Bible-thumping by Donald Trump fails to win over religious right voters
Billionaire real estate mogul Donald Trump plunged into the crowded Republican nomination battle last month, and has since uttered insults about Mexican immigrants and caustic jabs at rivals (AFP Photo/Scott Olson)

As the Republican presidential frontrunner, Donald Trump, a thrice-married New York billionaire fond of high society and lavish living, has to appeal to the social conservatives who make up the GOP’s base. This does not come naturally.

Related: Donald Trump booed by conservative crowd for first time in his campaign

The unsteady nature of this awkward, fumbling relationship was made clear at the Values Voter Summit in Washington.

On Friday, Trump brandished his Sunday school Bible at a crowd of thousands in a subterranean hotel ballroom. It was clear why he has yet to be embraced as the candidate of the religious right. In a speech which prompted his first boos from a conservative audience – because he called fellow candidate Marco Rubio “a clown” – Trump tried to appeal to social conservatives. It didn’t work.

In front of an ardently anti-abortion crowd, his only reference to babies was as a description of establishment Republicans. He also left same-sex marriage unmentioned, hours before Kim Davis was scheduled to accept a “Cost of Discipleship award”. A county clerk from rural Kentucky, Davis refused to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples, a decision for which she was jailed .

Aside from the context-less statement “freedom of religion, so important”, Trump’s pitch was to cast himself as a frontline fighter in the war against Christmas.

“The word ‘Christmas’ – I love Christmas,” Trump said, repeating: “I love Christmas.

“You go to stores now, you don’t see the word ‘Christmas’. It says ‘Happy Holidays’ all over. I say, ‘Where’s Christmas?’ I tell my wife: ‘Don’t go to those stores. I want to see Christmas. No, I want to see Christmas.’ And you know, other people can have their holidays, no. But Christmas is Christmas. I want to see ‘Merry Christmas’.”

Trump pledged: “You’re going to see it if I get elected, I can tell you right now.”

Despite all of this, Trump still delivered a far more polished presentation than he did in his first appearance at a social conservative forum as a presidential candidate, in July. Then, at an event held by the Family Leader in Iowa, Trump said he had never asked God for forgiveness and referred to a communion wafer as “a little cracker”.

Since then, Trump has courted evangelical voters: he is even holding a meeting with predominantly African American pastors in New York on Monday, to discuss issues important to people of faith.

According to one recent poll , Trump leads the Republican field among self-identified evangelicals with 29% of the vote. But such polling success was not reflected in the opinions of attendees at the Values Voters Summit.

Tristan Miesner of Hamilton, Virginia scoffed at Trump’s professions of faith.

“I thought it was humorous that he brought his Bible up there,” he said. “Clearly it hadn’t been seen since he was a little kid and he knew what he needed to impress this audience.”

Such skepticism was echoed by Linda Smith of Buckhannon, West Virginia.

“In my opinion, he does not fit our values,” she told the Guardian. “He’s rich from his past, and he seems to be making up his campaign as he goes along.”

Smith said she did not believe Trump held any strong values at all.

“He … may believe in God,” she said. “But he hasn’t studied his Bible.”

Honor DeFord, an 18-year-old from Perry, Iowa who was volunteering at the conference, told the Guardian most of those attending weren’t fans of Trump.

“From what I’ve seen, [the response to Trump] is not very positive,” she said.

“I haven’t heard people talk highly of him. Usually, it’s just jokes.”

Related: Values Voter Summit: cheers for Boehner exit and boos for Trump

Christopher Inman, from outside Dallas, was more circumspect. Trump may have been booed, he said, “but he was also cheered”, and anyway, “they only booed him when he teased Marco Rubio”.

Inman is the president of Amerival, a company which invests in businesses and projects with an eye on social and moral values. He had a stall outside the main hall.

“I can appreciate Donald Trump,” he said. “I believe he has our best interests at heart.

“Someone accused Donald Trump of being an egomaniac,” he said, leaning forward conspiratorially. “I say anyone running for president has a touch of egomania. How can you not?” © Guardian News and Media 2015