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From the file

Battlegrounds | In the race towards US polling day on 3 November, we decided to look at electoral battlegrounds: the intellectual battle for the future of the Republican Party; Black churches’ fight for relevance in the Black Lives Matter movement; and Donald Trump’s determination to cling onto the Evangelical Christians who voted for him in 2016

Blessed are the deal-makers

Blessed are the deal-makers

Evangelicals have been key to Donald Trump’s presidency, and to his bid for re-election


BASIA: I want to start this week’s podcast, with a moment in 1998.

It was the height of the Bill Clinton – Monica Lewinsky scandal.

CLIP “I did not have sexual relations with that woman”

Clinton, the president, had had a sexual affair with an intern. And had lied about it, under oath.

It was a frenzied moment in which America was wrestling with the failures of a man, his character, his morality, and how those failings impacted with his responsibility as president, as steward of the highest office in the country.

Clinton was being impeached – in both senses of the word.

He was to be charged with misconduct in high office, but also, his very integrity as a person was being called into question.

At that time, the Southern Baptist Convention, a huge network of Evangelical churches across the country, passed a resolution. They said that it was wrong for religious Americans to “excuse or overlook immoral or illegal conduct by unrepentant public officials”.

They said, crucially, that “moral character matters to God and should matter to all citizens,”.

“We urge all Americans,” they said, “to elect those officials and candidates who, although imperfect, demonstrate consistent honesty, moral purity and the highest character.”

Well excuse me for my indignance, but how on earth did we get from there, to here…

Audio clip

It might be too simple, and too neat, to say that White Evangelicals, at some point in Donald Trump’s presidential campaign back in 2016, decided to do a deal with the devil.

But it’s certainly a hard characterisation to ignore.

After all, Trump is a man who has been married twice, is accused of multiple sexual assaults, and allegedly had an affair with a porn star. He is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a man of god.

And that’s what we’re investigating this week.

I’m Basia Cummings, in this week’s Slow Newscast we’re speaking to Evangelical voters who made an uneasy pact with Trump four years ago, and we’re asking them – has he delivered? Can he still count on your vote?

Because if this significant voting bloc of 35 million conservative evangelicals claim to have won, that they’ve gotten so many of the things they really wanted from Donald Trump, what might also have been lost along the way?

Because it’s in understanding this relationship, you get to the heart of what’s going on in the election more broadly, and Trump’s appeal: how he makes people who felt like they were losing, feel like they’re winning again. From the white working class, to the far-right, and the Evangelicals, too.

Basia: First, let me introduce Rikha.

Rikha: My name is Rikha Sharma Rami. I’m a freelance journalist based in Oakland, California.

Basia: Rikha writes for the New York Times, The LA Times, Politico and many others. She’s spent time reporting on how Evanglicals horrified by Trump are trying to find a political home with the Democrats.

And so we asked her to spend some time really trying to understand the terms of this pact that Evangelicals have made with Trump.

And we start with a characteristically dark and menacing moment, in June.

CLIP: Trump in front of the church. “Is that your bible?”…”It’s a bible”

BASIA: I think we need to start here, because it felt like a culmination of four years of role-playing. It was about a clear image, and a clear message.

At the beginning of June, as protests against the killing of George Floyd roared across the States, here, in Washington, riot police used tear gas to clear peaceful protesters to allow Donald Trump to walk from the White House, to St John’s Episcopal Church, which had been damaged during protests the night before. There, he held up a bible, and posed for photographs.

So I asked Rikha: what was really going on?

Rikha: You really need to look at sort of the confluence of events that’s happening in the United States. When Trump made that four minute walk to St. John’s Episcopal church, he was walking through protests against the killing of George Floyd that had occurred.

The previous one there was, the protests were mostly peaceful, but there had been some looting going on. And so you see him walking this path having cleared the protesters out, walking this path to the church. And on the surface that looks like a publicity stunt.

