Donald Trump is a noisy president but amidst the noise there are clear signals; none clearer than the ones he sends to Evangelical Christians. Will they make a difference on polling day?
On a Monday afternoon in June, US president Donald Trump stood holding a bible in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Washington DC. He turned it over to look at the spine –seemingly checking to see that it was right side up – before awkwardly holding it up in the air.
“Is that your bible?” a reporter called out. “It’s a bible,” the president responded.
The evening before, as anger mounted over the killing of George Floyd at the hands of police, looters had set fire to the basement of the church’s parish house. Flanked by his daughter Ivanka, several cabinet members, a coterie of secret service agents, and a uniformed military general, Trump made the four-minute walk from the White House to the boarded-up church.
Moments earlier, National Guard troops had used pepper spray and rubber bullets to clear the president’s path of protesters. Press secretary Kayleigh McEnany compared the visit to Winston Churchill’s walks through London during the second World War, saying it was “powerful and important to send a message that the rioters, the looters, the anarchists, they will not prevail – that burning churches are not what America is about.” In an interview with Fox News afterwards, Trump claimed that “most religious leaders loved it.”
But not all religious people did. “Trump putting his hand on the Bible and doing things that would seem to endear himself to Christians and other groups, I think it’s pandering,” said Sandy, a 43-year old Evangelical voter from New Hampshire who did not want to be identified by his full name while discussing politics. “I don’t like it. I wish we didn’t have it.” He’s not even sure the president is a believer. “I wouldn’t pretend to know what’s inside his heart on that,” he said. “But it certainly doesn’t appear genuine.”
And yet, there is no question in Sandy’s mind about who he will vote for. “I’m planning to vote for Trump for the president,” he said.
What voters like Sandy do in the upcoming US election will help determine whether Donald Trump will win a second term or whether the most controversial presidency in modern American history will come to an end.
In 2016, 81 per cent of White Evangelical voters cast their ballots for the twice-divorced real estate tycoon who has been accused of sexual assault by more than a dozen women and allegedly had an extramarital affair with a porn star. Former Trump aides have said he views Evangelicals as easy targets to be “schmoozed, conned, or bought off.” But that depiction belies a more complicated reality. Far from being duped or played by Trump, many Evangelicals are clear-eyed about the president’s moral shortcomings – and they’re voting for him anyway. This strange, symbiotic relationship is a product of the dynamics at play among American Evangelicals, and it helps explain both the way Trump has governed and how he is fighting this election.
The battle for Evangelical hearts and minds is broadly taking place on two fronts: the president’s character, and his record. Trump is arguably losing on the former but winning on the latter. “I’m happy with a lot of what’s happened in terms of policy,” said Sandy, a self-described libertarian-leaning conservative who voted for Trump in 2016. He thinks Trump should be “more careful about the way he spoke” but likes the president’s stances on trade, foreign policy, immigration and abortion.
“I would say Donald Trump in a million years doesn’t reflect my moral values. But that’s not what I’m doing in the voting booth. I’m looking for policies that will be enacted to move this country in a better direction.”
Evangelicals make up roughly a quarter of the U.S. population, or about 80 million people. 76 per cent are White, 6 percent are Black, and 11 percent are Latino, and political preferences are strongly divided along racial lines. Nearly half of White Evangelicals identify as Republican versus only 5 and 19 per cent of Blacks and Hispanics, respectively. Fully 70 per cent of Black Evangelicals identify as Democrats.
The states with the highest percentage of Evangelicals are reliably Republican: West Virginia, Kentucky, Arkansas, Tennessee. But even in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin – swing states Trump won by razor thin margins – the population of White Evangelicals is about 15 per cent, enough to make the difference in an electoral college in which what matters is the number of states a candidate wins, not the overall number of votes (Trump lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton in 2016).
To the casual observer, support for the president by anyone who purports to follow Jesus is unfathomable. Understanding that dynamic means delving into the history of Evangelical politics over the last few decades, a period of time during which Evangelicals suffered a string of defeats in the courts.
