President Trump is perhaps the least demonstrably Christian U.S. president ever. When he and First Lady Melania Trump attended the funeral service for George H. W. Bush on Dec. 5, 2018, they did not recite the Apostle's Creed that was printed in the program. Seated next to them, Barack and Michelle Obama and Bill and Hillary Clinton recited the prayer.
But how do contemporary Christians perceive him?
It can be tricky to pin down what evangelicals think of Trump, in part because it's an impermanent demographic based on self-identification.
It is well known that 81% of self-identified white evangelicals told exit pollsters they voted for Trump in 2016. However, as Napp Nazworth points out, this self-identified group may not correlate to the people who actually attend church or the people who don't vote. There may be many churchgoing Americans who aren't active voters but nevertheless don't like Trump.The most often cited number when it comes to evangelical support for Trump is "81%," which is likely what Falwell had in mind. But that number comes with many caveats: 1) it only includes white evangelicals, 2) it only includes self-identified evangelicals, which means non-churchgoers and people who don't hold evangelical beliefs could be included, 3) non-voters were not polled and so their numbers are not included in the denominator, and 4) it was based upon exit polls, which are among the least reliable polls.
It's important to note the decline in Christian influence in the United States. Many commentators have suggested that Christians are making a kind of "deal" with the man who happens to have gained power, someone who — just perhaps — they otherwise would not have admired.
Nina Burleigh wrote for Newsweek on April 16, 2018 that white evangelicals have experienced a sharp demographic decline over the last decade. Burleigh attributes this to their children "leaving the faith in droves over its anti-LGBT and anti-science positions"; today, 92 percent of white evangelicals are over age 30. "During the 2016 primary season, white evangelicals were largely divided in their opinion of Trump...But once Republicans nominated him, his favorability among white evangelicals jumped to 61 percent in September 2016...Now, according to a poll conducted in late March , after the Stormy Daniels story was widely discussed, support has risen to a record 75 percent." This suggests that this demographic is substantially unconcerned "by his lawyer’s hush money to Stormy Daniels," "revelations that the married President had a year-long affair with an adult film actress after First Lady Melania gave birth to their son Barron," and "shady business deals". After all, as Christopher H. Achen and Larry M. Bartels wrote in Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government, "A great many of his supporters were thrilled to hear white Christian America forcefully defended against its perceived enemies. Those were their identities. He was their hero. Whether he got the facts right did not matter."
Angie Maxwell wrote in the Washington Post in July 2019 that the Republican Party's late 20th-century "Southern strategy" has "finally come to fruition, and it is still working today. The GOP’s partisan conversion of Southern white evangelicals is so complete that no longer must a Republican candidate hold authentic religious beliefs to secure their support. Nowhere is this clearer than in Southern white evangelical support for Donald Trump. Indeed, only 38 percent of white evangelicals living in the South identified Trump as a Christian, but 84 percent of them still voted for him."
White evangelicals "went from being the least likely to the most likely to agree that a candidate’s personal immorality had nothing to do with public service," an article in the New York Times said in June 2018, referencing a September 2017 article in the paper.
As an example of how Trump merges his lifelong interpersonal habits with his policy: On December 13, 2019, reporter Bob Woodward interviewed Trump, who said he instantly had a good feeling about North Korea's dictator Kim Jong Un. Trump said, as Woodward quoted him in his book Rage: "You meet a woman. In one second, you know whether or not it's all going to happen. It doesn't take you 10 minutes, and it doesn't take you six weeks. It's like, whoa. Okay. You know? It takes somewhat less than a second."
John Pavlovitz wrote a searing indictment of the inconsistency of Trump's evangelical supporters. In January 2018, he wrote an open letter addressed to "White Evangelicals," berating them:
For eight years [during the Obama administration] they watched you relentlessly demonize a black President; a man faithfully married for 26 years; a doting father and husband without a hint of moral scandal or the slightest whiff of infidelity.
