Donald Trump spoke last Saturday at the Values Voters Summit, an annual convention held in Washington D.C. created by the Family Research Council, a conservative Christian organisation that opposes abortion rights and homosexuality. The FRC and its leader, Tony Perkins, have been staunch supporters of President Trump since the 2016 presidential campaign; it was Perkins who famously said that Donald Trump should get a “mulligan” over his alleged affair with porn actress Stormy Daniels.
This was Donald Trump’s third appearance at the convention in the last four years, a necessity when 81% of white Evangelicals voted for him in 2016. After sticking with Trump through sexual assault accusations and scores of half-truths and outright lies, it seemed as though nothing could shake their faith in the man; yet an accumulation of factors may be eroding Evangelicals’ enthusiasm for the President, and perhaps even undermining their support altogether.
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Last week’s sudden decision to call for US troops to step aside and allow Turkey to attack the Kurds of northern Syria, a staunch US ally in the fight against ISIS, has divided Trump’s most prominent Christian supporters. Some, like Perkins, have stuck by him. Another Christian ally, Liberty University President Jerry Falwell, Jr., explained away the Syrian move as President Trump “keeping his promise to keep America out of endless wars”.
At the other extreme, Pat Robertson, one of the founding fathers of the Religious Right, said on his Christian Broadcasting Network that Trump was in danger of losing the “Mandate of Heaven” for abandoning the Kurds. In less harsh but still clear criticism of the President, Franklin Graham asked his followers to pray for President Trump to reconsider his decision, lest he endanger both the Kurds and the Christians that they’ve been protecting.
Even religiously conservative politicians are starting to break ranks. Retiring Illinois Rep. John Shimkus, who gained notoriety for using the Bible to dismiss climate change, officially withdrew his support for the President over the “despicable” decision regarding Syria. And prominent conservative Christian media personality Erick Erickson tweeted at Nancy Pelosi to speed up the impeachment process so that “perhaps we’ll still have time to save some of the Kurds”.
During President Trump’s Values Voters speech, he painted impeachment proceedings as part of a witch-hunt against conservatives, an idea that found a strong reception among the audience. As his speech lurched from topic to topic, covering everything from the Second Amendment to late-term abortion, Barack Obama and “crooked Hillary,” he got the usual reaction from this crowd; cheers, chants (“four more years!”) and interjections (“that’s right!”) that would be typical of a Pentecostal church service.
But the energy changed after the president told an extended story about receiving the bodies of fallen soldiers and comforting grieving families. This tale, which he’s been using all week, was a preface for addressing the elephant in the room, and what followed was an extremely disjointed defence of the Syrian withdrawal, throwing out a host of different, sometimes contradictory justifications for abandoning the Kurds: that the US has sacrificed enough in the “never ending” wars of the Middle East; US involvement in the region has been based on “the biggest mistake” of the 2003 Iraq invasion; “The Kurds are fighting for their own land” now, not US interests; maybe the Kurds will see that they’re outmatched by Turkey and simply retreat; the US has already defeated ISIS; and Middle East involvement is distracting from other issues, including dealing with foreign policy concerns like China, Russia or building The Wall.
The cheers and applause that President Trump had been enjoying grew sporadic and muted as he talked about the Syrian situation. Even when he pivoted back to some applause lines — touting his record on defending (Christian) religious freedom, attacking Congresswoman Ilhan Omar as anti-American and anti-Semitic, highlighting his support for Israel — he never seemed to recapture the crowd’s earlier enthusiasm.
And that, I think, is emblematic of where his presidency as a whole is with Evangelicals.
Evangelical Christians are not particularly inclined to champion the cause of a stateless Muslim ethnic minority in the Middle East, but the idea of abandoning one’s allies and allowing the slaughter of former comrades-in-arms and their civilian relatives sits the wrong way with many of them.
This betrayal is especially hard to swallow because Christian persecution in the Middle East has been a prominent issue for American conservative Christians, and many have therefore been keeping track of how the Kurds became the major defenders of Christian minority populations in Iraq and Syria. American Evangelicals fear these Middle Eastern Christians may now be endangered by a policy that decimates and alienates the Kurds and allows for the resurgence of ISIS.
