Protesting Church Limits, Trump Woos Evangelicals in Sin City

Protesting Church Limits, Trump Woos Evangelicals in Sin City
(AP Photo/John Locher, File)
Protesting Church Limits, Trump Woos Evangelicals in Sin City
(AP Photo/John Locher, File)
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In Nevada, slot machines still ping but church pews remain mostly empty by order of the governor, and so the Trump campaign will soon head to Las Vegas.

Evangelicals for Trump will host an evening at the Ahern Hotel just off of the famed Strip on Thursday. The campaign bills the event at the old Lucky Dragon Casino as a night of “praise, prayer, and patriotism.”

Team Trump is aware of the irony. Ever alert to messaging opportunities, they want to prove a point.

The religious right was furious last week after the Supreme Court denied the request of a Nevada church to block Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak’s order restricting attendance at religious services. The court ruled 5-4 that limiting an in-person congregation to 50 believers is not a violation of constitutional rights even as casinos, gyms, and restaurants have been allowed to reopen.

And while Chief Justice John Roberts joined with the liberal side of the bench, many evangelicals rallied to the dissent of Neil Gorsuch. “The world we inhabit today, with a pandemic upon us, poses unusual challenges,” the Trump-nominated justice wrote. “But there is no world in which the Constitution permits Nevada to favor Caesars Palace over Calvary Chapel.”

Those circumstances provide an apparent double standard that Trump will gladly exploit as he continues his culture war campaign.

“When many Nevadans can’t go to church because of overreaching restrictions, President Trump’s campaign is bringing together Evangelicals from across the community to pray, worship, and discuss key issues facing Americans in the November election,” deputy national press secretary Ken Farnaso told RealClearPolitics.

It is an opportunity for Trump to heighten policy contrasts as the coronavirus continues to rage and he slips to a seven-point deficit behind former Vice President Joe Biden. Evangelicals were key to his last election, and the former casino owner cannot afford to lose that flock if he wants a second term. Hence the president’s recent overtures.

A Biden victory, Trump recently told Chris Wallace on “Fox News Sunday,” means that “religion will be gone.” The host wanted to know: What does that really mean? After all, freedom of religion is enshrined in the First Amendment, a right that can’t be revoked by a general election. “Look at what they're doing to the churches,” the president argued. “They won't let the churches even open if they want to stand in a field six feet apart. We've had churches that wanted to stand in fields six feet apart.”

Those words were written off at the time in Washington as more presidential hyperbole. Come Thursday night in Las Vegas, the campaign will give an example of what Trump meant by taking a congregation out of a church and hosting the faithful in a casino.

Bars and clubs and gambling halls are currently limited to half of their fire code capacity in Nevada, a source familiar with the planning process told RCP, “while houses of worship have been subject to a flat 50-person limit.” And the question the campaign hopes to force is the one that Gorsuch first raised: Why should the state privilege a gambling house over a house of worship?

It is an aggressive argument to make. The venue is also one that the religious right would have balked at during its political heyday. But Trump populism has changed things. Evangelicals overwhelmingly backed him over Hillary Clinton, and it isn’t as if the campaign will ask the Thursday night congregation to roll any dice. Instead they will hear a political sermon urging them to remain faithful.

The president is not expected to appear in person. The campaign will send numerous emissaries, including charismatic preacher Paula White and televangelist Jentezen Franklin, to ride circuit in his stead. The topic will be a familiar one: judges and religious protection.

With the help of Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Trump has spent much of his first term remaking the federal judiciary in his own image. He turned the corner on 200 federal judges appointed last month, a number that includes 53 appeals court judges and two Supreme Court justices. His message to the religious right ahead of 2020: Give me a second term, and I’ll give you even more.

Conservatives are already giddy at the prospect of sending up another originalist to the high court. Just as he did four years ago, Trump has promised to release another list of potential Supreme Court nominees ahead of November. And while court watchers on the right are busy dreaming of the future and lobbying the White House on whom to pick, the campaign plans to highlight what they’ve done thus far.

Conservative evangelicals had worried that a thrice-married celebrity wouldn’t stay faithful to his promises. Many of those worries have been put to rest after Trump expanded the “Mexico City policy” to prohibit taxpayer dollars from paying for abortions overseas, targeted Obamacare’s contraceptive mandate, and lambasted the Johnson Amendment, which limits religious speech in politics.

Biden has taken notice and mounted his own effort to win a portion of evangelicals. Meanwhile, Trump cannot take those voters to church, at least not in Sin City. His campaign will take them to a casino instead.

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