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you never once suggested that God placed him where he was,
you never publicly offered prayers for him and his family,
you never welcomed him to your Christian Universities,
you never gave him the benefit of the doubt in any instance,
you never spoke of offering him forgiveness or mercy,
your evangelists never publicly thanked God for his leadership,
your pastors never took to the pulpit to offer solidarity with him,
you never made any effort to affirm his humanity or show the love of Jesus to him in any quantifiable measure.
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And yet you give carte blanche to a white Republican man so riddled with depravity, so littered with extramarital affairs, so unapologetically vile, with such a vast resume of moral filth — that the mind boggles.
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They see that pigmentation and party are your sole deities.
They see that you aren’t interested in perpetuating the love of God or emulating the heart of Jesus.
They see that you aren’t burdened to love the least, or to be agents of compassion, or to care for your Muslim, gay, African, female, or poor neighbors as yourself.
They see that all you’re really interested in doing, is making a God in your own ivory image and demanding that the world bow down to it.
They recognize this all about white, Republican Jesus — not dark-skinned Jesus of Nazareth.
Ross Douthat wrote for the New York Times in September 2018 that a new survey by the Cato Institute’s Emily Ekins for the Voter Study Group found that whether a Trump voter attends church predicted their views on race. Among Trump voters who never go to church, only half had positive feelings about Black people, and a quarter said their own whiteness was "very important" to their identity. Among Trump voters who frequently go to church, 71 percent had positive feelings about Black people, and only 9 percent said their own whiteness was "very important" to their identity. While the religious and secular groups in the survey had similar incomes, the secular people were "less likely to have college degrees, less likely to be married and more likely to be divorced; they’re also less civically engaged, less satisfied with their neighborhoods and communities, and less trusting and optimistic in general." (Emily Ekins wrote a separate article about it, concluding that "encouraging conservatives to disengage from religion...may in fact make it even harder for left and right to meet in a more compassionate middle.") But why did the churchgoing people vote for Trump, if they disagree with him about race? It seems they made "a pragmatic bet that his policies on abortion and religious liberty were worth living with his Caligulan personal life and racial demagoguery." Early Christianity made such a bet with the Roman emperor Constantine. However, with Trump, it's "the reverse sort of situation: A Christian community trying to make the best of its decline, and allying with a leader whose core appeal depends upon and possibly furthers the de-Christianization of conservatism....it’s hard to see how it can reverse de-Christianization, and easy to see how it might accelerate it."
Others have a different interpretation. Neil J. Young, author of We Gather Together: The Religious Right and the Problem of Interfaith Politics, notes the study's conclusion that "religious participation may serve a moderating function in our politics" [emphasis mine] and he clarifies that he believes that "white evangelicals are no moderating force. They are the core of our extremist president’s support." [emphasis mine] Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, an Episcopalian, and an openly gay man running as a Democratic candidate for President in 2020, said in an April 2019 television interview that evangelicals' "hypocrisy is unbelievable" when it comes to their support for Trump.
Paula White, the "spiritual adviser" to Trump, who said a prayer at his inauguration and who formed a White House evangelical advisory council, "has ratcheted up support among evangelicals for the president’s hard-line immigration policies and used her Facebook following of more than 3 million to champion the idea that God has blessed Trump’s plans," according to the Washington Post. When challenged with the proposition that Jesus was a refugee, she once answered, that Jesus had done nothing illegal. "If he had broke the law, then he would have been sinful and he would not have been our Messiah." (Other Christians have challenged this interpretation, as Jesus was, famously, executed.) When she spoke at the rally in June 2019 at which he announced his reelection campaign, she told the crowd, "let every demonic network who has aligned itself against the purpose, against the calling of President Trump, let it be broken, let it be torn down in the name of Jesus!” she prayed. She added: "I declare that President Trump will overcome every strategy from hell and every strategy from the enemy — every strategy — and he will fulfill his calling and his destiny."
Whether or not conservatism today is stripping Christianity of its religious content, it is giving it power, and this does reverse the decline of the influence of Christian institutions. Katherine Stewart, author of The Good News Club: The Christian Right's Stealth Assault on America's Children wrote in a May 2018 op-ed for the New York Times:
"There is a story going around, on both the left and the right, that America’s 'true believers' are a declining force and are now conducting desperate, defensive maneuvers in a secularizing society. But that is not how the leaders of the Christian Nationalist movement see it — because it is not true. They played a key role in putting President Trump in power. They are protecting him now, as they giddily collect their winnings in legislatures and in the courts. Why should they doubt that they can pull off the same trick again?
