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In this May 13, 2017 file photo, President Donald Trump, right, gives a thumbs up as Liberty University president, Jerry Falwell Jr., left, watches during of commencement ceremonies at the school in Lynchburg, Va. (File photo)

The Associated Press

Highlighting his record on religious liberty, President Donald Trump on Friday worked to energize a group of evangelical supporters who make up an influential piece of his political base that could prove vital in battleground states.

Trump spoke to more than 5,000 Christians, including a large group of Latinos, at a Miami megachurch, just days after he was the subject of a scathing editorial in Christianity Today magazine that called for his removal from office. Thousands of the faithful lifted their hands and prayed over Trump as he began speaking and portrayed himself as a defender of faith.

“We’re defending religion itself. A society without religion cannot prosper. A nation without faith can not endure,” said Trump, who also tried to paint his Democratic rivals for the 2020 election as threats to religious liberty. “We can’t let one of our radical left friends come in here because everything we’ve done will be gone in short order.”

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“The day I was sworn in, the federal government war’s on religion came to an abrupt end,” Trump declared. He later added: “We can smile because we’re winning by so much.”

Although some of his address resembled his standard campaign speech, Trump cited his support for Israel, installation of federal judges, prison reform and a push to put prayer in public school. Those are issues his Republican reelection campaign believes could further jolt evangelical turnout that could help them secure wins in states like Michigan, Florida, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Georgia.

The El Rey Jesús church kickoff of “Evangelicals for Trump” will be followed in the weeks ahead by the launches of “Catholics for Trump” and “Jewish Voices for Trump.” It also comes days after Trump and his wife went to an evangelical Christmas Eve service in West Palm Beach rather than the liberal Episcopalian church in which they were married and often attend holiday services.

Advisers believe that emphasizing religious issues may also provide inroads with Latino voters, who have largely steered clear of supporting the president over issues like immigration. Deep into his speech, Trump touched on the issue by praising his border wall. His aides believe even a slight uptick with faith-focused Latinos could help Trump carry Florida again and provide some needed breathing room in states like Texas.

The president made no mention of the editorial, which ran in a magazine founded by the late Rev. Billy Graham.

“Remember who you are and whom you serve,” the editorial states. “Consider how your justification of Mr. Trump influences your witness to your Lord and Savior. Consider what an unbelieving world will say if you continue to brush off Mr. Trump’s immoral words and behaviour in the cause of political expediency.”

Campaign officials said the Miami event was in the works well before the op-ed, and they trotted out a number of high-profile evangelical pastors to defend the president.

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“I think his record in the past three years is rock-solid in things that the faith community cares about him,” said Jentezen Franklin, a pastor to a megachurch in Georgia. “We used to see politicians once every four years, but this one is totally different in constantly reaching out to the faith community, and we even get a chance to tell him when we disagree.”

The event comes just day after a new poll revealed that white evangelical Protestants stand noticeably apart from other religious people on how the government should act on two of the most politically divisive issues at play in the 2020 presidential election.

Asked about significant restrictions on abortion — making it illegal except in cases of rape, incest or to threats to a mother’s life — 37% of all Americans responded in support, according to the poll conducted by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. Those abortion limits drew 39% support from white mainline Protestants, 33% support from nonwhite Protestants and 45% support from Catholics, but 67% support from white evangelical Protestants.

A similar divide emerged over whether the government should bar discrimination against people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender in workplaces, housing or schools. About 6 in 10 Catholics, white mainline Protestants and nonwhite Protestants supported those protections, compared with about a third of white evangelical Protestants.

White evangelicals were also more likely than members of other faiths to say religion should have at least some influence on policy-making.

But Democrats have shown strong interest in connecting with voters of faith, even evangelicals whom Trump is often assumed to have locked down. And some religious leaders believe people of faith may be turned off by Trump’s personal conduct or record.

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“Friday’s rally is Trump’s desperate response to the realization that he is losing his primary voting bloc — faith voters. He knows he needs every last vote if he wants a shot at reelection, as losing just 5% of the faith voters ends his chances,” said the Rev. Doug Pagitt, the executive director of Vote Common Good. “In addition, he is trying to use this part of his base to give cover for his broken promises and immoral policies.”

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