USA Politics

Trump's evangelical support is wide. But how deep?

More than 8 in 10 Evangelicals voted for him – and the president has reciprocated with rapid policy moves aimed at pleasing them. But some Evangelicals remain wary.

Antiabortion activists march up Constitution Avenue en route to the Supreme Court in Washington, Jan. 27, 2017, during the 44th annual March For Life.
Carolyn Kaster/AP | Caption

When Chelsen Vicari attended the March for Life in Washington last week, there was a lot happening in her life to give her a newfound sense of joy.

Twenty weeks into her first pregnancy, the young evangelical activist tweeted out a 3D sonogram of her unborn daughter: “The unseen image of God: an expectant mommy at the #MarchForLife.” At her sixth march, she wrote in an email, there were "more pro-lifers than I’ve ever seen," their enthusiasm at least in part due to the new administration’s swift, emphatic support for a number of issues many religious conservatives have long held dear.

Yet Ms. Vicari, part of a new generation of pro-life leaders, has been far more cautious about the new president. She worried about his moral character from the start, and while contesting abortion is a top issue for her, she is also concerned about racial reconciliation and the plight of immigrants and refugees.

President Trump's evangelical support is not as solid as it might seem, some scholars say. And Millennial conservatives like Vicari illustrate some of the growing fissures of the decades-long political alliance between the GOP and its most reliable base of white, religiously conservative voters.

“I was saying all along in the lead-up to the election last year that I thought there were cracks in the evangelical-Republican Party alliance, and I still contend that, despite the fact that 80 percent voted for him,” says Carter Turner, professor of religious studies at Radford University in Virginia. There’s still a deep restlessness among many Evangelicals no longer willing to make their faith so overtly tied to conservative politics, he says.

On the surface, those with such concerns may seem like outliers. More than 8 in 10 Evangelicals, after all, voted for Mr. Trump, according to exit polls. This still baffles many scholars, who note the hardly-pious president dominated this group of voters even more than the twice-elected George W. Bush.

But there’s a growing consensus among scholars, too, that most Evangelicals voted strategically: The open Supreme Court seat once held by Justice Antonin Scalia, and kept open until the election by Senate Republicans, loomed larger than any other issue last year. And a deep-seated and abiding animus toward Hillary Clinton caused many to vote against her. (Before the election, a Pew survey found that 45 percent of white Evangelicals said they were mostly casting a vote against Mrs. Clinton, while only 30 percent said they were mainly voting for Trump.)

Trump pursues evangelical agenda

Yet Trump has embraced evangelical causes aggressively from the start. He reinstated the Mexico City abortion policy right off the bat – following a long Republican presidential tradition – and expanded it. He banned federal funds to all international health services organizations mentioning abortion, including HIV/AIDS clinics, not just those offering family planning.

And following through with a campaign pledge, he nominated Judge Neil Gorsuch to fill the Supreme Court vacancy, a decision that has left most Evangelicals in a near giddy state of excitement. His temporary ban on immigrants from Muslim nations also prioritized Christian refugees and other religious minorities – a policy sought by many religious conservatives for years.

At the National Prayer Breakfast on Thursday, Trump also vowed to “get rid of and totally destroy” the so-called Johnson Amendment, a 1950s-era law that requires tax-exempt houses of worship from endorsing politicians from the pulpit.

“It really is remarkable that Trump does seem to be going gangbusters on an embrace of old-school religious right politics,” says Kevin Kruse, professor of history at Princeton University in New Jersey. “His cabinet, if you go down the line, is one of the most fiercely religious right-friendly ones we’ve seen – more so than even George W. Bush.”

But support for these proposals has been far from uniform. Evangelical refugee workers have voiced some of the loudest protests against the temporary ban on travelers from seven Muslim nations and the indefinite ban on refugees entering the country. On Thursday, evangelical writer Ann Voskamp, best-selling author of “One Thousand Gifts,” traveled from her family’s hog farm in Canada to protest the refugee ban in front of the Washington hotel where Trump was speaking at the National Prayer Breakfast. Those affected by the ban are far more numerous than originally stated – with tens of thousands of people having their visa revoked. On Friday, the State Department said up to 60,000 visas were revoked as part of the ban, while government lawyers in a federal court in Virginia said that the number was 100,000.

“Honestly, President Trump's promise to ‘totally destroy' the Johnson Amendment only perpetuates my cautious approach to his administration,” Vicari says. “I understand the constitutionality of the Johnson Amendment may be debated by others, but I'm not convinced eliminating all the principles would be good for evangelicalism. I do not want my pastor or church endorsing political candidates and furthering the politicization of American Christianity.”

A slice of the right

Many scholars point out that Trump’s most ardent supporters are within distinct subgroups within the panoply of American evangelicalism – groups represented by the ministers Trump invited to his inauguration ceremony.

Paula White, one of Trump’s spiritual advisers, preaches a version of the “prosperity gospel,” a message often preached by charismatic televangelists who, like Trump, value showmanship and visible signs of wealth within their ministries.

And Franklin Graham, who has spoken forcefully against the religion of Islam itself, and not just its radicalized fringes, is part of a movement of Christian nationalism, says Randall Balmer, professor of religious history at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. The movement sees the US as an explicitly Christian nation – a perfect theological fit for Trump's “America first” brand of politics.

The White House is weighing a draft of a religious freedom order, “Establishing a Government-Wide Initiative to Respect Religious Freedom,” which would expand religious exemptions for civilians, providing protections for business owners, health-care workers, and educators, among others, from  legal action if they decline to offer services as a matter of religious conscience.

Still, as the draft circulated in Washington, the White House issued a strongly worded statement saying the president “is determined to protect the rights of all Americans, including the LGBTQ community,” leaving intact President Obama’s executive order that protects employees of federal contractors from anti-LGBTQ discrimination. That statement reportedly came at the behest of Trump's daughter and son-in-law, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner.

This support is something over which Evangelicals should be willing to call out the president, says Vicari, who voted for conservative candidate Evan McMullin in November.

“The obsession with Trump as a type of D.C. outsider superhero by one camp, or a dictatorial monster by others, are overblown characterizations and distractions,” she says. “As citizens of faith whose everyday actions are guided by a moral compass, Evangelicals cannot compromise our moral values by ignoring the president’s policy failures. We must be willing to commend as well as condemn the president’s policy decisions that do not align with our values, just as we did during President Obama’s tenure.”