What Christian nationalists know — and many of us have yet to learn — is that you don’t need a majority to hijack a modern democracy. You just need a sizable minority, marinating in its grievances, willing to act as a bloc, and impervious to correction by fact or argument. Make this group feel good about itself by making other people feel bad about themselves, and dominion may well be in reach."
Franklin Graham, son of the late Billy Graham, planned ten "campaign-style rallies" throughout California in late May and early June 2018 in advance of that state's primary election. The goal is to turn out the evangelical vote. Other kinds of Christians are not receiving the same outreach to attend these rallies, "a tactic that plays directly into the growing separatist sentiment among many white evangelicals," according to Neil J. Young, author of We Gather Together: The Religious Right and the Problem of Interfaith Politics. Of this attempt to stoke "white evangelical resentment and outrage," Young wrote: "Such a dark and alarmist vision might seem to contradict the hopeful joy evangelicals claim their faith provides, but it aligns perfectly with the cynical and conspiratorial worldview Trump has brought to the center of American politics. As such, white evangelicals’ support for Trump doesn’t expose their hypocrisy, as plenty have contended, so much as it plainly reveals their heart." On 13 June, even Graham told the Christian Broadcasting Network that Trump's policy of separating would-be immigrant families at the border is "disgraceful, it’s terrible to see families ripped apart and I don’t support that one bit." He stopped short, however, of holding Trump accountable: "I blame the politicians for the last 20, 30 years that have allowed this to escalate to where it is today."
Whether Christian power is seen to be declining or rising, many see the new administration as an opportunity to advance a theocratic-leaning political agenda.
This was how it worked on an institutional level. Anne Nelson, author of Shadow Network: Media, Money, and the Secret Hub of the Radical Right, in conversation with Andrew Keen, published May 18, 2020 on the "Keen On" on LitHub (recording: 5:30–6:30)
I think that the relationship between the leadership of the Council for National Policy and Donald Trump is as purely transactional as you’re going to get in politics. There was a deal cut in fairly stark terms in 2016, in June, where the conservatives from the fundamentalists and these business interests came to Trump and said, 'You don’t have any campaign organization. You don’t have a war chest. You don’t have people on the ground. We’ve got all of those. We’ve got campaign in a box. What we want from you is the right to nominate your federal judges. We want our guy, Mike Pence, as your running mate. We want to write the social platforms for the Republican National Convention.' And the deal was struck, and both sides have honored them. So I think it’s the ultimate quid pro quo.
The deal has also been internalized on an individual, personal level by many people. The theologian Roger E. Olson wrote for Patheos in August 2018 in "Is Trump “Our Cyrus?"
Here I’m not talking about those evangelical Christians who, among others, voted for Trump in order to vote against Hilary Clinton as the “lesser of two evils.” I’m talking about the many evangelical Christians who are now lionize Trump as a kind of new national messiah—not on a par with Jesus Christ but...on a par with whom?
A growing common answer is "He’s our Cyrus.'
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During his approximately thirty year reign he [Cyrus] released the Hebrew people in exile to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple that was destroyed earlier by the Babylonians....the Hebrew people did not consider Cyrus one of them, of course, but a powerful ally — and one raised up by God to deliver them from exile and bondage."
Olson issues a warning: "I strongly suspect that he [Trump] is manipulating his conservative Christian 'base' and would turn on them in a moment if it suited his agenda to be powerful."