Trump audio: “Won’t take long. It’s not going to take long to see what’s going on. It’s coming back. It’s coming back strong…”

Donald Trump, pandering to religious voters. And that is certainly true, but there is also a message embedded in that, that isn’t quite as obvious unless you are familiar with the, the discourse among Evangelicals in America, which is really this idea that Donald Trump is an imperfect messenger or a vehicle to achieve the ends, of the religious right.

Trump’s press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany compared. Trump’s visit to the church to Winston Churchill’s walks through London during world war two. This idea that he was projecting calm, amid the chaos.

Audio: “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’s about. Holding the Bible up is something that has been widely hailed by Franklin Graham and others. And it was a very important symbol for the American people to see we will get through this through unity, through faith.”

And the fact that he was going to the church, signalled something to Evangelical voters, many of whom believe he is a saviour of sorts, who will deliver to them the goals of the religious right. And so there was a symbolism attached to that visit to the church. It wasn’t just Trump standing in front of a church with a Bible. It was Trump really trying to reinforce that ‘saviour’ narrative that has been floating around and within Evangelical circles in the United States.

Basia: That idea that he’s a saviour is, is really remarkable to me. And I’d like to sort of rewind and ask, how did we get to the point where a man who’s been, you know, twice divorced, he’s been accused of sexual assault by multiple women who, you know, has been alleged to have had an affair with a porn star, Stormy Daniels, who can’t even cite his favourite Bible passage…

Audio: “I just think the Bible is just something very special”

Basia: …is out in front of a church, holding a Bible, playing to the religious votes in the country as riots are happening across the country. How, how did we get there, and how do we hold those two things next to each other?

Rikha: To the casual observer? It feels unfathomable. It, it doesn’t make any sense. And I think for it to make sense, You really have to go back to, you know, several decades back to what’s been going on politically on the religious, right. Which is that evangelicals have suffered a series of policy defeats in the past, going back to the 1960s.

When school prayer was, was taken out of schools. That was, I think the beginning of a major sort of cultural shift taking place in the United States towards sort of more secularism. Around that, you know, a decade after prayer was taken out of school, we had the landmark decision around abortion, Roe V. Wade in 1973

Audio: “The courts today, rule that abortion is completely a private matter to be decided by a mother and doctor in the first three months of pregnancy, the seven to two rule, the seven to two ruling to that effect. Well, it probably results in a drastic overhaul of state laws on abortion, specifically the court today…”

And that really kicked off. It was a turning point in Evangelical civic engagement. I think before that Evangelical leaders had by and large kept politics out of the church, but it was around this time that that really started to change. And so we started to see Evangelical leaders urge their followers to flex their muscle politically.

And over the next decade, they did that. And in fact, were a critical reason why Ronald Reagan was, you know, beat Jimmy Carter in 1980 in a landslide

Audio clip

Still, even after that, we’ve had this sort of cultural march towards sort of more progressive social policy in 2015, you know, most recently we had the legalisation of gay marriage. So all of this for Evangelical Americans are major defeats, right? They push up against Evangelical values that are really core to how people see the world and how they live their lives and their interpretation of what is right and wrong. And so we really have an Evangelical population that is feeling beaten down by the time Donald Trump comes on the scene.

Tony audio: My name is Tony Suarez. I am based out of Eastern Tennessee, but I travel full time around the country as an itinerant minister. And I serve as the COO of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, which is a little over 43,000 churches here in the United States. And I serve on the president’s Evangelical advisory board. Yes, speaking as a conservative Evangelical Christian, what you see right now is if I bring us, I bring something up that concerns me.

Rikha: And what Tony told me is really summarised in the quote below. 

Tony: That, that I have a problem with. There is an X immediately put on me as some kind of zealot, some kind of whatever. But if the LGBTQ community brings it up, if they, or another liberal entity brings it up, there’s almost like an automatic, automatic acceptance and openness to it. And so that’s concerning.

I didn’t think my kids, you know, my kids are in public school. I didn’t think my kids were going to have to go to public school and learn about same-sex attraction or, or, you know, in, in their health classes. Yeah. I mean, I wasn’t raised that way. I know I knew the community, but yeah, those are things that, for me concerned me.

