How Trump is moving heaven and earth to motivate evangelical voters

Why We Wrote This

God is “on our side,” President Donald Trump told Evangelicals in January. Their support is steadfast, but their numbers are shrinking as a proportion of the electorate.

Eva Marie Uzcategui/Reuters
Guillermo Maldonado (left), the pastor of El Rey Jesus church, prays for President Donald Trump before he addressed evangelical supporters in Miami on Jan. 3, 2020. Conservative voters of faith, as much as any other group, must remain motivated to vote for Mr. Trump if he is to win a second term.

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On Jan. 3 – a lifetime ago, it seems – a racially diverse crowd of thousands packed a suburban Miami megachurch for the launch of Evangelicals for Trump. The star attraction was Mr. Trump himself, who helicoptered in on Marine One.

The campaign event was a threefer: It ginned up enthusiasm for Mr. Trump’s reelection among evangelical Christians; it targeted Latino voters by taking place at one of the largest Latino evangelical churches in the country; and it was in Florida, the nation’s biggest electoral battleground. 

Little did anyone know that the United States would soon be deep in crisis. Three months before Election Day, Mr. Trump’s reelection prospects are in grave peril amid a pandemic, double-digit unemployment, and a national reckoning on race. 

Evangelicals comprise more than a third of his base. The president’s judicial appointments and stance on abortion have solidified his support among this constituency. Though their numbers are shrinking.

It’s essential that conservative voters of faith stick with him – and stay motivated to vote, even under trying circumstances – if the president is to win a second term. As historian John Fea says, “He needs every one of those votes.”

It was an instantly iconic moment: President Donald Trump, standing in front of historic St. John’s Church near the White House, holding a Bible aloft.

The night before, the church’s basement had been set ablaze by protesters, one of many acts of defiance across the country sparked by the police killing of George Floyd, a Black man, in Minneapolis. On this evening, federal police had used a chemical irritant to clear demonstrators who were protesting at the nearby park, allowing Mr. Trump to walk to the church unimpeded.

To the president’s critics, the photo-op represented a cynical attempt to wrap himself – a man not known for piety – in the imagery of faith. To the president’s supporters, the message was clear: He was going to stand tough under God’s watchful eye. 

“He was making a very clear statement: ‘We won’t be forced into hiding,’” says Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council and an informal Trump adviser. 

Mr. Perkins suggests the president could have had a racially diverse group of clergy accompany him to the church and pray together for the nation. Mr. Trump had brought along a group of aides, many focused on national security and all white. 

But the religious imagery alone served its purpose: It sent yet another signal to a large and crucial portion of his political base, religious conservatives, that he’s with them. 

Patrick Semansky/AP
President Donald Trump holds a Bible outside St. John’s Church near the White House. The photo-op was controversial because federal police cleared protesters so he could walk to the church unimpeded.

Three months before Election Day, Mr. Trump’s reelection prospects are in grave peril amid a pandemic, double-digit unemployment, and a national reckoning on race.

It’s essential that conservative voters of faith, as much as any other group, stick with him – and stay motivated to vote, even under trying circumstances – if the president is to win a second term.

“He needs every one of those votes,” says John Fea, a historian at Messiah University in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, and the author of “Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.” 

Politically-incorrect appeal

On Jan. 3 – a lifetime ago, it seems – a racially diverse crowd of thousands packed a suburban Miami megachurch for the launch of Evangelicals for Trump. The star attraction was Mr. Trump himself, who helicoptered in on Marine One from his Mar-a-Lago estate to the north. 

“Jesus is my saviour, Trump is my president,” proclaimed a sign, star-spangled in red, white, and blue and held aloft by a rallygoer.

Part religious revival and part “Make America Great Again” rally, the campaign event was a threefer: It ginned up enthusiasm for Mr. Trump’s reelection among evangelical Christians; it targeted Latino voters by taking place at one of the largest Latino evangelical churches in the country, El Rey Jesus; and it was in Florida, the nation’s biggest electoral battleground. 

