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Why Evangelicals have flocked to Donald Trump

For a significant number of white Evangelicals, Trump’s lack of religious bona fides is made up by his oversized personality, outsider status, and ability to voice the rage many feel.

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    US presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks in New York Sept. 3.
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The Rev. James Linzey, a retired Army chaplain and vocal leader among some conservative Evangelicals, sums up his ardent support for Donald Trump with a simple observation:

“Because he tells it like it is, and he exudes honesty and transparency, and that he’s the kind of person who is not going to deceive us,” says Reverend Linzey, who now heads the Military Bible Association in Escondido, Calif., and who publicly endorsed the Manhattan billionaire on Thursday. “Evangelicals are tired of being deceived by wolves in sheep’s clothing.”

Indeed, even as the evangelical minister praises Mr. Trump as “someone with the teeth to lead,” his support for the nominal Presbyterian, who has been married three times and has said he doesn’t really ask God for forgiveness when he does something wrong, expresses as much Linzey’s deep-seated frustration with the GOP after watching the country change in ways he finds unsettling. 

“The Republican party has failed to take care of even one major issue that concerns conservatives and Evangelicals over the past many years,” Linzey says. “And if we can get a candidate that will tackle at least one major issue, that alone will be an accomplishment for the Republican Party,” he says, referring to illegal immigration, Trump’s signature issue so far.

Trump has completely dominated the GOP’s summer political season, of course, and currently tops polls measuring every segment of the GOP electorate, including 30 percent of Republican voters nationwide, according to a Monmouth University Poll released Thursday.

But why have Christian Evangelicals, still one of the more powerful constituencies in the Republican Party, flocked to Trump in nearly equal numbers? At a forum in Iowa in July, Trump told voters that he doesn’t “bring God into that picture” when he does something wrong, but simply tries to make it right himself. And he seemed less than devout when he described taking communion: “When we go in church and I drink the little wine, which is about the only wine I drink, and I eat the little cracker — I guess that’s a form of asking forgiveness,” Trump said.

For a significant number of white Evangelicals, who tend to vote overwhelmingly Republican, Trump’s lack of religious bona fides is more than made up for by his oversized personality, outsider status, and free-wheeling ability to express the anger and frustration many feel.

“Evangelicals are losing ground in America,” says Carter Turner, professor of religious studies at Radford University in Virginia, citing the recent Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage and the decline of religion among the young.  “So I think the evangelical optimism that grew steadily from the mid-1970s to the mid-2000s is waning, and I believe it’s causing a lot of fear, anxiety, and frustration.”

“Trump taps into that because he appears to feel the same way,” Professor Turner continues. “He speaks their rage. Trump talks a lot about an America that once was and that will return if he is elected. He's running to defeat all the things Evangelicals fear most – an internationally weak America, moral relativism, the cultural and economic takeover of America by foreigners – and so they see him as their best chance to make America the country God intended it to be.” 

Political observers caution that Trump’s significant popularity among Evangelicals is coming months before the nominating contests begin, while 16 other candidates claim their share of this voting bloc’s support, which in years past has accounted for nearly a quarter of those voting in national elections.

And for the first time, a Monmouth poll of Iowa voters last week found that Evangelicals, arguably the most powerful voting bloc within the Iowa GOP, were beginning to turn toward retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who polled support from 29 percent of religious conservatives to Trump’s 23 percent. In previous caucuses, Iowa voters, including most Iowa Evangelicals, chose former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee in 2008 and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum in 2012 – both of whom espouse deep religious commitments. 

Some experts see Trump’s support among Evangelicals – and even among other segments of the Republican base – as a kind of early emotional release valve of frustration and rage.  

"Honestly, I think his appeal right now runs shallow,” says Joseph Valenzano, professor of communication at the University of Dayton, who focuses on politics and religion. “People haven't fully vetted candidates, but what Trump has done is use an almost purely emotional appeal to the Republican base, which capitalizes on their anger toward the establishment and Washington.”

“This includes Evangelicals,” Professor Valenzano continues. “I also believe he draws well with them now because there is likely a sense among this element of the Republican Party that their seeming standard bearers – Huckabee and Santorum – in the field have been tried and failed.”

Which in part explains the current surge of Dr. Carson in Iowa, who is in a statistical tie with Trump as many Evangelicals have galvanized around the retired neurosurgeon. And Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who has courted religious conservatives assiduously from the start of his campaign, and who has been one of the few GOP candidates to praise Trump’s impact on the race, has also begun to increase his support among the faithful.

On Thursday, Trump signed a “pledge” to support the Republican nominee for president, and to forgo a third-party run. Some critics believe this may tarnish the billionaire’s appeal as an outsider. And on a conservative radio show later, Trump stumbled over detailed foreign policy questions, embarrassing the business mogul.

At the press conference, Trump was asked about the Kentucky County Clerk Kim Davis, who was jailed on Thursday by a federal judge, who held her in contempt for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Ms. Davis has asserted her religious freedom of conscience – an issue more and more important to many religious conservatives after the Supreme Court ruling. "I don't know enough about that," Trump said about the issue. "Was she jailed? I, we don't know." 

But if the Trump juggernaut has otherwise shown few signs of waning, the political power of Evangelicals in elections may be entering a new, unsettling era for Republican Party politics, experts say. Traditional loyalties and powerful ties to the GOP may no longer be as mutually beneficial as they have been in the past.

“Overall, the evangelical vote is still important to the Republican base,” writes Bill Leonard, professor at Wake Forest University’s School of Divinity and an expert on contemporary American religious life, in an e-mail. “But the politicians are confronted with how much they want to reflect those dogmas in a society in which one in five adults, and one in three Millennials is a 'none' without religious affiliation or connection."  

“This election cycle, many evangelicals realize that they have lost considerable culture privilege and are speaking less as a ‘moral majority,’ than a clear ‘moral minority’,” Professor Leonard continues. And with the rise of “nones” in a more socially liberal society, many see “a daunting prospect as evangelicals address the future.”

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