November 24, 2023 - 4:20pm

As the race for the White House next year intensifies, Donald Trump appears to be further redefining his political strategy by decreasing his reliance on the Christian Right. Once a base that seemed indispensable to electoral success for Republicans, evangelicals have always been on the outside looking in when it came to Trump. Nevertheless, it was the former president who oversaw the confirmation of the three Supreme Court nominees needed to overturn the Roe v. Wade abortion ruling, long the single most important issue for this bloc of voters. 

This ongoing tension, highlighted in a new book by Tim Alberta — The Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory: American Evangelicals in an Age of Extremism — reveals a pugnacious Trump who disparaged evangelical supporters of his 2016 primary rival Ted Cruz as “so-called Christians” and “real pieces of shit”. This revelation coincides with Trump’s renewed focus on battleground states in the Rust Belt, South, and West, which are essential to securing his reelection bid and where some polls show he is currently outperforming Joe Biden.

During the 2016 campaign, Trump occasionally sought evangelical support, despite his perceived lack of a genuine religious grounding. His infamous “Two Corinthians” gaffe at Liberty University epitomised his awkward embrace of religious rhetoric, yet he still garnered support from second-generation evangelical leaders such as Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell, Jr. Although this alliance was seemingly more a marriage of convenience than a display of shared values, Trump delivered on his end of the bargain, ensuring that justices opposed to Roe were appointed to the Supreme Court.

This singular achievement has arguably reduced Trump’s need to actively court evangelical voters. He is now an independent power broker in the Republican Party, able to easily pick primary winners in other elections, and running well ahead of his closest rivals, Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley, in all the primary polling to date. 

Trump’s current strong standing in the primary polls and his lead over Biden in battleground states suggest a strategy that focuses less on evangelical support and more on broader economic and social issues. Given that Trump knows the evangelicals will have nowhere else to go, since the Democratic Party is unwilling to offer them anything on issues like abortion and family-values policies, this pivot better aligns him with the needs and concerns of a wider voter base. These Americans are generally unhappy with Biden’s advanced age and the uneven distribution of economic success in the national economy. 

Similarly, despite being labelled as the most Left-wing president in US history — and perhaps actually warranting the title — Biden has maintained a centrist position on many issues, such as an expansionist foreign policy that involves support for Israel and Ukraine, while keeping the far-Left elements of his party at arm’s length. These voters, too, will have no realistic place to go, even with third-party candidates like Robert Kennedy, Jr. and Cornel West, though it remains to be seen how many will go to the polls for Biden.

In the end, the key question for both candidates is who has alienated their respective base less. Evangelicals may despise Trump, but how can they question the overturning of Roe v. Wade — something that his predecessors Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush all failed to deliver? Trump can safely say, and often does, that he gets results regardless of his rhetoric.

The former president can benefit from positioning himself as a victim of political targeting — a figure every bit as maligned as Jesus, a man on the receiving end of scores of trumped-up charges. This analogy will surely resonate with at least some evangelicals, even if he doesn’t impress them all. As Christmas approaches, Trump can still present himself as a misunderstood messiah, only one election triumph away from taking America to the promised land. Biden, meanwhile, looks increasingly like an old man left to steer the ship of state without a GPS device, hoping to forestall a mutiny long enough to reach safe harbour.

Oliver Bateman is a historian and journalist based in Pittsburgh. He blogs, vlogs, and podcasts at his Substack, Oliver Bateman Does the Work