Stars of evangelical conservatism turned out in force to support the president, hot on the heels of controversy over an editorial in Christianity Today supporting Mr. Trump’s impeachment and calling for his removal from office over questions of character.  

But, rallygoers made clear, any quirks of character or past immorality are beside the point. God often uses “flawed people” to achieve righteous goals, they say. And Mr. Trump is with them to the bitter end on the matters they hold most dear, from opposing abortion and LGBTQ rights to support for Israel and religious freedom. 

“I like that he’s politically incorrect,” says a nurse named Malu, who declines to give her last name. She’s wearing a Trump T-shirt, a MAGA hat, and a gold cross around her neck, and is excited to be at her first Trump event. “He’s like your uncle. He says stuff, but he’s trying to restore American values, like Ronald Reagan.” 

Lynne Sladky/AP
Jorge Alfonso waits to get into the El Rey Jesus church in Miami, where President Donald Trump held a rally for evangelical supporters on Jan. 3, 2020. The Trump campaign has been trying to woo Latino and Black Evangelicals to expand his base of support among religious conservatives.

Little did anyone know, among the prayerful and joyous Miami crowd, that the United States would soon be deep in crisis. Suddenly Mr. Trump faces severe headwinds in his reelection fight, and he is counting on the steadfast support of Evangelicals – more than a third of his base – as well as other core supporters.

“This election is all about people who would crawl across broken glass to vote,” Mr. Perkins says. 

The latest polls show the president’s overall favorability trending downward, including a sharp decline among white Roman Catholics. But white evangelical Protestant support for Mr. Trump remains remarkably stable, after spiking upward in March and sinking back to its previous level. 

In July, 63% of white Evangelicals viewed President Trump favorably, the same as in May, according to the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute. That’s virtually equal to the 64% of white Evangelicals who viewed Mr. Trump favorably last year, on average, in PRRI polls.

In contrast, white Catholic support for Mr. Trump has declined from an average of 48% in 2019 to 36% in July 2020. But even holding on to record levels of support from white evangelical Protestants may not be enough to win reelection, because their proportion of the electorate is shrinking. A decade ago, they represented 21% of all voters, according to PRRI. Four years ago, that figure was 17%. Now it’s 15%. 

That decline has also taken place in key battleground states, such as Michigan, where white evangelical Protestants now account for 15% of the population, down from 18% in 2016.

In short, Mr. Trump has even less margin for error than he did in 2016, when he won 81% of white evangelical Protestant voters nationally (with a 61% favorability rating). 

“Remember, favorability is not the vote,” says Robert P. Jones, chief executive officer of PRRI. “If history is a guide, especially among base groups, we may have as much as 20 percentage points who say, ‘I don’t really like the guy, but I’m going to vote for him anyway.’” 

Mr. Trump is going all out to hold on to conservative voters of faith. To fight abortion, he has defunded Planned Parenthood and filled federal courts with anti-abortion judges. He has eased enforcement of the so-called Johnson Amendment, which bars religious groups from endorsing or opposing political candidates. He reversed Obama-era protections for transgender people. He moved the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, a long-held goal not just of conservative Jews but also Christian conservatives. 

In January, Mr. Trump became the first president to address the annual March for Life in person. In May, he declared churches “essential,” and called on them to reopen. On June 1, he took his famous walk to St. John’s Church. The next day, he took a bow to conservative Catholics, laying a wreath at the shrine to Saint John Paul II in Washington, and then signed an executive order aimed at advancing international religious freedom. 

Most religious conservatives applauded the moves, but not all. Mr. Trump’s handling of civil unrest – specifically, a threat to use the military to quell the protests – sparked rare criticism from televangelist Pat Robertson.

Brendan McDermid/Reuters/File
A group of interfaith religious leaders protests against then-presidential candidate Donald Trump for his tough stands on immigration and other issues in New York in June 2016.

