Donald Trump is a polarising figure, but he has always been able to count on the support of one group throughout his presidency: white evangelical Christians. In 2016, he won 81% of this group’s vote, a greater share than any Republican candidate in the past 25 years (including George Bush Jr). But in the past two years, cracks in this relationship have started to appear. Beginning with heated criticisms of Trump’s harsh immigration policy and a heavy backlash against his decision to pull troops out of Syria, two influential Christian publications have cast relations between Trump and the evangelical community into further doubt.
Last week, in an op-ed that attracted three million page views, an outgoing editor for Christianity Today called for Trump to be removed from office, describing him as ‘profoundly immoral’, while an editor at The Christian Post resigned in response to a pro-Trump editorial from the publication. That only 62% of white evangelicals say they now definitely plan to vote for Trump next year is a point of concern for a president who won in 2016 by only 80,000 votes.
For Trump to retain his seat in the White House, he will need high levels of support from the Bible Belt, where most evangelicals are clustered. He won these states by a comfortable margin in 2016, but Democrats chipped away at this lead in the 2018 mid-term elections. Moreover, Pete Buttigieg, a potential presidential rival of Trump, has seldom missed an opportunity to burnish his Christian credentials on the campaign trail. In light of Roy Moore’s shock defeat in Alabama last year, the Republican-Christian alliance is looking less dependable.
Given that over three-quarters of evangelicals still identify as Republican, this alliance is far from over. To many white evangelicals, whose numbers are declining in the US, Trump is seen as the ‘last chance’ to prevent America’s backslide into secularism. In turn, he has repaid their faith by appointing two socially conservative judges to the Supreme Court and he still intermittently strikes an overtly Christian tone — see his Christmas message this week.
Around the world, Right-wing populist leaders have turned Christianity into an effective electoral battleground. In Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro eschewed debates in favour of televised conversations with evangelical pastors; in Hungary, Viktor Orban is striving to replace liberal democracy with a ‘Christian democracy’ and in France, Marine Le Pen said that France’s values “stem from the principles of secularization resulting from a Christian heritage.”
Whether Trump succeeds in getting re-elected or not will in part depend on how much he can rally his evangelical base. Thus far, America’s evangelicals have been willing to honour their Faustian bargain with the president, but the degree to which they turn out for him in 2020 could make the difference. Expect a concerted attempt to shore up support over the next few months.