And, but if I voiced that I’m, I’m viewed as, uh, some kind of old fashioned guy that, that’s not, that’s not tolerant at all. And that that tolerance plays both ways. I have found that the community that advocates the most for tolerance are the, the most intolerant people I’ve met when it comes to my views, at least

We didn’t elect Trump to be our pastor. We elected him to be our president.

Basia: A president, not a pastor. It’s a good distinction that Tony makes. And so we arrive at 2016 the year that Trump won the presidency. And I, I suppose as a two part question, one is what does it mean to be an evangelical Christian in 2016? What, what, what is that? And then how did Trump court that vote? How did he project to them, the things that they so badly wanted basically?

Rikha: I feel like we could spend an hour trying to parse out what it means to be Evangelical in America. It’s very complicated. The sort of broad definition I think that I have seen is, uh, a common set of tenets that people who identify as Evangelicals share. One is this belief that lives need to be transformed. Transformed through some sort of born-again me. Another is activism. So doing missionary work and working towards social reform. Adherence to the Bible and this idea of redemption. So believing that Jesus, his sacrifice on the cross might lead to the redemption of humanity.

So those are the four broad tenets of Evangelicalism, but it’s really important to say that it’s, it’s sort of hotly debated and different scholars will have different definitions of what it means to be Evangelical. So it’s not a clear cut definition,

Basia: Just to be clear here, what we’re talking about in this context is white Evangelicals. Black Evangelicals are mostly Democrats, is that right? And so this is not, this is also a division across racial lines?

Rikha: Yes. And that’s a really important point to parse out when talking about American Evangelicals, because there is a very distinct dividing line, uh, along racial lines, uh, white Evangelicals overwhelmingly supported Trump and they, the majority, identify as Republicans.

I think the number is nearly half for black evangelicals. Those numbers are quite the reverse. So we see around 70% of black evangelicals identifying as Democrats.

Basia: Democrats. And, and so despite those differences that, you know, it’s not a homogenous community as such, and there are, you know, different definitions. How did Trump persuade those people in 2016? You know, even after a tape comes out where he is caught saying that he grabs women by the pussy, how did he convince those people that he was, he would be the president for them?

Rikha: Donald Trump has an uncanny knack for identifying grievance. And capitalising on it right out of the gate when he became a candidate in 2015, he started signalling to Evangelical voters, that he would be an ally.

Audio: “And we are going to protect Christianity, if you look at what’s going on. Christianity is under siege. I’m a Protestant, and very proud of it Presbyterian to be exact Christian, but I’m very proud of it. Very, very proud of it. And we’ve got to protect because bad things are happening.

“Very bad. Things are happening. And we don’t, I don’t know what it is. We don’t band together, maybe other religions, frankly, they’re banding together and they’re using it here. If you look at this country, it’s gotta be 70%, 75%. Some people say it’s more. The power we have, somehow we have to unify. We have to band together.”

Rikha: He expressed his opposition to abortion, even though he had been pro-choice previously

Audio: “I am pro choice in every respect and as far as it goes, but I just hate it.”

He talked about moving the embassy to Jerusalem which past Presidents had talked about not ever realised…

Audio: “I continue to say that Jerusalem will be the capital of Israel, and I have said that before and I will say it again”

So his campaign became sort of a laundry list of Evangelical priorities. And so while in the sort of mainstream political discourse, there was this conversation about Donald Trump being this playboy business tycoon who was crass and, you know, a misogynist in Evangelical circles. There was another conversation happening really around this messaging that Donald Trump was putting out. And I think that Evangelical voters made a calculation, you know, based on sort of a history of these, these sort of cultural setbacks that they felt they had been experiencing over the last decades.

And there was a sense that Donald Trump would be a different kind of candidate and would deliver on those promises.

Basia: I saw a remarkable statistic from Pew that said that 81% of white evangelical Christians voted for Trump in 2016, which is the highest vote share of that demographic for any Republican president in 20 years, more than Bush in 2004.

