A conservative northern Virginia pastor was holding court with his flock in the narthex of the church. This was in pre-pandemic times, before masks, social distancing, and the shift of most large worship services to online video platforms such as Zoom. “I don’t know that I’d want to have President Trump over for dinner,” he said, “but he has delivered on the issues as well or better than any Republican president in my lifetime.”
This is a common theme among conservative Christians in an election year in which little else appears to be going Trump’s way. They put their faith in a brash New York businessman and reality TV star. When they judge him by the normal standards they apply to Republican politicians — pro-life on abortion, sympathetic to religious liberty, and now with a proven track record of nominating and securing the confirmation of a large number of conservative judges — he has mostly delivered. Although a subset of evangelical Protestant dissenters try to persuade their co-religionists to look at other factors where Trump might be found wanting, this voting bloc seems poised to support the president overwhelmingly once again over Democratic challenger Joe Biden.
Trump was the first sitting president to address the March for Life in person. (Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush spoke to the abortion foes remotely from the White House.) Trump noted the historical distinction in his remarks and called it “a profound honor.” He told the crowd that when “we see the image of a baby in the womb, we glimpse the majesty of God’s creation.”
“All of us here today understand an eternal truth: Every child is a precious and sacred gift from God,” Trump said. “Together, we must protect, cherish, and defend the dignity and sanctity of every human life.”
The Trump administration has defended the Little Sisters of the Poor from the Obamacare contraceptive mandate. The Trump Department of Education has sought to remove the federal government from local school transgender bathroom policy discussions. The Trump Justice Department has defended in federal courts the administration’s attempts to relax Obama-era mandates that religious conservatives say in some cases require participation in sex-reassignment procedures by doctors with faith-based objections. A federal judge blocked the Trump administration’s revised rule on this issue earlier this month.
Judges have been a major Trump selling point. He and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell celebrated the confirmation of 200 of them in June. And while Trump-appointed Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch outraged social conservatives with an opinion interpreting the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to expand gay and transgender employment rights — at the expense of religious liberty, these conservatives argued — they are mostly pleased with his and Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s record on the highest court.
The president has also been supportive of Israel. His administration brokered a landmark agreement between the Jewish state and the United Arab Emirates. He moved the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a decision he frankly acknowledged was in part due to evangelical influence.
“And we moved the capital of Israel to Jerusalem. That’s for the evangelicals,” Trump said in remarks in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, this month that were widely covered in the Israeli press. “You know, it’s amazing. … The evangelicals are more excited about that than Jewish people. That’s really right. It’s incredible.”
Evangelicals have a strong presence in the Trump administration. The most prominent example by far is Vice President Mike Pence, whose selection as Trump’s running mate was intended to solidify the Republican ticket’s social conservative support. In May, press secretary Kayleigh McEnany opened a White House briefing by noting the death of Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias. “Our prayers are with Ravi’s family during this time,” she said. “He meant a lot to a lot of people around this administration.” McEnany also tearfully recounted Zacharias’s influence in an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network. One of her predecessors at the podium was Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the evangelical daughter of Mike Huckabee, the Southern Baptist preacher-turned-Arkansas Republican political leader.
“Jesus isn’t running,” said Chad Connelly, a former South Carolina Republican Party chairman who runs an organization dedicated to registering churchgoers to vote and encouraging their political participation. “By definition, we’re always voting for the lesser of two evils.”
A few polls have shown a slight dip in Trump’s approval rating among white evangelicals amid the pandemic and the racial justice protests taking place across the country. In early July, the Pew Research Center recorded a 6-point drop among this demographic. But that still indicated that a solid 72% of white evangelicals approved of Trump’s job performance, down from 78% in a previous poll, and 82% intended to vote for him in November. Pew’s polling found Trump winning 77% of white evangelicals in 2016, slightly below the exit polls, to Hillary Clinton’s 16%.
“The available evidence suggests that it is very unlikely that evangelical support for Trump will diminish very much in 2020,” said John Green, of the Ray C. Bliss Institute for Applied Politics at the University of Akron. “But the most likely way that this unlikely change might occur is with lower turnout: Fewer evangelicals may actually vote. This could be because of COVID but also because disaffected evangelicals are very unlikely to vote for Biden.”
