The U.S. Supreme Court—the defining issue for many evangelical Christians in the 2016 presidential election—finally received attention just before the close of the second debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump Sunday night (Oct. 9).
The debate—only two days after the release of a 2005 video in which Trump lewdly describes his efforts to have sex with women other than his wife—lacked discussion of such issues as abortion and marriage until about 10 minutes before its end. Then an audience member asked the candidates about their priorities in nominating a justice to the high court.
Clinton, the Democratic nominee, cited both abortion and marriage in her reply, while Trump did not mention either issue while responding in more general terms.
Clinton noted, "I want a Supreme Court that will stick with Roe v. Wade and a woman's right to choose, and I want a Supreme Court that will stick with marriage equality."
She cited a Trump list of 20 names that represents the kind of nominees he would choose, adding, "[A]mong the ones that he has suggested are people who would reverse Roe v. Wade and reverse marriage equality. I think that would be a terrible mistake and would take us backwards."
The Supreme Court legalized abortion in its 1973 Roe opinion and same-sex marriage—or "marriage equality," as Clinton portrayed it—in 2015.
The Republican nominee referred to the late Antonin Scalia—the high court's leading conservative, original intent justice—in his response. The court remains a justice short of its nine-member makeup since Scalia's death in February.
"I am looking to appoint judges very much in the mold of Justice Scalia. ... [P]eople that will respect the Constitution of the United States," Trump said.
He added of his nominees, "They'll respect the Second Amendment and what it stands for, what it represents." The right to bear arms "is totally under siege by people like Hillary Clinton," Trump said.
The desire to prevent Clinton from placing justices on the court who support abortion rights has caused a sizable number of evangelicals to support Trump despite their distaste for his candidacy, while other evangelicals have committed to refusing to vote for either Trump or Clinton.
Trump's sex-talk video almost immediately entered the debate, with co-moderator Anderson Cooper of CNN labeling as "sexual assault" the behavior described by the GOP nominee.
When asked by Cooper if he had ever done the things he described in the video, Trump said, "No, I have not," and said it was "locker-room talk."
"I'm not proud of it," Trump said. "I apologize to my family. I apologize to the American people. Certainly I'm not proud of it. But this is locker-room talk."
Clinton said in response, "What we all saw and heard on Friday was Donald talking about women, what he thinks about women, what he does to women. And he has said that the video doesn't represent who he is.
"But I think it's clear to anyone who heard it that it represents exactly who he is."
Trump brought up President Bill Clinton's alleged sexual assaults and harassment in reply, saying, "Mine are words, and his was action. His was what he's done to women." Trump added, "Hillary Clinton attacked those same women and attacked them viciously."
The release of the video has prompted several Republicans in Congress and at least one prominent evangelical leader, theologian Wayne Grudem, to withdraw their support of Trump.
If elected, Trump told the audience he would have his attorney general name a special prosecutor to investigate the deletion of more than 30,000 emails from a private server while Clinton was secretary of state.
Religious liberty—though it is in a pivotal clash legally and culturally with gay marriage and other manifestations of sexual liberty—gained only a passing mention in the debate, and it came in the context of freedom for Muslims.
When asked about his call last year for a temporary prohibition on Muslim immigration into the United States, Trump said, "The Muslim ban is something that in some form has morphed into a extreme vetting from certain areas of the world."
People are entering the country from Syria and other regions, he said, "like we have no idea who they are, where they are from, what their feelings about our country is, and [Clinton] wants 550 percent more. This is going to be the great Trojan horse of all time."
Clinton, who has proposed an increase of 55,000 more Syrian refugees into America, said she "will not let anyone into our country that I think poses a risk to us."
It is important, she added, for the United States not "to ban people based on a religion. How do you do that? We are a country founded on religious freedom and liberty. ... Are we going to have religious tests when people fly into our country?"
Trump expressed disagreement with his running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, in discussing Syria, where Russia is assisting the forces of President Bashar al-Assad against rebels and, in some cases, the terrorist Islamic State (ISIS). Pence had said the United States should be ready to attack Syria's military if Russia continues to carry out air strikes alongside Assad's forces.
"I believe we have to get ISIS," Trump said in contradicting Pence. "We have to worry about ISIS before we can get too much more involved."
Health care coverage and taxes were among other issues discussed.
The debate was conducted in a town hall format at Washington University in St. Louis and co-moderated by Martha Raddatz of ABC News and Cooper.
The final presidential debate before the Nov. 8 election will be Oct. 19 in Las Vegas.