And so I suppose the question really is, has he delivered for them in office over the last four years? Do you think that his support will have grown or will the various scandals, not least Stormy Daniels, but so many others too. Will that, would that, have shaken that support?

Rikha: I think you’ll find a lot of Evangelicals who find him distasteful, who don’t approve of his behaviour, who wish he would tweet less, who understand that when he stands in front of a church and holds up a Bible that it is political pandering. However, there is a significant proportion of white Evangelical voters who believe that Trump has more than delivered on his end of the bargain. He very quickly into his first term, reinstated and dramatically expanded the Mexico City Policy, which in effect curbs funding for, uh, organisations overseas, uh, that are providing abortion.

And so that was an immediate win for Evangelicals who are, you know, the, the vast majority of whom are anti-abortion. He also appointed, made several appointments that Evangelicals were very pleased with. So to head the Department of Health and Human Services, he appointed Alex Azar who, uh, had been at active in sort of a, you know, Evangelical and anti abortion politics that he moved the embassy, the US embassy to Israel, to Jerusalem.

Audio: “I have determined that it is time to officially recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. While previous presidents have made this a major campaign promise, they failed to deliver. Today, I am delivering.”

It had been something that previous presidents had talked about, but had, had always sort of pulled back from for fear of stoking violence in the Middle East,

Gerald Ford audio: “The current circumstances and the important importance of getting a, just and lasting peace in the middle East. Uh, I think that particular proposal ought to stand aside.

“We must come up with some, uh, answers, uh, between Israel and the Arab nations in order to achieve a peace.”

That for Evangelicals was a sort of campaign promise fulfilled. And so there’s a general sense that Donald Trump, you know, very ably went through the checklist and began knocking out campaign promises. I think by and large, if you speak with Evangelicals, they do believe that he has delivered – and then some – on his campaign promises.

Basia: So it sounds to me like what you’re describing really is this uneasy pact. A sort of transactional relationship on both sides. And I suppose what we’ve just seen happen in the last two weeks is that Trump has thrown this huge prize into the mix just before voting day, which is the ramming through of Amy Coney Barrett onto the Supreme Court.

Is there any sense that these short term wins may have negative long term consequences for, you know, American institutions or the future of American democracy? I just, I wonder whether that payoff is.

Rikha: Absolutely. Many support his policies and are very pleased with his record, but are somewhat mortified by the way that he speaks; the sort of hostility. It’s the sort of lack of presidential decorum that they see in him. And so, well, there has been this narrative that Evangelical voters are somehow being duped or can’t see the president for who he is and don’t know that he’s pandering to them. My sense from the conversations that I’ve had is that they do know. It’s just that they are willing to tolerate that in exchange for, uh, the policies that they would like to see.

I spoke with a voter from New Hampshire who is Evangelical. I asked him, you know, how did you feel about the president holding up the Bible in front of the church? And his answer surprised me.

So in effect, it’s a similar kind of transactionality that we see in Trump. And I think that does have implications for Evangelicalism in the longterm. When Bill Clinton was being impeached, Evangelical leaders wrote a letter saying that character matters and it should matter who, you know, the character of the president.

And I don’t think they’ll ever be able to say that again, or at least not for a very long time with any credibility after, after Donald Trump

Basia: So you say that it’s not that Evangelical voters are being duped into this, that they they’re going into this, knowing this is a deal and that there could be long term consequences, but the policies are so good.

It’s exactly what they want. They’re going to go with it anyway. And I was struck when in that sort of strange, almost North Korea style televised message from hospital when Trump was being treated at Walter Reed for coronavirus, he kept referring to a miracle coming down from God.

Audio: “I think this was a blessing from God that I caught it. This was a blessing in disguise. I caught it. I heard about this drug. I said, let me take it. It was my suggestion. I said, let me take it. And it was incredible the way it worked. Incredible.”

And I suppose that it was sort of quite explicit. You might argue, but, but it was kind of in the same way that he’s been sort of dog whistling to far right groups. He’s also been sort of sending signals to Evangelical voters explicitly and covertly. He knows that they’ll play.