Trump’s strong evangelical base was never a given. When he famously descended the escalator in June 2015 to announce his unconventional presidential candidacy, there was little in his background that would suggest he was an ally in the culture war. He was twice divorced and thrice married, with a reputation as a playboy for much of his adult life and periodic allegations of more serious sexual misconduct from women, and often foul-mouthed. These traits came home to roost when his campaign was nearly derailed, shortly before the election, by lewd talk about women in an old Access Hollywood tape that was released as an October surprise.
Trump apologized, calling the remarks “foolish,” but also argued they constituted “locker room talk,” more or less innocent braggadocio rather than a literal description of his behavior toward women, which he compared favorably to Bill Clinton’s. Yet it might not have been entirely out of character: That year, Fox News host Tucker Carlson recounted in Politico that he’d made fun of Trump’s hair on television about 15 years ago. “It’s true you have better hair than I do,” Carlson said Trump told him in a voicemail afterward. “But I get more p—y than you do.”
When Trump announced for the presidency, most of the organized Christian right preferred Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas or Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida. There was also a solid cadre of evangelicals behind the neurosurgeon and inspirational author Ben Carson, who briefly rose to the top of the national polls among Republican voters and surged in Iowa. Carson later emerged as a Trump ally and now serves as secretary of housing and urban development. Many early Never Trumpers were committed social conservatives who strongly objected to the future president’s temperament and personal character, while also suspecting he was a liberal Trojan horse disrupting the Republican primaries to the detriment of proven allies. David French, a conservative writer who had a decade earlier spearheaded a group of evangelical supporters of Mitt Romney, was a representative figure.
Trump had been pro-choice and supportive of gay rights in an earlier, short-lived campaign for the Reform Party’s 2000 presidential nomination, against the man who helped introduce the phrase “culture war” into the national lexicon, Pat Buchanan. Buchanan was a conservative Catholic who had done well with evangelical voters in his two Republican presidential bids. Trump was a Protestant with some history of attending church, but a mainline Presbyterian. The religious leader with whom Trump and his parents were most associated was Norman Vincent Peale, a former Methodist and self-help guru whose best-known book was “The Power of Positive Thinking” — a very different cultural milieu than that of the evangelical voters packing Iowa caucus sites.
When the voting commenced, Trump did well with voters who described themselves as born-again Christians. But he performed better among Republicans the less frequently they attended church. The Washington Examiner’s Tim Carney reported in his book “Alienated America” that the difference wasn’t trivial: Trump did 30 points better among GOP voters who said they never went to services (62%) than those who went more than once a week (32%). Geoffrey Layman, a political science professor at the University of Notre Dame, observed: “Trump does best among evangelicals with one key trait: They don’t really go to church.”
In fact, to compete with Cruz, Rubio, and Carson, Trump had to elevate a group of religious conservative supporters who were not necessarily top-tier Christian Right leaders. Jerry Falwell Jr. was the son of the Moral Majority founder but hadn’t followed his father and namesake into politics or the pulpit. The younger Falwell ran Liberty University, the conservative Christian college his father had founded. The Southern Baptist megachurch pastor Robert Jeffress and the controversial televangelist Paula White became prominent evangelical Trump surrogates. Many of these early supporters had deep roots in the prosperity gospel, which teaches that God blesses the faithful with material wealth.
But even back then, there were signs Trump was interested in making inroads with mainstream evangelicals. He purchased a table at the 95th birthday party for Billy Graham, the influential evangelist, at which he mingled with Sarah Palin. This was in 2013, when few thought Trump was serious about running for president. Palin became a prominent evangelical Trump supporter during the campaign.
“It’s a relationship that goes back to his childhood,” David Brody, the evangelical journalist who wrote the book “The Faith of Donald J. Trump: A Spiritual Biography,” later told ABC News. “Trump has an affection for Billy Graham based on the fact that his father loved Billy Graham.” Nearly five years later, Trump was the only living president in attendance at Graham’s funeral, even though the evangelist had counseled many of his predecessors and prayed at their services.
“My father said to me, ‘Come on, son’ — and, by the way, he said, ‘Come on, mom. Let’s go see Billy Graham at Yankee Stadium.’ And it was something very special,” Trump recalled. Whatever he lacked in theological sophistication — “two Corinthians,” his reference to a communion wafer as a “little cracker,” his admission that he had never asked God for forgiveness — he had a strong appreciation for the public speaking skills of gifted preachers.