“It seems like now is the time to say, ‘I understand your pain, I want to comfort you, I think it’s time we love each other,’” Mr. Robertson said June 2 on his TV show “The 700 Club.” But he was alone among major evangelical Trump supporters to push back on the president’s rhetoric.

Most crucial to religious conservatives, Mr. Trump has secured Senate confirmation for 200 federal judges, including two Supreme Court justices. It is in the federal courts where the long-held dream of overturning nationwide abortion rights, enshrined in the Roe v. Wade ruling, resides. 

The surprise decision in June by conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch to uphold civil rights for LGBTQ people appeared to deal a blow to the president’s standing with Evangelicals. After all, Mr. Trump had put Mr. Gorsuch on the Supreme Court with the full expectation that he would advance their causes. 

But Christian conservative leaders say the disappointing Gorsuch opinion – mitigated soon thereafter by his vote to uphold an anti-abortion Louisiana law – will only motivate social conservatives more. The real problem, they say, is Chief Justice John Roberts, a Republican appointee who disappoints conservatives regularly. 

“At this point, what Roberts does only increases our intensity and desire for a second Trump term, so we can have one or two or more Supreme Court picks,” says Ralph Reed, a political strategist and founder of the Faith and Freedom Coalition. 

If Evangelicals stay home on Nov. 3, Mr. Reed warns, Democratic nominee Joe Biden will win, “and we will wind up with a 38-year-old radical feminist version of Ruth Bader Ginsburg” on the Supreme Court. 

“Crisis of conscience”

Perhaps no figure is as important to Mr. Trump’s prospects with voters of faith than a Pentecostal televangelist from Florida named Paula White. She leads the White House Faith and Opportunity Initiative, has participated in countless gatherings of faith leaders to meet with and pray for the president, and now, amid the pandemic, is a fixture on campaign webcasts of Evangelicals for Trump. 

Pastor White and Mr. Trump go way back. In 2002, the then-New York real estate developer saw her preaching on television, and gave her a call. “He said, ‘You’ve got the “it” factor,’” Pastor White recounts at an Evangelicals for Trump event at a church near Cincinnati in early March. “I said, ‘No, sir, we call that the anointing.’”

Soon, she says, they met in person and became fast friends. Pastor White has been Mr. Trump’s personal pastor ever since, and helped him secure major evangelical support in 2016. And she was the first female clergy member to deliver a prayer at a presidential inauguration. 

But her role in the Trump orbit is not without controversy. Pastor White is associated with the so-called prosperity gospel – a belief that God promises wealth and physical well-being to the faithful (and sometimes the heaviest tithers). Some Evangelicals criticize the doctrine as transactional.

For Mr. Trump, the White connection makes sense. Growing up, he and his family attended sermons by the Christian minister Norman Vincent Peale, similarly controversial among traditional theologians for the message captured in his bestseller, “The Power of Positive Thinking.”

Tom Brenner/Reuters
An audience member stands during a song ahead of Mr. Trump’s remarks at an Evangelicals for Trump event at a church in Miami in January 2020.

Mr. Trump has never been an easy fit with more conventional religious conservatives. In January 2016, he stumbled in a speech at the evangelical Liberty University by referring to “Two Corinthians” instead of “Second Corinthians” and cursed twice. 

But he turned his missteps into a positive. “We’re going to protect Christianity,” he told the Liberty convocation. “I don’t have to be politically correct.” 

As to Mr. Trump’s personal faith, views differ. Most Americans don’t see the president as religious, and fewer than half think he’s Christian, according to the Pew Research Center. In the evangelical world, some leaders call him a “baby Christian,” someone just beginning his faith journey. 

Others see his professions of faith to be purely transactional and politically motivated. Rachel Laser, head of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, characterizes the relationship this way: “You give me your vote and I’ll give you special privileges and do all I can to codify your worldview in our government. Both parties have delivered.”

