Republican nominee Donald Trump took political mudslinging to another level this week with comments that Hillary Clinton, his Democratic rival, is "the devil."
"He made a deal with the devil," Mr. Trump said of Sen. Bernie Sanders's decision to endorse former Secretary of State Clinton. "She's the devil."
The high school gymnasium burst into cheers, CNN reported, and he reportedly repeated the "devil" comparisons in Iowa and Colorado throughout the week.
To some, this unprecedented name-calling is, in part, yet another sign of this candidate's willingness to visit otherwise undisturbed thresholds of American politics.To others, it underlies his appeal to "tell it like it is." But the boldness of his quasi-religious reference underscores the candidate's attempts to shore up evangelical Christian support: a campaign-within-a-campaign that has shocked many observers for both its numerous faux pas, and its success.
"I think he is expressing what a lot of Republicans feel," says Henry Olsen, a senior fellow at the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center, adding that no other mainstream American politician would have dared to voice such a sentiment for at least the past century. "That would have been the province of obscure right-wing publications back in the '90s."
Although Trump has assured religious conservatives that both his policies and Supreme Court nominations would address their fears, his faith-related slip-ups during the primaries left some Christian leaders worried.
"The classic one was in Iowa when he was asked, 'Do you ever ask for forgiveness of sins?' and he said, 'No, I don't need to,'" Pastor Max Lucado, whose opinion blog on Trump's disregard for Christian principles went viral, told NPR. "I nearly fell out of my chair."
Although many Christian leaders have published their concerns about the businessman, conservative evangelicals' support for Trump's candidacy has been strong from the beginning.
"The near-unanimous support for Trump among white evangelicals is astounding on one level but not surprising on the other," says Andrew Chesnut, chair in Catholic Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Although the nominee's paper-thin knowledge and practice of protestant Christianity are out of step with most Christians in the United States, "his charismatic, almost messianic, personality and public speaking style that promise to 'make America great again' recall the type of impassioned preaching heard at many evangelical churches, especially in the South," Dr. Chesnut says.
His vaunted wealth also serves the "gospel of prosperity," a popular movement in some Christian circles that marks financial success as a sign of heavenly approval.
On another level, many white evangelical protestants see their own demographic influence slipping, leaving them open to invitations to "Make America Great Again."
"Trump's politics of nostalgia ... meshes seamlessly with the desire of many white evangelicals to return to a simpler era when the nation was more homogeneous, more like them," Chesnut says.
The effort to demonize the Clintons – almost literally, in this case – began during Bill Clinton's presidency, when evangelical Christians unified their insistence on character in a national leader, as Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, noted in June.
To some extent, the support of 78 percent of white evangelical protestants for Trump is business as usual, says Jessica Martinez, a senior researcher at Pew Research Center. They have voted overwhelmingly Republican for several election cycles, and Trump is the Republican nominee.
A July poll, however, found that evangelical voters expressed more pre-convention support for Trump than they did for Mitt Romney in 2012 – with 36 percent saying they "strongly" supported him, rather than "not strongly" or not supporting him at all, compared to 26 percent with strong support for Mr. Romney.
Some of this shift lies more within the demographics of American evangelicals than religious practice or belief, says Mr. Olsen. Many evangelicals are not college-educated, and many blue-collar workers crave a candidate who promises moral and especially economic retribution for the "establishment," something Romney did not offer.
Some voters are attracted to Trump's hawkish stance on terrorism, Olsen says, while others are convinced by his efforts to persuade "all Republicans" that he will fill Supreme Court vacancies with conservative-friendly justices.
Clinton's high negatives are also a factor, as more white evangelicals say they are voting against her than for Trump, says Dr. Martinez.
Yet poll data suggests that more is afoot in the religious demographics of this presidential race than the loyalty of these highly religious voters to whomever the GOP picks. Voter interest in a presidential candidate's religiosity has declined from 67 to 62 percent since since 2012, although the decline largely excludes evangelicals, according to Pew.
"He's not perceived as particularly religious, but yet he’s still the preferred candidate," Martinez says. "The importance of the religiosity of a president might be changing."
Trump's ability to inspire voters from some of the country's most devout communities suggests that a candidate can effectively appeal to the economic and social interests of many Americans without sharing their faith.