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How long can Trump hang on to the evangelicals?

Donald Trump attends a worship service at the International Church of Las Vegas October. Credit: Chip Somodevilla / Getty

Donald Trump attends a worship service at the International Church of Las Vegas October. Credit: Chip Somodevilla / Getty

November 6, 2018   6 mins

On August 27, President Trump invited a hundred of his greatest evangelical supporters to a dinner in the state dining room of the White House. He gave a few formal remarks about religious liberty, abortion and youth unemployment, but after the journalists and TV cameras were ushered out, he got down the real business of the meeting: the midterm elections.

“I have to ask you to go out and make sure that all of your people vote. Because if they don’t vote, we’re going to have a miserable two years, and we’re going to have a very hard period of time because then – you are just one election away from losing everything you have.”

The Democrats, he said, “will overturn everything we’ve done. And they’ll do it quickly and violently. You look at the anti-fa, you look at some of these groups, and these are violent people.”

Couched in his familiar inflammatory rhetoric was Trump’s concern that this reliable conservative base might not turn out because he himself was not on the ballot. It was pure Trump, of course, but it was also quite possibly true. In 2016, he had won 81% of the evangelical vote. In 2018, that number had dwindled, but only slightly. He is still viewed favourably by 71% of them – as opposed to some 45% of the American public.

But at that dinner, he seemed uncharacteristically worried that the evangelical turn-out would not compensate for his losses elsewhere.

The baffling thing for many people, of course, was the fact that they even turned out in the first place. Here was a man who had supported abortion rights, and who lived a life antithetical to evangelical values. He was thrice divorced; he boasted about his sexual conquests and paid hush money to a porn star. He had also invested in gambling and incurred enormous debts, both of which were anathema to evangelicals. Further, he clearly knew nothing about the Bible.

History suggests the turn out may have had more to do with the party than the man. White evangelicals had been voting more and more Republican since 1980, at the point when Jerry Falwell and his fellows created the Christian Right as a reaction to events of the Sixties and Seventies, from the civil rights movement to the anti-Vietnam War protests, to feminism and gay rights. In the late Eighties, the white South had turned Republican, and later the Christian Right dominated 18 Republican state parties and influenced many more. Obama won the 2008 election, but white evangelicals continued to vote increasingly GOP.

From 1996 to 2000 over 65% voted for Republican candidates for president. From 2004 to 2012, their vote was in the mid-to high 70%. They had voted for John McCain, who had denounced Falwell, and then for a Mormon, Mitt Romney, whom they didn’t consider Christian. Today they make up about a third of Republican voters.

The surprise, then, was not that Trump had won such a large percentage of their vote in the national election – but that he had won 40% of their vote in the primaries, when he had faced several other Republican candidates who had excellent evangelical bona fides. Or perhaps it shouldn’t have come as such a surprise. He was talking their language.

He had also won without the advocacy of the evangelical leaders, 50 of whom had convened in the spring of 2016 and decided to campaign for the Right-wing Southern Baptist, Ted Cruz. The people in the pews had paid scant attention to their spiritual leaders, whom they accused of mixing religion with partisan politics, and more to the man who they thought could address their concerns.

These concerns have been weighed up and elucidated by thoughtful evangelicals. It all comes down to something most of us don’t understand about evangelical culture: Trump’s tirade about the violent Democrats at his August dinner accorded with the Christian Right’s view that the world is becoming more and more wicked, and headed towards Armageddon.

Evangelicals, or many of them, now see themselves in an existential crisis. It has been building since the 1980s, only now the sense of crisis is more acute. It’s not, and never has been, about a single issue but always about the increasing secularisation of society, and their loss of control over the culture.

The Supreme Court, they feel, has been taking away all their rights, such as Bible reading and prayer in the public schools; it has legalised abortion; it has been giving “extra” rights to racial minorities; and it has even approved same-sex marriage. In the 19th-century, evangelicals were the majority, but now they are a minority in a society made up of different religions and races.