Is it hypocritical? Well, yes. Kathleen Parker on Aug. 31, 2018 in the Washington Post decried "the utter hypocrisy of allowing such a foul-mouthed, race-baiting misogynist to occupy the Oval Office after many of these same paragons of virtue impeached Bill Clinton for lying about his irresponsible affair with an intern." But it can be politically expedient to ignore the personal failings of one's own candidate. James Traub wrote in the Atlantic on July 18, 2018:
Elected Democrats lined up to denounce President Bill Clinton’s private behavior during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, though none deemed it worthy of impeachment. Donald Trump’s vastly more outrageous behavior has provoked far less opprobrium from his own party. Republicans aren’t less decent than Democrats; rather, they have come to see political struggle in such apocalyptic terms that no merely personal form of shameful behavior can compete with the political stakes. Thus Christian conservatives hold their tongue rather than jeopardize their chances of getting a Supreme Court justice who will overturn Roe v. Wade. The party of personal morality thus becomes the party of indifference to personal morality.
On another front, where Christians are trying to consolidate political power, it isn't exclusively white Christians who are doing so.
Katherine Stewart profiled Jim Domen for the New York Times on June 20, 2018. Domen (who considers himself a "former homosexual") founded Church United and has led it since 2014. It is "a multiethnic group of pastors from a variety of traditions — including Pentecostal and Catholic clergy members" with a mission of “helping pastors transform California at the government and church level.” Domen supports Trump, saying that he has “done more for the Church than many Christian presidents have.” Church United's work to "politicize pastors," as Stewart put it, "started with six affiliated pastors in 2014. The group now counts approximately 500 member pastors."
Some people feel torn.
An example of a middle-of-the-road position is given by Rev. Samuel Rodríguez, who serves at a church in Sacramento, Calif. and who has had private conversations with Trump in the White House. He publicly condemned Trump for his misogynistic, crude comments on the Access Hollywood tape and is also fighting Trump's immigration agenda, but he is willing to work with Trump overall. In May 2018, Rodríguez told BBC World:
"Trump ha hecho más por el movimiento evangélico que cualquier otro presidente desde la época de Ronald Reagan. Se puede medir. Hay 20 puntos que uno puede decir claramente: aquí firmó una orden ejecutiva, aquí firmó una ley, aquí avanzó..."
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"El movimiento latino evangélico no está casado con Donald Trump. Tampoco estaba casado con Obama. Estamos casados con una agenda que va mucho más allá de la personalidad."
Independently of whatever "deal" may be struck here, what do evangelicals feel about Trump's character?Many are disappointed. Molly Wicker wrote for the New York Times on May 19, 2017:
"Evangelical voters have long demanded that politicians exemplify Christian character and morality in the public sector. In Donald Trump, however, evangelicals were confronted with a candidate who pledged allegiance to conservative ideals, but embodied none of them.
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Claire Waugh, a senior from Woodbridge, Va., told me that she refused in November to have a Trump vote on her conscience, and that she hates to see the country being "led by a man who spews vitriol against anyone who is unlike him, a man who tries to invoke God’s name when he is acting utterly ungodly.""
Some Christians think that theology, not secular politics, is the way forward.
David Kuo, who worked for the George W. Bush administration, wrote in his 2006 memoir Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction when he was facing a terminal illness (pp. 262-263):
"We Christians need a short fast from politics.
We need to eschew politics to focus more on practicing compassion. We need to spend more time studying Jesus and less time trying to get people elected. Instead of spending hundreds of millions of dollars every year in support of conservative Christian advocacy groups such as the Family Research Council, Eagle Forum, and the panoply of similar groups, let's give that money to charities and groups that are arguably closer to Jesus' heart. And we Christians should spend less time arguing with those on the other side and more time communing with them."
More recently, Daniel Burke wrote for CNN on 13 June 2018 about the Southern Baptist Convention's annual meeting in Dallas that "a small but significant slice" of the 10,000 participants objected to the planned address by Vice President Mike Pence. Younger people seemed more concerned with evangelizing the message of Jesus (what they call "The Great Commission") than with aligning themselves with the Republican Party. Garrett Kell, a pastor, said alignment with the Republican Party was also strategically fraught as it could affect the Southern Baptists' interracial and international relations. (The Southern Baptists formed as a pro-slavery splinter group in 1845, and Pew's 2014 U.S. Religious Landscape Study found that the Southern Baptists remain 85 percent white.) Pence did address the Convention that day, and Burke followed up, saying that "much of Pence's speech was dedicated to praising the accomplishments of his boss, President Donald Trump." He added: "The denomination's executive committee will consider a motion to cease inviting elected officials to speak at national conventions."
