WASHINGTON — Donald Trump recently showed up at a gathering of Iowa conservative Christian voters with a copy of the Bible in hand.
"See, I'm better than you thought," he said. Then came a black-and-white photograph from his confirmation to further prove his Christian cred.
"Nobody believes this," he said to laughs. "What went wrong?"
As the Republican presidential front-runner and billionaire businessman tries to maintain his lead in early polls with rivals gaining, Trump is increasingly courting a wing of the Republican Party that might seem antithetical to his brand: evangelical Christians.
After initially declining the invitation, Trump spoke Friday in front of several hundred social conservative leaders at the Family Research Council's Values Voter Summit in Washington. He joined a speaking program that includes Republican rivals with long records of dedication to religious causes — among them, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Baptist pastor, and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who wants his colleagues to risk a government shutdown to block funding to Planned Parenthood.
Trump brought his Bible along once again, and briefly addressed his faith between attacks on his rivals and Democrats.
"I believe in God. I believe in the Bible. I'm a Christian," he said. He ended by bemoaning the increased use of the term "Happy Holidays" in place of "Merry Christmas" as a sign that Christianity is under attack. As president, he said, he'd reverse the trend.
In Oklahoma City later in the day, Trump had kind words for Pope Francis as the Catholic leader visited Trump's hometown of New York. "He is a unifier. He wants to bring people together, and I think that's a great thing," Trump said. "That's what we have to do. We have to bring people together." He did mention that he disagrees with Francis on global warming.
In many ways, Trump's brand as the bombastic, thrice-married billionaire showman would seem an ill-fit among religious conservatives. He once held a reputation as a womanizing playboy, previously supported abortion rights and appears to spend more time calling into Sunday morning talk shows than attending church.
Trump likes to boast about the Bible being his favorite book, but he has refused to quote his favorite biblical verse when asked what it was. He raised eyebrows in June when he said at the Family Leadership Summit in Ames, Iowa, that he has never asked God for forgiveness and described Communion as "when I drink my little wine, which is about the only wine I drink, and have my little cracker."
"I love them. They love me," Trump, a Presbyterian, said of evangelicals last month in Greenville, South Carolina. "I love the evangelicals, and it's really shown in the polls."
Some evangelical leaders are skeptical.
Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, said Trump's candidacy is fundamentally opposed to Christian values.
"When one looks at the very serious moral character questions, from Trump's involvement in the casino gambling industry all the way through to his attitude toward women, Donald Trump is the embodiment of everything that evangelical Christians have been standing against in American culture," he said.
Social conservatives are eager to have "a conversation" with Trump about his previous support for abortion rights, among other positions most conservatives strongly oppose, said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council and host of the gathering.
"He's had some positions in the past which obviously raise questions that he's going to have to have a conversation about at some point," Perkins said. "But the intrigue of Donald Trump is that he is unconstrained by the so-called forces of political correctness."
On Monday he's set to host a group of evangelical pastors and bishops from across the country for a private meeting and prayer session at Trump Tower in New York.
Several attendees, including Pastor Lionel Traylor of Jackson, Mississippi, said evangelical voters are particularly drawn to Trump's direct style and his strong defense of Christians at a time "when Christianity is under attack." Trump has frequently made reference to attacks on Christians abroad and said that he will be a champion for religious liberty, including defending Christmas.
Trump's relationship with evangelical leaders goes back far longer than he's been running for president.
According to previously reported tax documents, the Donald J. Trump Foundation has given to numerous Christian causes in recent years, including $100,000 to the Billy Graham Evangelist Association in 2012, as well as ministries as far away as Debra George Ministries in Texas and the Ramp Church in Lynchburg, Virginia.
Monday's gathering is also not the first of its kind at Trump Tower.
"I found him to be a humble man," said Dr. Darrell Scott, the senior pastor of New Spirit Revival Ministries in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, who met Trump at a similar gathering of pastors about four years ago. He's now helping to organize Monday's gathering along with televangelist Paula White.
Scott said he was especially taken aback by how Trump ended their first meeting.
"He said, 'Pray for me that God leads me in the direction that he wants me to go in,'" recalled Scott. "I was flabbergasted. He stood up and he bowed his head and he closed his eyes and we prayed."
Monday's gathering is expected to open with a prayer service and include discussion of issues affecting the preachers' communities, said Trump Organization attorney Michael Cohen, who struck up a friendship with Scott.
"Many of them know Mr. Trump personally and have had private conversations with him over the years," Cohen said, adding: "And despite the fact that some of their views might be different, they certainly respect the fact that he speaks openly, he speaks from his heart, and he's willing to listen."
Associated Press writers Steve Peoples in Washington and Andrew DeMillo in Oklahoma City contributed to this report.
Follow Colvin on Twitter at @colvinj