At the Fox, Georgia’s religious right sticks to Donald Trump

Donald Trump peers into the crowd at the Fox Theatre on Wednesday afternoon at a rally in downtown Atlanta. Emily Jenkins, ejenkins@ajc.com

Donald Trump peers into the crowd at the Fox Theatre on Wednesday afternoon at a rally in downtown Atlanta. Emily Jenkins, ejenkins@ajc.com

The last time Donald Trump was in Atlanta, he was a one-man show, introduced to his followers by a disembodied voice.

Four months later, now the presumptive GOP nominee for president rather than one of many candidates, Trump still is a solo operation. He shares the stage with virtually no one.

Yet a supporting cast has begun to form around Trump in Georgia, as Wednesday’s bash at the Fox Theatre showed. It includes some, though not all, party regulars. One prominent Ted Cruz supporter was given a speaking role, as were three speakers of color, including WSB Radio’s Herman Cain.

But the best news for Trump was stage-crafted evidence that he will retain the support of the most conservative of Georgia’s religious conservatives, led by Ralph Reed, founder of the Faith and Freedom Coalition. Not despite the candidate’s position on Islam and terrorism, but because of it.

(Trump will also have the support of the archbishop of Georgia’s civic religion, former University of Georgia football coach Vince Dooley. Dooley was the only human allowed on the stage with Trump — just long enough to speak a sentence or two of support. But that is another matter.)

Donald Trump fans in the upper reaches of the Fox Theatre, which ironically was designed to resemble an Islamic mosque. Emily Jenkins, ejenkins@ajc.com

Donald Trump fans in the upper reaches of the Fox Theatre, which ironically was designed to resemble an Islamic mosque. Emily Jenkins, ejenkins@ajc.com

More important for Trump is the fact that a national rift among evangelical voters over his candidacy may not have stretched into Georgia — an important factor that, should it hold, would argue against a November surge in the state by Hillary Clinton, his presumed Democratic rival.

Religious conservative support was made clear at the outset by the Rev. Richard Lee, pastor of First Redeemer Church in Cumming, Ga., who gave the invocation.

Lee prayed for the families of the dead and wounded in Orlando. And for that other fellow with the AR-15, and those like him — in a fashion. “We … pray that the barbarians who commit such crimes as this receive a swift and fair judgment in this world, and when they open their eyes in the devil’s hell,” the preacher intoned.

Addressing the Almighty, Lee pronounced Trump to be “the man who you have divinely ordered to lead this nation.”

Several speakers later, Reed took the podium. He, too, addressed Orlando. “I want to make it abundantly clear, that this attack on gay Americans in Orlando was an act of hatred and bigotry and violence that those of us of Christian faith totally reject as antithetical to our faith,” Reed said.

This was important on two counts. First, Reed’s organization is currently engaged in a bitter fight in North Carolina over that state’s new law that prohibits transgender persons from using public bathrooms that conform to their sexual identity, and eliminates all local LGBT protections against discrimination.

Secondly, in addressing the Orlando massacre on his TV program, the Rev. Pat Robertson, Reed’s old boss from his Christian Coalition days, recently suggested that it might be best for Christians to “sit on the sidelines” and let gays and Islamic terrorists dispose of each other.

Clearly, Reed disagrees.

Echoing Trump’s suggestions that President Barack Obama is operating out of some ulterior motives, Reed spoke of the many “so-called” lone-wolf attacks to hit the United States. As if we’re not being told the whole story.

“This is a clear demonstration that radical Islamic terrorism poses an ongoing and grave threat to our homeland, and we need a president who has a strategy,” Reed said.

Reed had already made his decision about Trump last week, when the Republican choice for president appeared at a Faith and Freedom gathering in Washington D.C. “We are not looking for a politician-messiah,” Reed said then, eschewing retreat into a “stained-glass ghetto.”

But on Wednesday, there was a touch of the Apocalypse in his remarks.

“[Trump] may not have spent the last 25 years in Washington. He may not be a career politician, and I say good,” Reed said — pointing to the billionaire’s opposition to the Iranian nuclear deal endorsed by Clinton.

“I want [Trump] as president to hold the mullah’s in Tehran feet to the fire, and protect Israel, and to protect the United States and protect Western civilization. This is the choice we face,” Reed said.

Elect Trump or civilization as we know it comes to an end. There was an eyes-wide-open quality to this endorsement. Trump has been clear about his strategy for addressing terrorism on U.S. soil, and even ratcheted up the tenor of his arguments at the Fox.

“We are taking in thousands of people into our country. We have no idea where they come from, we have no idea who the hell they are,” Trump said. “We know they believe in certain things that we don’t believe in.”

Certain people from certain countries need to be barred from American soil, he said. Trump spoke of the Orlando shooter, admitting that he was, in fact, born in the United States. “But his parents weren’t. And his ideas weren’t born here. His ideas were born from someplace else,” Trump said.

“We aren’t vigilant and we aren’t smart. We have to go and we have to maybe check, respectfully, the mosques. And we have to check other places,” the presumptive Republican nominee said. “Because this is a problem, that if we don’t solve it, it’s going to eat our country alive.”

Much was said, by Trump and others on the stage, about the over-emphasis on political correctness. Perhaps at some point, the debate will shift to constitutional correctness.

In the meantime, one wonders if this is how the Crusades began.


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