They feel under siege, and are deeply anxious that white evangelical culture is passing from the scene. Their elected representatives, religious or not, were not taking their concerns seriously. Those fears are not without justification. White people are now only 62% of the US population, and the percentage of white Christians has shrunk to 43%. Their own numbers have also diminished. According to one analyst, white evangelicals made up 23% of the population in 2006 and make up less than 17% today. Nostalgia has always been the dominant emotion in the Christian Right. Small wonder, then, that Trump’s slogan “Bring America back again” resonated with them.

Many evangelicals over the years have learned that they need power within the Republican Party to arrest the secularisation of the country. They tend to vote at a higher rate than any other religious group, and they have grown more pragmatic. In 2011 only 30% said that an elected official who committed an immoral act in his personal life could behave ethically and fulfil his duties to the public. By 2016, the percentage had risen to 70%.

Many Christian Right leaders say flatly that they voted for Trump in spite of his personal life. Robert Jeffress, a Houston pastor, and one of Trump’s earliest supporters, said after the revelation about the porn star, “Americans knew that they weren’t voting for an altar boy.” Peggy Nance, the head of Concerned Women for America, said, “We weren’t looking for a husband. We were looking for a bodyguard.” They and other sophisticates saw the relationship as transactional, but many in the pews plucked stories from the Bible to justify their choice: King Cyrus was a heathen, but he defended Israel; King David was an adulterer, but he was never impeached.

Some say they will lead Trump to God – an act one woman preacher compared to landing the white whale. Many evangelicals, however, like Trump and forgive him for what most of their co-religionist see as sinful. These are the populists, who despise the intellectual elites and the experts in Washington. They see Trump as one of their own, and believe that only a bully can push back against the evil that surrounds them.

Since his inauguration Trump has kept his end of the bargain. His vice president is an evangelical, and he has appointed at least six evangelicals to cabinet posts. He and Vice President Pence have made the White House a welcoming place for conservative evangelicals.

In his first year, he moved the American Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem – a gift to evangelicals, many of whom see Israel through the lens of the Bible and believe that Jerusalem is the hold city of the Jews. He has appointed two conservative Supreme Court justices, possibly putting Roe v. Wade at risk; he has banned refugees from seven majority-Muslim nations, and among other things, he has opened a “conscience and religious freedom” agency in the Department of Health and Human Services.

But evangelicals don’t only vote on what they consider moral issues. Like most citizens, they also worry about the economy and national security. Trump’s immigration policies have angered the heads of many evangelical denominations who believe what the Bible says about welcoming strangers, and who also hope to recruit immigrants, mainly Latinos, to keep their diminishing numbers up. But the rank and file see immigrants not only as competitors for their jobs, but as people who would end white hegemony and white evangelical culture.

Hence Trump’s desperate pitch to evangelical leaders to keep spreading the word. Because, while Republicans may win them easily now, demographics do not bode well for the GOP in the future. Not only is the Republican party’s white evangelical base diminishing, but Latino and Asian evangelicals are increasing in number, and in spite of their social conservativism, over 65% of them vote Democratic precisely because of economics and Trump’s immigration policies.

Just as important, young evangelicals are quite different from their parents. First of all, there are fewer them. Only 8% of the US population under 30 identifies as evangelical, versus 26% of their seniors. Second, according to numerous surveys, younger evangelicals are far more accepting of gay rights and gay marriage than their elders. They care about abortion, but they are much more concerned about issues of social justice than their parents.

These changes haven’t yet shown up in the electoral statistics because Latino citizens don’t vote as much as other Americans, and the young don’t tend to vote as much their elders – although that may be about to change. So for now, the Christian Right, thoroughly integrated into the Republican Party, can pass laws restricting abortion and LGBT rights in many states. But the changes will materialise, at which point the Republican Party will have lost vast swathes of its base and a great many of its voters. No wonder Trump’s worried.

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