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Donald Trump supporters hold up signs before Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a rally held at the Mabee Center in Tulsa, Okla., Jan 20, 2016.Brandi Simons/The Associated Press

Pastor Robert Jeffress of the First Baptist Church in Dallas understands Donald Trump's halo effect.

At the Trump Tower in New York with other religious leaders last September, Dr. Jeffress was impressed when the building's namesake invoked the faith of his mother. Mr. Trump also asked the group to extend their prayer time from one hour to a mighty 2 1/2 hours. What's more, added Dr. Jeffress, the Republican front-runner seemed genuinely moved by the experience.

"I believe that Mr. Trump would be a sincere friend of evangelical Christians if he were elected," said Dr. Jeffress, the author of the upcoming book Not All Roads Lead to Heaven.

That a profane, thrice-married worshipper of Mammon is top in the polls among evangelical Republicans defies conventional wisdom. Mr. Trump has so far disproved the theory that the GOP requires a pious man to lead it. Instead, many white evangelicals would rather put their faith in a candidate with sharp elbows who will fight for their rights. "We've had several past presidents who've espoused religious beliefs but weren't exactly born again," mused Dr. Jeffress, who has not endorsed a candidate.

"Waving a Bible doesn't make you a Christian any more than waving a kumquat makes you a vegetable."

A Jan. 12 New York Times/CBS poll showed that Mr. Trump, a Presbyterian sometimes prone to xenophobic and misogynist rancour, enjoyed the support of 42 per cent of the evangelical vote, far in front of rival Ted Cruz. The Canadian-born senator from Texas – a churchgoing son of a pastor and impressive, if not browbeating, constitutional expert – Mr. Cruz had 25 per cent. A new poll from Zogby Analytics of likely GOP caucus and primary voters shows Mr. Trump receiving 45 per cent of the total Republican vote and Mr. Cruz in second at 13 per cent.

Several factors contribute to Mr. Trump's success. Echoing what polls have been indicating for several years, Dr. Jeffress said the U.S. is less religious than it used to be, including those who still nominally count themselves as religious. While evangelicals are by no means a monolithic bloc, he stressed, there is a wide sentiment that the ruling class of Republicans in Washington lost the cultural wars.

"The [U.S. Supreme Court's] same-sex marriage ruling was a gut punch for everyone," he explained, adding that the sense of powerlessness has altered expectations. Like other Americans, they are more consumed these days with the economy and national security. "They're not looking for spiritual leaders. They want problem solvers."

Mr. Trump is also the front-runner in Iowa, where the caucuses will be held on Feb. 1. On Tuesday, he received the endorsement from another reality-TV personality, Sarah Palin, who presumably would also bring a healthy portion of her own evangelical vote to his camp.

The result, wrote David Frum in The Atlantic, underlines a growing schism between conservatism as an ideology, represented by Mr. Cruz, and conservatism as an identity, represented by Mr. Trump and Ms. Palin. The former draws support based on party principles. The latter is grounded in grievance.

Political science professor Ryan Claassen of Kent State University says this kind of support for Mr. Trump may be less about so-called "values issues" and more a function of the country's enduring racial tensions. Many political scientists agree that Republican gains in recent decades began in the 1960s, when Senator Barry Goldwater took positions against the Voting and Civil Rights acts.

Perhaps Mr. Trump's appeal is rooted in similar sentiments, overriding concerns about the culture wars. "Of all the candidates, Trump is most antagonistic toward the Black Lives Matter movement, the least welcoming to immigrants, and the most intolerant of other religions," said Prof. Claassen, author of Godless Democrats and Pious Republicans? Party Activists, Party Capture, and the 'God Gap.'

"I'm not sure it's as much about cultural issues as it is about tolerance and inequality."

Mr. Trump's outsider status and his own blustery dogma – however controversial – have made him more authentic in the eyes of Christian Conservatives: "They're leaning toward Trump because he's saying the right things to them, albeit in a clunky way," Prof. Claassen says. Many forgive Mr. Trump his trespasses, including his pro-choice to pro-life flip-flop. Also, on the practical side, they want someone who, ultimately, can beat Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton.

This week has shown that Mr. Trump's aura keeps getting brighter. Liberty University, run by Jerry Falwell Jr., should have been hostile territory for the Donald. After all, it's where Mr. Cruz launched his presidential campaign almost a year ago in front of 11,000 students. But last Monday, Mr. Falwell compared his guest of honour, Mr. Trump, to his own famous father and Martin Luther King Jr.

For his part, Mr. Trump bumbled, charmed and shocked. During his speech, he ranked his signature book, The Art of the Deal, "a deep, deep second to the Bible," adding that, "The Bible is the best. The Bible blows it away." He referred to Corinthians II as "Two Corinthians," as though the book were about a couple of Greek guys from Corinth. "That's the whole ball game," he continued, unbowed. "Where the spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. And here is liberty."

Daniel Williams, author of God's Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right, said Mr. Trump's traction reminds him of Ronald Reagan during his own presidential campaign leading up to the 1980 contest. President Jimmy Carter was by far a more religious man than Mr. Reagan – whose previous marriage to actress Jane Wyman was a stain on his Christian credentials – but voters still felt the Gipper would make a better president.

Mr. Trump said something similar earlier this week on CBN News. "Well, No. 1, and there are lots of ways of looking at it, but beyond all else, Ronald Reagan wasn't a totally, he didn't read the Bible every day, seven days a week. But he was a great president. And he was a great president for Christianity."

Prof. Williams sees the rise of Mr. Trump as a momentous schism between the evangelical leadership and churchgoers, who, in his estimation, live in different worlds. "On the whole, the leadership is cool to Trump at best – and hostile at worst," said Mr. Williams, associate professor of history at the University of West Georgia. Congregants, especially in the South and among lower socioeconomic groups, are concerned about issues such as immigration. They need a man of action. "They are willing to embrace someone who is not one of them – as long as he can change the country's direction."

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