Jonathan Merritt, writing for The Atlantic on 16 June, said that the crowd at the annual meeting was significantly younger than he remembered from his childhood. He quoted Baylor University history professor Barry Hankins as saying that this demographic change "has thrust the group into the middle of an identity crisis". They elected 45-year-old J.D. Greear as the president of the Southern Baptists who has promised to make an effort to proportionately represent women and people of color in leadership roles. The denomination addresses public policy through its Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, which opposes President Trump, and Greear said that inviting Pence to speak "sent a terribly mixed signal" about whether the Southern Baptists stood for religion or politics. At least some Southern Baptists, Merritt said, "appear to recognize that tethering themselves to Donald Trump...places the moral credibility of the Southern Baptist Convention at risk." Furthermore, although "Southern Baptists have criticized more liberal denominations for their declines," they, too, are experiencing the same decline; they have lost 1 million members in the past 15 years. Tying themselves to conservative politics is therefore, many conclude, not the answer to reversing this trend.
Michael Gerson, a white evangelical conservative, noted the demographic decline in an August 2019 op-ed for the Washington Post, pointing out that a quarter of Americans over age 65 are white evangelical Protestants, but only 8 percent of Americans ages 18-29 have that identity. Gerson said it is a "scandal" that white evangelicals are not in a state of "panic" about this decline." Gerson said that evangelical support of "religious liberty" legislation reflects "a larger anxiety about lost social standing." He argues that evangelicals should reemphasize their "religious calling," as they did "in late-18th-century and early-19th-century Britain, or mid-19th-century America," rather than continuing to behave "like another political interest group."
In her article "The Religious Right Has It All Wrong. Trump is a 'Test,' Not Their Savior," Cynthia Dagnal-Myron said she believes that Jesus is "asking Christians, through Trump, to follow His lead repeatedly," — note that the capitalized "His" refers to Jesus, not Trump — by having Trump break every law in The Book to see if we're paying attention."
Carol Kuruvilla wrote for Huffington Post in April 2019:
"In a 2011 poll from PRRI and the Religion News Service, 60% of white evangelicals surveyed said that a public official who 'commits an immoral act in their personal life” cannot still “behave ethically and fulfill their duties in their public and professional life.' But in October 2016, right after The Washington Post published an 'Access Hollywood' recording of Trump making lewd comments about sexual assault, the number of white evangelicals who weren’t willing to give politicians a pass for immoral behavior dropped to 20%. ...white evangelicals were even less likely in late 2018 to connect politicians’ private and public lives in this way. Only 16.5% said they believed privately immoral behavior translates to unethical professional conduct."
In the most recent study, people did not seem to be responding based on principle as much as they seemed to be responding to a particular politician. When white evangelicals had Bill Clinton in mind, they were four-and-a-half times more likely to say that privately immoral behavior was relevant to public life than when they had Donald Trump in mind.
In May 2019, the Jim Bakker show offered viewers the chance to buy a coin with the faces of Cyrus and Trump for a $45 donation. On the show, Lance Wallnau described Trump as "a Cyrus to navigate through the storm" of American politics. He described the coin as "a point of contact" to use in prayer.
There is also faith-based activism on the left, and, of this, Laura E. Alexander wrote in August 2019:
"...there’s always been progressive Christian activism in the United States.
I have studied religious thought and action around migrants and refugees for some time – including analyzing the New Sanctuary Movement, a network of churches that offers refuge to undocumented immigrants and advocates for immigration reform.
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Talk of an emerging “religious left” is ahistoric. American Christianity has always had its liberal strains, with pastors and parishioners protesting state-sponsored injustices like slavery, segregation, the Vietnam War and mass deportation.
But the high profile, religiously based moral outrage at Trump’s immigration policies does seem to be spurring some long-overdue rethinking of what it means to be Christian in America."
