MUSCATINE, Iowa (AP) — On the second-to-last Sunday before the Iowa caucuses, Donald Trump settled into a fifth row pew of an Iowa church for a lesson in humility.
“I don’t know if that was aimed at me. Perhaps,” Trump said after the hourlong service at the First Presbyterian Church.
Religious voters are a major factor in the opening contest on the presidential nominating calendar, and Trump has been working hard to build his appeal among them. His chief challenger in the Republican race is Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, a conservative preacher’s son who’s made deep inroads with evangelicals.
The service, which Trump’s campaign invited several reporters to observe, included hymns, readings and a performance by the children’s choir. Cream-colored stained glass in the window cast a golden glow.
At one point, Trump shared a prayer book with Debra Whitaker, an Iowa supporter seated to his right. She put her hand gently around Trump’s waist as the congregation sang Hymn 409, “God is Here!” Trump could be seen by some mouthing along.
At one point, as church-goers offered each other wishes of peace, Trump received warm greetings from those around him.
When it was time to offer tithes, Trump was seen digging into his pants’ pocket. Two folded $50 bills were later spotted in a collection plate that was passed down his pew.
One reading during the service, about the importance of humility, included a reference that caught Trump’s ear.
“Can you imagine eye telling hand, ‘Get lost, I don’t need you’ or hearing the head telling the foot, ‘You’re fired, your job has been phased out?’” the reader said. “You’re fired!” was Trump’s signature catchphrase when he hosted “The Apprentice” television show.
“I heard that,” Trump later said, when asked about the reference. “I wondered if that was for me. They didn’t even know I was coming, so I doubt it. But it’s an appropriate phrase.”
In her sermon, the pastor, the Rev. Dr. Pamela Saturnia, also made several references with resonance for the 2016 race.
“Jesus is teaching us today that he has come for those who are outside of the church,” she said, preaching a message of healing and acceptance for “those who are the most unloved, the most discriminated against, the most forgotten in our community and in our world.”
Among those she cited were “the Syrian refugees” and “the Mexican migrants.” Trump has advocated barring all Syrian refugees from entering the country because of potential security risks and deporting all of the estimated 11 million people living in the United States illegally. He’s said he wants to create a safe zone for refugees instead.
As a candidate, the thrice-married New Yorker has worked to foster relationships with Christian leaders. He received a glowing introduction last week from Jerry Falwell Jr., president of one of the country’s most prominent evangelical Christian universities, and on Saturday he campaigned with the Rev. Robert Jeffress of First Baptist Dallas, a megachurch.
At times, Trump has appeared to struggle to affirm his Christian credentials. He often feels compelled to remind Christian audiences that he was raised as a Presbyterian. And he has waved a copy of his childhood Bible and a photo of his confirmation at some events as evidence of his upbringing.
“Well I’m proud of it. I mean I’m very proud of it,” Trump said when asked about the practice “And I do remind people, not often, but I do remind people when people ask.”
Asked whether he thinks people are aware of his religion, he said. “I think they know now. I think they didn’t know at all at the beginning... it took a while.”
But Trump has also made what have been seen as several minor missteps on religion during the campaign, mistakenly pronouncing Second Corinthians as “two Corinthians” during a speech last week at Liberty University in Virginia, Falwell’s school, and saying in an interview that he had never sought forgiveness from God.
“I want to win Iowa, I want to really win it,” he said at a rally later Sunday. “I have a tremendous bond with the people of Iowa. We’ve struck a chord with evangelicals, the Tea Party. And I think we have a good chance.”