As the first notes of “I’m Proud to be an American” sounded, former President Donald Trump took the stage in Nashville, Tennessee, last week at the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s annual Road to Majority conference. He stood by the American flag for the entirety of the song, looking out at the crowd with his trademark expression that falls somewhere between a smile and a smirk.

Once at the podium, Trump launched into a rambling speech that lasted over an hour and a half, touching on everything from the border to election fraud to “the radical left” and “crazy” Liz Cheney and the “human conveyor belt” Mike Pence. The former president articulated his ideas about American values and also discussed perceived threats to these values and the country. The greatest threats to the country, he argued, come from within — namely from Democrats and RINOs (Republicans in Name Only).

“We know that religious freedom is the foundation of all freedom because we know that our rights and liberties come straight from the hand of our creator,” said Trump. “We believe that America is a sovereign nation with a sovereign people which means that we must have a strong, secure and sovereign border. If we don’t have a border, we don’t have free and fair elections — we don’t have a country. ... We believe that America’s destiny depends on upholding the Judeo-Christian values and principles of our nation’s founding. And above all else we know this in America: we don’t worship government, we worship God.”

Accusing the “radical left” of making politics their religion and taking a sledgehammer to “everything we hold dear, every last tenet of American tradition,” Trump also assured the crowd of Republican victory in midterm elections.

“This November, we’re going to stand up to this left wing fascism. We’re going to take back our freedom. We’re going to take back our country in November,” he said.

For the conservative, religious crowd in attendance, Trump’s speech was par for the course. The former president has been a fixture at the event for years, although he missed it in 2021, when former Vice President Mike Pence and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis both spoke. But with the 2024 presidential election already on the horizon, this year’s appearance took on added significance.

That Trump was the headliner this year while two of his biggest rivals for the presidential nomination were perhaps conspicuously absent was a coincidence, said Faith and Freedom Coalition executive director Timothy Head.

“We invited all three last year and we invited all three this year,” Head told Deseret News. “I don’t know all the reasons why it didn’t work for the Trump team last year.”

DeSantis isn’t doing a lot of events outside of Florida right now, Head added, and Pence had a scheduling conflict. 

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Setting aside the question of Pence’s and DeSantis’ absences, Head said the event did indeed offer some hints as to the future of the Republican Party — and the conservative movement more broadly. Both the audience and the lineup was racially and ethnically diverse, a trend that the Deseret News highlighted in its coverage of the conference last year.

“The left says they care about minorities but their policies do little or nothing to help minority families. They talk about issues (important to minorities) and campaign on issues and never actually deliver,” said Head. “A lot of minorities that are not partisans have grown weary, if not leery, of the nonstop rhetoric and few results of the left.” 

Not only was there a breakout session titled “Hispanic Churches Rising,” which included the Rev. Adianis Morales, a Latina pastor who left the Democratic party for the GOP — an increasingly common phenomenon — but minorities also composed about 40% of the audience and lineup, Head estimated. Trump also mentioned the Rev. Morales at the beginning of his speech

Former President Donald Trump walks onto the stage to speak at the Road to Majority conference Friday, June 17, 2022, in Nashville, Tenn. | Mark Humphrey, Associated Press

As was the case last year, attendees were a big fan of North Carolina’s Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson. At Trump’s mention of the Black conservative’s name, the crowd erupted into cheers.

“He’s the hottest guy in politics,” said Trump, referring to Robinson.

Another Black conservative — South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott — also made waves, garnering a shout-out from Trump at the beginning of 112-hour speech. 

“This was his (Tim Scott’s) first time to be at the conference,” said Head. “We have worked with him on (Capitol Hill) for several years. He was extremely well-received.”

Though Mike Pompeo hasn’t spent his career in the political limelight, he resonated with the crowd, Head said, adding that attendees also seemed enthusiastic about Nikki Haley.

Pompeo, Haley and Scott were all recently named as potential contenders for the 2024 Republican nomination by The Hill. Currently, most polls (and many analysts) put Trump at the front of the pack, with DeSantis behind him and Pence coming in third. DeSantis, however, won the straw poll at the Western Conservative Summit that was held in Denver, Colorado, at the beginning of the month.

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The Faith and Freedom Coalition’s event also showed that, as the GOP attempts to diversify, it remains closely tied to conservative religion.

Early in his speech, Trump gave a shout-out to the Rev. Robert Jeffress, the Dallas megachurch evangelical pastor who, Trump said, “has been with me right from the beginning.” Rick Green of the Patriot Academy led a breakout session on Christian citizenship; the Deseret News reported on the growing popularity of his “Biblical Citizenship” program last fall.

The event gave a glimpse of the issues that are on conservative, religious voters’ minds ahead of 2022 midterms and the 2024 presidential election. Front and center? The economy, said Head, who noted that “woke culture” is also a top concern.

Road to Majority attendees were also eagerly anticipating a positive ruling in the Supreme Court’s abortion case, said Head, who added that, in their eyes, the Trump presidency is already paying off vis a vis recent Supreme Court decisions that uphold religious liberty. 

When the Supreme Court did overturn Roe v. Wade on Friday, Head released a statement calling on abortion opponents to stay engaged with politics.

“The pro-abortion movement will not let up, so neither can we,” he said. “One of the most powerful ways pro-life Americans can continue the fight for life is by showing up at the polls this November and voting for candidates for federal, state and local offices that support our God-given right to life. Today’s ruling is a powerful reminder that, in America, our vote truly can shape history.”