In 1963, the Supreme Court ruled that prayer in public schools was unconstitutional, the first shot in what would become a protracted culture war. In 1973, the Court established the constitutional right to abortion.
Around this time, some high-profile church leaders and their followers began to flex their political muscle. Evangelicals helped propel Ronald Reagan – who, like Trump, recognised the untapped political power of religious voters – to a landslide victory over Jimmy Carter in 1980.
But the march toward more progressive social policy went on, culminating in the legalisation of gay marriage in 2015. For Evangelicals, all of this signalled the decline of Christian values, a fear compounded by rapidly changing demographics, the 9/11 terror attacks, the decimation of blue-collar work, and an increasingly partisan media environment, which served to heighten Evangelicals’ sense of being under siege.
Then, along came Trump.
When Donald Trump arrived on the scene, he tapped into the grievances that had been simmering within the Evangelical community for years. He campaigned on a wish list of Evangelical priorities that included restricting abortion, strengthening religious freedom, and strengthening America’s alliance with Israel. “This will be so great for religion,” he proclaimed.
And for many Evangelicals, it has been. Three days after being inaugurated as president, he signed an executive order reinstating and dramatically expanding the Mexico City Policy (referred to by advocates of abortion access as “the global gag rule”), which cuts foreign assistance to organisations providing abortion.
To head up the Department of Health and Human Services, he picked abortion opponent Alex Azar, who promptly established a Conscience and Religious Freedom Division and chose an anti-abortion lawyer to run it. The division, which was set up to “enforce laws and regulations that protect conscience and prohibit coercion on issues such as abortion and assisted suicide (among others),” introduced a rule that would have allowed healthcare workers not directly involved in the provision of medical care to deny services based on conscience – an anti-abortion ambulance driver could legally refuse to transport a woman seeking to end an ectopic pregnancy on the basis of his faith, for example. The rule was voided by a judge before it could go into effect, but not before the administration had signalled a willingness to take extreme measures to restrict abortion access.
In January, Trump delighted abortion opponents by becoming the first sitting U.S. president to attend the March for Life rally, an annual gathering of anti-abortion activists, proclaiming, to wild applause, that “Unborn children have never had a stronger defender in the White House.”
More recently, he is on the verge of having appointed three conservative justices to the Supreme Court who, with the exception of Neil Gorsuch, have publicly opposed abortion, a remaking of the court that could chip away at abortion access, if not overturn Roe v. Wade entirely.
In 2018, Trump fulfilled another campaign promise by moving the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. “That’s for the Evangelicals,” he said at the time. For many Christians, the move is a prerequisite to a particular Evangelical interpretation of the end times. By recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Trump effectively sided with Israel in its decades-long conflict with Palestine, which matters to Evangelicals who believe Jesus will one day return to Israel to establish a new messianic kingdom. Past presidents, including Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama, have made similar promises but never followed through for fear of adding fuel to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In a boon to Evangelicals who oppose LGBTQ rights, the Trump administration has denied permission for US embassies overseas to fly the pride flag.
Trump has also made the fight against human trafficking a feature of his presidency, linking the problem to illegal immigration at the US border. Human trafficking, and especially sex trafficking, is a major issue on the religious right, in part because it is seen as a violation of female chastity and is often linked to the production of pornography. In 2018, Trump signed a bill giving prosecutors greater legal powers to go after websites that host advertisements for sex work. He has also increased funding to organisations combatting sex trafficking, many of which are faith-based, and in October announced the creation of a new Center for Countering Human Trafficking within the Department of Homeland Security.
These and other policy decisions have made Trump a hero for many on the religious right, who see the president as a bold leader who acts on his promises. But his appeal to Evangelical voters goes beyond policymaking.
Trump has empowered Evangelicals who feel they are being silenced by the progressive left. “What you see right now is, if I bring something up that concerns me or that I have a problem with, there is an X immediately put on me as some kind of zealot,” said Tony Suarez, a pastor from Tennessee and member of the president’s evangelical advisory board. “But if the LGBTQ community brings it up or another liberal entity brings it up, there’s almost like an automatic acceptance.”