For the doubters, Vice President Mike Pence is a reassuring presence, as a man who speaks comfortably about his evangelical Christian faith and serves as an emissary to the GOP’s religious conservative base.

Mr. Reed, the Christian political strategist, says he was skeptical of Mr. Trump’s religious bona fides when they first met 10 years ago. After all, the New Yorker was a known “social liberal,” thrice married, and prone to vulgar language. Then he heard Mr. Trump talk about his change of view on abortion over a friend’s experience with an unplanned pregnancy and decision to keep the baby. Mr. Reed says he thinks Mr. Trump is sincere. 

But “frankly, even if he came to his positions on the issues for reasons of political calculus, rather than a genuine change of heart, what’s the law against that?” says Mr. Reed, author of the book “For God and Country: The Christian Case for Trump.” “So we punish him because he’s smart?”

Still, many evangelical voters want a president who sincerely believes in what he’s doing, not just for the sake of winning and keeping power. At the Evangelicals for Trump event in early March, held at Solid Rock Church near Cincinnati, no one expressed doubts about Mr. Trump. 

“The Bible says he wouldn’t be there if God hadn’t put him there,” says Marilyn Woods, a caregiver from Springdale, Ohio. 

And, she adds, “he is more and more surrounded by strong Christians,” calling it a sign of how the president values faith. Ms. Woods offers names: Vice President Pence, Housing Secretary Ben Carson, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Attorney General William Barr – the last being a devout Roman Catholic. 

Another attendee says he judges Mr. Trump not by his words but by his actions. “Politicians say the right things, but don’t do the right things,” says John Settlage, a pastor in a small rural Ohio church. “The Scripture is full of imperfect people who carried out His work.” 

He cites King David from the Bible – a sinner who is redeemed for doing good. Others call Mr. Trump a “modern-day Cyrus,” the Persian king who is a figure of deliverance in the books of Isaiah and Daniel. 

“Some people say, ‘We see all these signs that God has chosen him, and therefore we’ll back him to the death,’” says Marie Griffith, director of the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis. “I don’t think that belief can be shaken.”

Indeed, the steadfast support of Evangelicals for Trump demonstrates her point. 

Mr. Trump’s favorability rating among white evangelical Protestants had actually spiked in March to 77% in the PRRI poll – a “rally around the flag” effect over the pandemic – and then settled back to where it was, says Dr. Jones, author of the new book "White Too Long." 

The same holds true of the public’s view of his coronavirus response, which was initially relatively high and then sank – including among white evangelical Protestants. An ABC News/Washington Post poll in mid-July showed 68% of white evangelical Protestants approve of Mr. Trump’s performance on the pandemic, still a strong rating but a drop of 16 percentage points since late May. Overall, 38% of Americans approve of Mr. Trump’s handling of the virus. 

Still, despite all of the president’s challenges, he continues to win some converts. A prominent example is Albert Mohler, head of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, who described a “crisis of conscience” for religious conservatives in 2016, and didn’t vote for either major-party candidate. In April, he announced he’ll vote for Mr. Trump. 

But he still has reservations, calling Mr. Trump “an embarrassment to evangelical Christianity” in a New Yorker interview. 

“My shift is from reluctantly not voting for him in 2016 to what you might call reluctantly voting for him in 2020, and hoping for his reelection, because the alternative is increasingly unthinkable,” Mr. Mohler said. 

At the same time, there are Evangelicals who voted for Mr. Trump in 2016 but already know they can’t do so again. Bill Werts, an engineer from Greensburg, Pennsylvania, had hopes for Mr. Trump, especially with Mr. Pence at his side. But things soured for Mr. Werts a while ago. 

“Caging the brown children at the border was a big one for me. I kept asking myself, are these the Christian values I’ve stood for all my life?” says Mr. Werts, who calls himself a “patriot, lifelong pro-lifer, and anti-racist.”

Mr. Werts now attends a new church, has reregistered as a Democrat, and plans to vote for Mr. Biden, albeit unenthusiastically.