By itself, disagreements over foreign policy wouldn’t be enough to break Evangelical devotion to Trump, but the Ukraine scandal and impeachment inquiry may be further straining that relationship. Normally (that is, the post-2016 “new normal” that Trump has initiated), Ukrainian impeachment would cause supporters to circle their wagons around the president, seeing him as a fellow victim of Left-wing persecution. To some extent, that has happened, and many attendees at last weekend’s Summit said they were doubling down in their support of Trump against “harassment” by Democrats and the so-called “deep state”.
But as the impeachment inquiry has gathered steam, Trump appears to be reverting to one of this tried-and-tested tactics when faced with allegations of wrongdoing: throwing his subordinates under the bus. Trump has at various times deflected blame for the Ukraine fiasco towards a number of people, such as Energy Secretary Rick Perry and Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani.
More importantly for Christian conservatives, Trump also needlessly threw Mike Pence into the mix, revealing that the vice president also had similar conversations with Ukrainian officials and that these interactions were routine. Pence is one of several administration officials accused of having helped cover up the president’s true intentions regarding holding back aid to Ukraine, and the vice president may suffer political, and maybe even legal consequences if he toes the White House line of not cooperating with House impeachment investigations.
Trump’s unprompted inclusion seemed to some like a cynical move to undermine the potential for Pence to assume the presidency if impeachment was successful. This may be a clever tactic; congressional Republicans will be much less likely to support impeachment and removal if it meant handing the White House to Nancy Pelosi, next in line for presidential succession if both Trump and Pence go down.
Or it may simply be sour grapes: it was rumored that his running mate was once willing to go along with a scheme by Republican leaders to replace Trump with Pence as the 2016 Republican presidential candidate after Trump’s “Access Hollywood” scandal emerged, and Donald Trump is not one to ever let a slight be forgotten, however chummy he and his vice president have been since.
Swapping out Trump for Pence has not so secretly been a fantasy scenario for at least some Republicans, and surely many on the Religious Right have this idea in the back of their minds; why rely on Pence to push Trump in the direction of Evangelicals when they could just put the true Evangelical in the Oval Office? If the president becomes too politically toxic and Pence signals his willingness to step into the Oval Office, many Evangelicals could get behind such a move.
Protecting Christians abroad and keeping advisors like Mike Pence close were parts of the tacit agreement made between Donald Trump and conservative Christian voters, but the main goal of the Religious Right has for decades been to stack the judicial branch of government in order to reverse the progressive trends they so oppose. Donald Trump knows this; during his speech last weekend, he asserted that appointing judges was the most important job of a president and played up the over 150 federal court appointments and two Supreme Court picks he’s made so far.
Yet even with Trump’s apparent success in reshaping the courts, Evangelicals may be in for a disappointment. New Supreme Court Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh have pushed the Court somewhat to the Right, but they haven’t been the firebrand conservatives that many conservatives were looking for. The new justices may prove unwilling to halt the trend of advances made to LGBT rights, and sexual identity may be ruled a federally protected class.
Of course, the holy grail for Christian conservatives is overturning Roe v. Wade, and that test has yet to come. If a major case concerning abortion rights is decided by the Supreme Court — and several are currently in the pipeline — Evangelicals may start to shed their support for Trump, regardless of the outcome. A ruling that overturns or significantly weakens Roe may give Evangelicals a sense that their mission has been accomplish, and allow them to cease the moral compromises necessary to follow Trump wholeheartedly.
On the other hand, if Roe v. Wade is upheld even with a conservative majority on the Supreme Court, Evangelicals might fault Trump for not picking judges who were conservative enough, or they may be discouraged from their strategy of challenging abortion rights through the judiciary; either way, Donald Trump becomes less useful and more expendable.
A lot can happen between now and November 2020; perhaps these concerns will have been alleviated by then. And even if some conservative Christian leaders sour on Donald Trump, the Evangelical rank and file may continue to believe they “have a moral obligation to enthusiastically back” the President, as is asserted in a new book by Ralph Reed, one of Trump’s ardent Evangelical supporters.
But if Syria or the fallout from impeachment end up being the straws that break Evangelical’s backs concerning Trump, it will only be because of the other straws that have been piling up for a while now.
In 2016, American Evangelicals struck an ironically Faustian bargain: ally with Donald Trump, a man who represents everything they usually preach against, as their best shot of gaining the political and legal victories they sought at home and promoting Christians and their interests abroad.
For some, Donald Trump has not kept up his end of the bargain. And with the election just over a year away, Trump can no longer rely on the automatic backing of the Evangelical voters who came out for him in overwhelming force last time.