For Evangelical voters, Trump’s unfiltered bombast has been a kind of unmuzzling. Evangelical leaders now not only have the president’s ear, they have been appointed to positions in the highest echelons of government, right up to his vice president, Mike Pence. Trump regularly invites Evangelical leaders into the Oval Office to discuss policy matters (and, on at least one occasion, they have also prayed over him). “The access has been unprecedented,” Suarez said.
While there’s little doubt that Trump will win the majority of White Evangelical votes in November, there are signs that his support may be slipping. As of October 2020, 78 per cent of registered White Evangelical voters said they would vote for the president, a three percentage point drop from 2016.
Trump’s bungled handling of the coronavirus pandemic has likely dampened his support – just under half of American Evangelicals are over the age of 50 and at greater risk of serious illness if they contract the virus.
Even a small drop in support could make a difference. In 2016, Trump won slightly more support from White Evangelicals than did John McCain in 2008 (73%) and Mitt Romney in 2012 (79%). That strong showing may have made the difference in key swing states. There are roughly two million Evangelical adults in Michigan and in Pennsylvania, states Trump won by the smallest of margins: 11,000 and 44,000 votes, respectively. To win a second term, Trump will likely need a similarly strong showing among Evangelical voters.
For some Evangelicals, though, Trump’s lack of decorum is hard to overcome. “Some people would argue that that person’s character can be separated from their policies,” said Renee, a 63-year old Evangelical voter from Kentucky who did not want to be identified by her full name for fear of professional repercussions. “I agree with that to some extent. But, ideally, I want the person who’s sitting in the Oval Office to be someone who treats other people with respect… I’m just constantly dismayed by the conduct of the President.”
Still, she can’t bring herself to vote for Biden because of what she views as an extreme stance on abortion and a lack of commitment to religious liberty. “Those are things that would make it very difficult for me – really impossible – to vote for their ticket,” said Renee, who did not vote for Trump in 2016. She is considering “writing in” a candidate this November (in the US system, voters are allowed to write a name on their ballot in lieu of choosing between the official candidates, even if the person named doesn’t exist or isn’t running for office).
Four years ago, Democrats were accused of not fighting hard enough to win voters like Renee. This time, they, and others who oppose Donald Trump, are keen not to make the same mistake again.
Jerushah Duford is the granddaughter of the late founder of modern Evangelicalism Billy Graham. For most of her life, she was a Republican. But in October, she urged her fellow Evangelicals to vote for Joe Biden, saying she doesn’t need a saviour in the White House because, “We have a saviour.” (That would be Jesus Christ).
Duford was joined by more than 1600 faith leaders who also endorsed the former vice president. A coalition of anti-Trump Republicans and faith organisations, including The Lincoln Project, Vote Common Good, and Faith 2020, have also coalesced around Biden. The group, which has been producing a series of hard-hitting videos critical of the president, is touring the country with one goal in mind: siphon voters of faith away from Trump. “In every sense of the word, [Trump] is the opposite of Christ,” said Darrell Johnson, a 63-year old, pro-life Evangelical and former lifelong Republican from Los Angeles who lives with his wife in the Philippines. “I lived my life for Christ for decades and this is the result?,” he said. “I feel very alienated from other ‘brothers.’” Johnson now considers himself an Independent and has already cast an absentee ballot for Biden.
Michelle Ferrigno Warren, an Evangelical Democrat from Colorado who grew up Republican but recently ran for Congress as a Democrat, is also voting for Biden. “There is a legitimate Republican ideology about limited government, the way we view economics, taxes, etc.,” she said. “But Trump doesn’t represent any of that… He’s overtly going out and mocking people who are weak, mocking people who are poor, acting like people owe him. And that is completely antithetical to, not just the theology of an Evangelical, but anybody who believes in God.”