In fact, Professor Fea of Messiah College sees potential for more Biden votes among moderate white evangelical Protestants like Mr. Werts – people who identify as “pro-life” and see the path to fighting abortion not through conservative judges but by tackling poverty. “They’re hanging on Joe Biden’s every word,” Professor Fea says. “But don’t talk about Roe v. Wade, talk about a plan to reduce the number of abortions.”

Every vote counts

As the white evangelical Protestant population shrinks, the Trump campaign sees growth potential in the faith communities of people of color. Black Voices for Trump and Latinos for Trump do regular outreach via web events that include a religious dimension. In late July, the campaign held an in-person Evangelicals for Trump event in Atlanta, featuring prominent African American religious figures in a clear effort to reach Black voters.

In 2016, Mr. Trump won only 8% of the African American vote and 28% of the Latino vote – but every vote counts, especially in battleground states like Florida. Thus the launch of Evangelicals for Trump in south Florida, with its large population of Latino immigrants, including many who fled the socialism of Cuba and Venezuela. 

But placing any hope on Latino and Black Evangelicals may be a fool’s errand, say experts on religion and politics. A majority of Black voters identify as Evangelical or “born again,” though religiosity in the Black population is declining, as it is among Americans overall. And religious affiliation among African Americans isn’t a predictor of vote choice, says Andra Gillespie, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta. 

Mr. Trump often says to Black voters “you’ve got nothing to lose” by supporting him. “That taps into this idea that Blacks are a captured minority and that Democrats take them for granted,” Professor Gillespie says. “But if the alternative is someone who uses racist language, then that doesn’t work.” 

Other observers suggest that Mr. Trump’s outreach to voters of color is mostly “virtue signaling” as a way to show white voters that he’s not racist.

Within the Latino community, which is predominantly Roman Catholic, evangelical Protestants represent just a fraction of the vote. And many live in states that vote solidly Democratic, such as California and New York.

Four years ago, 41% of Latino Evangelicals voted for Mr. Trump, according to the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center Research Institute. Now amid the pandemic, which has taken a disproportionate toll on people of color, voters in these hard-hit communities are likely basing their votes more on bread-and-butter issues – income security, health care, education – than on social issues such as abortion and gay rights, says Arlene Sánchez-Walsh, a professor of religious studies at Azusa Pacific University in Azusa, California. “Right now, nothing is a bigger issue for Latinos than their economic devastation and the pandemic,” Professor Sánchez-Walsh says. 

She notes that many Latinos work in blue-collar jobs and have been deemed essential, risking exposure to the virus, or alternatively, are now unemployed. “How do Latino evangelical pastors and political operatives turn that around for Trump?” she asks. “I don’t know.”

Then there’s the immigration issue. Before Mr. Trump’s appearance at El Rey Jesus in January, lead pastor Guillermo Maldonado – a Honduran immigrant – told his congregation that those who are in the U.S. without legal documents need not fear deportation if they attend the event, according to the Miami Herald.

But even among Latino voters, the immigration issue cuts two ways. Some who came to the U.S. legally are among the president’s strongest defenders on the issue. At the January event, when Mr. Trump touted his border wall and criticized “loopholes” in U.S. immigration law, the crowd cheered. 

Pastor Maldonado earned his own cheers, as one of the most prominent Hispanic religious leaders in the country – and an adherent of the prosperity gospel. 

But the pastor’s opening prayer on that Friday night in January was all about Mr. Trump, as the president stood in a multiethnic embrace of faith leaders. Among those also on stage were Pastor White, his spiritual adviser; Alveda King, the niece of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.; and Cissie Graham Lynch, granddaughter of the Rev. Billy Graham. 

“We come together from all denominations, all races together, as the Bible says, to pray for those in authority,” Pastor Maldonado said.

Soon, it was Mr. Trump’s turn to speak. God is “on our side,” he said, to thunderous applause.

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