Rikha: I think that’s absolutely the right and fair characterisation. Trump is having two conversations, one with the mainstream public, and one with different constituencies within his base. One of them being white Evangelicals and I would be hard pressed, I think, to find, prior to 2015, when Trump declared as a candidate, him making many references to miracles or God, he is not somebody who quotes from the Bible or talks about God.

I don’t believe he has attended church very frequently as president. So I think it’s fair to say when he makes a televised video in which he’s referencing, you know, miracles coming down from God that he is speaking to a particular audience.

Basia: And so let’s go back to that photo up in front of the church.

Did it, did it work? Did moving the embassy work? Did attending pro life rallies work? Should Trump be totally confident of the Evangelical vote right now?

Rikha: I think Trump can be confident of the white Evangelical vote. I think the photo op in front of St. John’s church, I don’t know that it particularly hurt him with Evangelicals. I don’t think either that it helped him necessarily. What I do think helps him are the policy choices that he has made. So I think the policy choices are really what will drive his support among Evangelicals. I will say that in recent months, according to some polls, his approval among Evangelicals has slipped.

Uh, there are also some groups that have been set up since 2016. What I call it sort of Evangelical dissenters who have broken off and are actively working to defeat the president. And they’re doing so specifically by trying to siphon Evangelical votes from the president.

Audio: “My president doesn’t have to be a Christian, but Donald Trump has been lifted up as a man of faith.Where did we lose our recognition of what Jesus looks like? “

Vote Common Good is probably the most well known one. And they have teamed up with another organisation called the Lincoln Project, which has been set up by, uh, Several Republican, ‘Never Trumpers’, people like George Conway, Kellyanne Conway’s husband.

They have teamed up to, uh, go after the faith base.

Audio: “Our allegiance first is to Jesus and to scripture and to the Holy spirit. Voting for Republicans is not as important as listening to that spirit inside of us. It’s okay to go against what you’ve always done. And it’s not to, like, we don’t have to give an account for the reason for the decision that we make is not news to anybody but ourselves and to the Lord. Character is what we do when nobody is watching.”

Rikha: It’s unclear what impact they’re going to have, but there does seem to be some evidence, at least that. Trump’s Evangelical support could slip. For example, Trump won the state of Michigan by roughly 11,000 votes. There are 2 million evangelicals in the state of Michigan, a small drop in Trump’s Evangelical support in that state could mean the difference between winning that state or losing it.

It may be a, you know, a few percentage point decline, which in, you know, some swing states could, could matter a lot.

Basia: Thank you so much.

Basia: So there we are – the pact that seems to have delivered to White Evangelicals the policy shifts they so desire.

And that idea that Evangelicals have been played, or duped, by Trump, just doesn’t hold up. They’re going into this with their eyes open. They’re clear-eyed about the president’s moral shortcomings—and they’re, it seems mostly, going to be voting for him anyway.

I’d like to leave you with Ken, an Evangelical voter who says, I think, something quite profound.

Audio: “If you’ve ever been to a piano recital, maybe for a young person or a student, and they’re playing along, and they either they lose their place, or they play the wrong note, and you and I have no competency or at all on piano, but if they play the wrong note, I know it. And I see policy in a similar way, that we’re much better at recognising it, than practicing our lives without it. So I don’t have to be a piano virtuoso, to understand that somebody played the wrong note, I can observe that.”

Basia: And that, Ken says, is like hypocrisy.

Audio: “And hypocrisy is a similar thing. I, I can observe it in others, but to, to apply it to myself is a more, it’s a more difficult task…You know, our whole society would be nice if we just be a little bit more. Let’s have a conversation, rather than ‘Why don’t you see it the way I do?’ Right or whatever. So it saddens me that we become like this.”

Thanks for listening this week.

Next in this file

Bargain of the century

Bargain of the century

The ‘grand bargain’ that bound the Republican Party to Evangelical Christians may be the most consequential political deal of modern times

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