Richard Land, a prominent evangelical Christian leader, said he can pinpoint the moment that Donald Trump secured his election. It was in the third presidential debate with Hillary Clinton, and the question was about abortion.

"If you go with what Hillary is saying in the ninth month, you can take the baby and rip the baby out of the womb of the mother just prior to the birth of the baby," Trump said.

That emotive, visceral answer, Land said, was probably enough to win over sceptical working-class Catholic voters in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, who at that moment found an unlikely champion in Trump on the single issue that would determine their choice and deliver the White House to Trump.

"The relationship that evangelicals have with President Trump is a very transactional one," said Land, who serves on a spiritual advisory board to the president. "They feel like their voices are heard, and he is keeping their promises to them."

Advertisement

Land said that Trump, far more than Presidents Ronald Reagan and even George W. Bush, an evangelical himself, has given evangelicals a place at the table and a welcome at the White House.

As he enters his re-election campaign, Trump, through his appointment of judges who oppose abortion rights, including to the Supreme Court, and his equally graphic language about late-term abortions, is again speaking a language the evangelicals embrace.

The issue has taken on renewed prominence after the Alabama Legislature passed one of the nation's most restrictive abortion laws, drawing fierce opposition from Democratic opponents and presidential candidates seeking to challenge Trump.

The president must maintain their committed backing to win a second term, and has clearly decided that he will try to frame the election as part of a culture war, even as he talks about the strength of the economy. By speaking so directly of his opposition to abortion, Trump is putting himself squarely on one side of perhaps the nation's most divisive social issue.

It is a side that he only recently occupied. For much of his life, Trump favoured abortion rights.

In a 1999 interview on NBC's Meet The Press, he described himself as "very pro-choice," although he also said he "hated" abortion. Trump said that his views on abortion were shaped in part by living in Manhattan, where abortion rights are overwhelmingly favoured.

Trump addresses the Faith and Freedom Coalition, an evangelical group, in Washington in June, 2017. Photo / Stephen Crowley, The New York Times
Trump addresses the Faith and Freedom Coalition, an evangelical group, in Washington in June, 2017. Photo / Stephen Crowley, The New York Times

He has moved decisively to the other side and has started to emphasize the issue at his rallies and other political speeches. On April 2, at a speech to the National Republican Congressional Committee, Trump took credit for introducing the term "rip" into the debate.

"You can rip the baby out of the womb and kill the baby," he said, incorrectly describing the medical procedure.

Trump also has repeatedly reminded his supporters of the conservative judges he has appointed to the federal bench as abortion cases make their way through the federal courts.

"Sadly, on immigration and so many other issues, Democrat lawmakers have totally abandoned the American mainstream," Trump said this year at the Conservative Political Action Conference convention. "But that's going to be good for us in 2020. They're embracing open borders, socialism and extreme late-term abortion."

Trump started to lay the foundation for making abortion a signal issue in the campaign during his State of the Union address in February, though in much less florid language.

"To defend the dignity of every person, I am asking the Congress to pass legislation to prohibit the late-term abortion of children who can feel pain in the mother's womb," he said.

"Let us work together to build a culture that cherishes innocent life," he added. "And let us reaffirm a fundamental truth: All children — born and unborn — are made in the holy image of God."

Trump also solidified his support among evangelicals with the selection of Vice President Mike Pence, who has deep roots in that world, Land said.