the Johnson Amendment, though the church maintains that the campaign rented the space and its pastor said in his remarks that he is acting in a private capacity.
The president also spoke out about an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit against the use of prayer in a Tennessee school's events. Organized prayer in public schools is unconstitutional.
“We will not allow faithful Americans to be bullied by the far left, we’re not going to allow it. And we get involved with many of these cases and nobody sees us coming," Trump said. “Very soon I’ll be taking action to safeguard students’ and teachers’ First Amendment rights to pray in our schools."
Friday’s event launching the Evangelicals for Trump coalition comes just two weeks after a prominent Christian magazine, Christianity Today, called for Trump’s removal from office. Trump brought up the granddaughter of famed evangelist Billy Graham, Cissie Graham Lynch, on stage to speak in support of him. Billy Graham notably founded Christianity Today and his name is invoked in the first line of the editorial calling for his removal written by the magazine's outgoing editor.
The megachurch, known in English as the King Jesus International Ministry, has the largest Hispanic congregation in the country, according to Christianity Today.
The church’s Pastor Guillermo Maldonado, who goes by the term apostle, encouraged undocumented members of his congregation to attend the event, the Miami Herald reported this week. But that didn't alter the president's stump speech: talk of building the wall earned some of the loudest cheers.
The League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), the country's largest Latino civil rights organization, criticized Trump's appearance at the church as an insult, calling it a "fake Christian campaign rally."
“We hope that this congregation and its leadership ask President Trump why his Administration has locked Christian Latino refugee children in cages, separated Christian parents fleeing persecution and violence from their children, and continues to hold our Christian children in deplorable conditions by refusing them even basic health care and compassion," said Domingo Garcia, the national president of LULAC, in a statement.
Many of Trump’s top evangelical supporters were in attendance Friday. Tony Perkins, president of the influential Family Research Council, lead the crowd in the Pledge of Allegiance while Paula White, the televangelist-turned-White-House aide, introduced the president.