On the October 7, 2019 television episode of The 700 Club, Pat Robertson objected to Trump's sudden decision to withdraw from Syria, abandoning the Kurds (who had been U.S. allies) as Turkish forces (who are hostile to the Kurds) enter Syria. Robertson said he was "appalled" by Trump's betrayal of the Kurds and that believes that Trump "is in danger of losing the mandate of heaven if he permits this to happen.” From the Washington Post article:
A Fox News poll conducted October 6-8, 2019 found that, among white evangelicals, 71% of approved of the job Trump is doing. Only 44% had confidence in Congress and only 26% approved of the job Congress is doing. These white evangelicals had favorable opinions of Trump (70%), Pence (64%), the president's personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani (46%), the Democratic Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi (21%), Adam Schiff (17%), Bill Barr (34%), Mitch McConnell (37%), Hillary Clinton (24%), the Democratic Party (24%), the Republican Party (63%). And 57% of them were at least somewhat troubled by the situation surrounding Trump's scandal with the Ukrainian president. 73% were concerned about Trump's allegations against Joe Biden in that scandal. While 28% of white evangelicals said that Trump should be impeached and then removed from office, 64% said that he should not be impeached at all. 38% of them said it is, in general, appropriate for a president to ask foreign countries to investigate their political rivals. 34% said they believe Trump feels it is more important to do what is best for him as an individual rather than what is best for the country.
Robertson went on to invoke the Armenian genocide, in which the Turkish government killed thousands of Armenian Christians amid World War I and the killing of Washington Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi, who was assassinated last year in the Saudi Consulate in Turkey.
“The president, who allowed Khashoggi to be cut into pieces, without any repercussions whatsoever, is now allowing the Christians and the Kurds to be massacred by the Turks,” Robertson said.
That 71% approval rating among white evangelicals represents a decline from "the 81 percent that backed him over Hillary Clinton in 2016," Eugene Scott wrote in the Washington Post, and it is possible that Trump's military decision that enabled violence against Christians in Syria will cause him to lose more Christian support among American voters.
In October 2019, the Public Religion Research Institute found that, as reported by Relevant Magazine, "75 percent of white evangelicals say they approve of him and, what’s more, 31 percent of that group say there’s 'almost nothing' Trump could do to lose their support." By contrast, "86 percent of black Protestants disapprove of Trump, 67 percent of which say there’s almost nothing Trump could do at this point to change their minds," and a majority of black Protestants, Hispanic Protestants, and Catholics believe that he encourages white supremacists.
A majority of white evangelicals (60%) think that Trump is morally upstanding, a Pew survey found in early 2020. "The evangelical assessment," an NPR article explained, "does come with some reservations. Only about 15% of white evangelicals, for example, say 'morally upstanding' describes Trump 'very well,' while another 45% say the term applies to Trump 'fairly well.'" (Here, they differ from the American population as a whole, two-thirds of which say that "morally upstanding" does not describe Trump.) Furthermore, in the NPR summary: "Almost two-thirds of white evangelicals see Trump as at least 'somewhat religious,' despite his profanity, his sporadic church attendance, and his evident unfamiliarity with the Bible."
Between April and June 2020, white evangelicals' approval of Trump's performance dropped from 78% to 72% in a Pew survey, and yet 82% of them still said they would vote for Trump over Biden. (Pew found that 77% of white evangelicals voted for Trump over Clinton in 2016.)
Other polls had more drastic results. Over two months (March-May 2020), white evangelicals' support for Trump dropped from 77% to 62%. (PRRI survey) "Militant white masculinity has always been at the center of family-values evangelicalism," Kristin Kobes du Mez wrote. "They denigrated feminism, pacifism, and political correctness, and championed war, law enforcement, the military, and the Second Amendment in order to promote a culture where men could exercise their God-given, testosterone-driven authority." That is why, Kobes du Mez argues, one of his biggest problems for his image in the summer of 2020 has been "his West Point commencement address was derailed by his halting descent down a ramp and apparent difficulty in lifting a glass of water to his lips." Any hint of weakness, physical or otherwise, damages his standing with the "family values" crowd.
In 2009, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life asked Americans whether it was ever justifiable to torture suspected terrorists during interrogation, and respondents were 50% more likely to say yes if they were white evangelicals than if they were "religiously unaffiliated."