For the real estate developer-turned-politician, this was an investment that paid off handsomely. Trump won 81% of white evangelicals in 2016, according to the exit polls. This was an improvement over the 78% received by Romney in 2012 and George W. Bush in 2004, with John McCain taking 74% in 2008. And Bush’s reelection was powered by a “values vote” in which white evangelicals cast a third of the ballots for his ticket. This vote was especially helpful in some battleground states. In Florida, for example, Trump polled 85% among white evangelicals.
Trump is going to need this kind of support again in November. He is not shy about attempting to win it. Biden will “take away your guns, take away your Second Amendment. No religion, no anything,” Trump said this month, portraying his opponent as something out of John Lennon’s song “Imagine.” “Hurt the Bible. Hurt God. He’s against God.” Biden’s campaign shot back with a statement noting that the former vice president is a Mass-attending Catholic: “Joe Biden’s faith is at the core of who he is.”
While the Trump administration has generally sided with social conservatives on LGBT issues, the president is quieter about them and has at times described himself as the first to take office as a supporter of same-sex marriage. (Barack Obama said he opposed gay marriage during his 2008 campaign and changed his position while seeking a second term — only after Biden preempted him.) “As your president, I will do everything in my power to protect our LGBTQ citizens from the violence and oppression of a hateful foreign ideology,” Trump said in his 2016 GOP acceptance speech, haltingly spelling out the acronym. When the delegates cheered, Trump offered this unscripted acknowledgment: “And I have to say, as a Republican, it is so nice to hear you cheering for what I just said. Thank you.”
Conservative Christian priorities have changed since the 1990s and 2000s. At a China-themed conference this year at the D.C. Trump Hotel, organized by the Falwell-co-founded Falkirk Center, Ted Cruz chided the Chinese Communist Party for wanting references to the late Queen lead singer Freddy Mercury’s homosexuality censored out of the movie “Bohemian Rhapsody” and claimed Hollywood meekly complied with the request.
But Trump has been at the forefront of recognizing that evangelicals feel embattled and besieged by the dominant American cultural forces. He has offered to be their protector. While the picture of Trump holding aloft the Bible outside of St. John’s Church after it was burned by rioters was widely panned, mainly for the methods employed to clear the crowd to make the photo-op possible, the symbolism and cultural solidarity were recognized by his intended audience.
“He was making a very clear statement: ‘We won’t be forced into hiding,’” Family Research Council President Tony Perkins told the Christian Science Monitor. “Christianity will have power,” Trump vowed in 2016. “If I’m there, you’re going to have plenty of power. You don’t need anybody else. You’re going to have somebody representing you very, very well. Remember that.”
Many evangelical voters feel Trump has kept that promise, though some worry his approach to politics, and the concept of Christian nationalism more generally, is bad for the faith. Such concerns have led to Mormons voting for Trump less than most Republicans, but this remains a minority position among evangelicals and conservative Catholics.
John Fea, a historian at Messiah University and the author of “Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump,” said “there is a small, but growing, faction of white evangelicals who held their nose and voted for Trump in 2016 largely because they could not imagine voting for Clinton.”
“They hoped that Trump would become more ‘presidential’ once he entered office,” Fea said. “The evangelicals in this second group are disgusted by Trump’s lies, Twitter feed, rhetoric, empowering of white supremacists and racists, demonization of his enemies, etc. They have already made up their mind to vote for Biden. In a close election, this may be just enough to turn the tide in places like Wisconsin, Michigan, Florida, and Arizona.”
To win over additional evangelicals, Fea said Biden will have to talk about his faith and connect it to fighting poverty, systemic racism, the lack of affordable health care — and continuing the downward trajectory of abortions in America. That last item, he conceded, would be difficult politically.
“No white evangelical who voted for Trump in 2016 is going to be happy about voting for Biden,” he said. “In the end, there are white evangelicals out there who do not want to vote for Trump but are looking for a reason, any reason, to vote for Biden and still sleep at night.”
Evangelical Trump supporters believe the president will have a much easier case to make: promises made, promises kept.
W. James Antle III is the Washington Examiner’s politics editor.