A handful of polls have shown that at least some Evangelical voters are listening. A poll conducted by Vote Common Good of Catholic and Evangelical voters in swing states (Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin), found an 11-point swing from Trump to Biden, who is Catholic, as compared to 2016. “President Trump’s perceived lack of kindness is in fact driving faith voters away in large enough numbers to potentially affect the outcome of the election,” said co-founder and executive director of Vote Common Good Doug Pagitt, who added “We’ll see to it that it does.”
That prospect has the Trump campaign worried. The president and his surrogates have ramped up their charm offensive toward Christian voters, making more frequent nods to religion in the lead up to the election. In addition to the visit to St. John’s Church, Trump was featured in a video while receiving treatment for Covid-19 in which he said: “We have things happening that look like they’re miracles coming down from God.’” Trump is not known for using religious vernacular, so the words were almost certainly included as an appeal to Evangelicals.
The appeals have also been more explicit. Last week, the president’s son, Eric Trump, hosted a rally dubbed “Evangelicals for Trump: Praise, Prayer, and Patriotism.” He was not subtle. “God is on our side on this one,” the younger Trump said, telling the crowd (with no apparent irony) that we need “more people reading the bible” and that Democrats were “the party of the atheists.”
It’s hard to overestimate the importance of Evangelicals to Trump’s political designs or the deliberateness with which he has carried out their agenda during his first term in office. While Trump’s presidency has often been fitful and unfocused, his overtures toward Evangelicals have been remarkably consistent. With calculated precision, Trump has made himself an avatar of the Evangelical cause, enacting their agenda with mechanical efficiency while repeatedly deploying the rhetoric and symbolism of religion.
Counterintuitively, these overtures often collide with the more distasteful elements of Trump’s base, which exist adjacent to–and even overlap with–church communities. Warren believes that modern Evangelicalism is bound together by “a parasite of white supremacy,” a problem that has been written about extensively. It was so widespread that, in 2016, the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Evangelical protestant group in the US called on its members to stop displaying the confederate flag, which is widely considered a racist symbol.
That could help explain why Trump’s racist dog whistles have done little to damage his White Evangelical support. In the wake of the death of a protester in Charlottesville at the hands of a neo-Nazi, Trump said “there were some very fine people on both sides.” He has also repeatedly refused to denounce the “Proud Boys,” a white supremacist group that, in the first presidential debate, he told to “stand back and stand by.”
In a recent town hall, the president also refused to condemn the right-wing conspiracy group known as Q-Anon, which emerged in 2017 and has been peddling the baseless theory, flourishing in some Evangelical circles, that progressives are part of a deep state, Satan-worshipping cabal of paedophiles. In the group’s rendering, Trump is held up as a saviour. “What I do hear about it is they are strongly against paedophilia, and I agree with that,” the president said.” (A cynical view of Trump’s anti-trafficking fervour is that he is playing to the conspiracy theory, which has flourished in some religious circles and been egged on by his eldest son).
It’s unclear how much of any of this will make a difference in November. Nationally, the majority of White Evangelicals (and perhaps an increasing number of Latino Evangelicals) appear willing to tolerate the president’s behaviour in order to advance a particular brand of Christianity. But American elections are decided at the state level, and even a small drop in Trump’s Evangelical support in individual states could hand the presidency to Biden. It’s also not a foregone conclusion that, should Trump win a second term, he would double down on the Make Evangelicals Feel Great Again agenda that has defined his first. With nothing more to gain and no reelection prospects, it’s possible that Trump’s transactional approach to politics would lead him to turn his focus elsewhere (to setting up his post-presidential business interests, for example).
Even supporters like Sandy have doubts about the earnestness of Trump’s religious convictions.” It’s guesswork no matter who I’m looking at,” he said. Since he can’t be sure, he said his “backup plan” is to vote for the candidate who best reflects the policies he believes in.
“If I could be absolutely certain about someone’s convictions…that would absolutely affect my vote,” Sandy said. “I just don’t think I can with anybody.”
Photographs by the Washington Post and Getty Images