By Lawrence Wilson
The powerful voting bloc of evangelical Christians helped candidate Donald Trump win in 2016. Though reluctant supporters at first, they came to love him, showing President Trump greater support in 2020 than that showered on candidate Ronald Reagan decades earlier.
For the era-defining contest next year, evangelicals appear more pro-Trump than ever. But the president’s greatly expanded appeal to the wider Republican base means he could win the primaries even if evangelicals didn’t turn up to the polls.
The makeup of the evangelical powerhouse has evolved in the eight years since the real estate mogul descended the escalator of Trump Tower to announce his run for the White House. Diminished by America’s shift to secularism and altered elementally by Trump himself, the political chemistry of evangelicals is much different from 2016, when the loosely organized coalition united to back him over Hillary Clinton.
As the primary season nears and all eyes turn to Iowa, at least one prominent evangelical is not supporting President Trump. Bob Vander Plaats, president of The Family Leader, endorsed Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Nov. 21.
“Iowa will rise up,” he told the Blaze. “This is not leadership our country needs.”
President Trump, meanwhile, highlighted the fact that the DeSantis’ campaign and groups linked to him paid Vander Plaats’ foundation a total of $95,000 in recent months.
For now, Republicans appear to be solidly behind President Trump, who rated 60 percent in an average of national polls compiled by FiveThirtyEight on Nov. 22. His nearest challenger for the GOP nomination garnered just 13 percent. Subtracting the entire evangelical voting bloc, which was about 21 percent of Republican voters in 2020 and is likely less today, would still leave President Trump with a double-digit lead.
The term evangelical generally applies to conservative Christians, mostly Protestants, who describe themselves as being born again.
However, as Russell Moore, editor of Christianity Today magazine, points out, “No one signs up at a central office to be an ‘evangelical.’” That’s because there isn’t one. The label is a “fuzzy term,” according to Mr. Moore, that describes a wide range of people who have a few beliefs and characteristics in common.
After a personal conversion experience, the dominant characteristic of evangelicals is their desire to change the world for the better.
“How do we then engage all of life?” That is the animating question for these Christians according to Ryan Helfenbein, executive director of the Standing for Freedom Center at Liberty University.
Answers to that question have taken a number of forms. Evangelicals are interested in leading a moral, ethical life. They also want to share their faith with others—evangelical literally means one who brings good news. And, at least among American evangelicals, it has prompted vigorous engagement in the public square. Evangelicals strongly advocate for the freedom to enact their vision for life and for that vision to be shared by others.
This brand of Christianity, which pairs a personal conversion experience with social activism, is not new, though the term evangelical came to prominence only in the mid-20th century. The phenomenon itself traces back some 300 years to religious movements in Great Britain, according to Karen Swallow Prior, author of “The Evangelical Imagination.”
While evangelicals were first oriented more toward making converts to Christianity, their desire to create a better world made it almost inevitable that they would become involved in political pursuits, according to Ms. Prior.
“That evangelical emphasis on activism … manifested itself in a number of ways, including missions work and other forms of ultimately imperialism and expansionism,” Ms. Prior told The Epoch Times.
“And so I think it’s safe to say that in 21st-century American evangelicalism, we still exhibit sort of those emphases and those qualities in the way we approach our tradition in the Christian faith.”
Many of the abolitionists of the 19th century and Prohibitionists of the early 20th century were motivated by religious convictions that would likely be described as evangelical today. The Women’s Rights Convention held in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848 met in a church whose denomination now refers to itself explicitly as evangelical.
Nearly half of evangelicals supported Southern Baptist and self-described evangelical Jimmy Carter in winning the 1976 presidential election. That marked the political coming out of this demographic, prompting Newsweek to dub 1976 “the year of the evangelical.”
It was also the last time anything close to a majority of evangelicals supported a Democratic presidential candidate.
Trump Won Evangelicals
Some 77 percent of evangelicals supported Mr. Trump in the 2016 election. While he did lose some of those supporters in 2020, he gained even more.
About 9 percent of evangelicals who voted for President Trump in 2016 did not do so in 2020, according to Pew Research. However, 18 percent of voters who identified themselves as evangelicals in that year had not voted for him in 2016.
Evangelical support for the 45th president rose to 86 percent in 2020.
President Trump himself is keenly aware of his relationship, which is based on his record of delivering results for them.
“No president has ever fought for Christians as hard as I have, and I will keep on fighting for Christians as hard as I can,” he told a gathering of evangelical activists in September. “Every promise I made to Christians as a candidate, I delivered, and, in many cases, delivered much more than the promises I made.”
Those promises began with an implicit deal between the candidate and the evangelicals, one that opened to them the possibility of realizing their most cherished political ambition.
Abortion, Abortion, Abortion
When the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision effectively legalized abortion in 1973, evangelicals found a galvanizing social issue: the right to life. Within a few years that cause began to animate nearly all evangelical voters. And Mr. Reagan noticed.
“It was a strategic moment for the Republican Party to grab hold of a whole voting bloc that perhaps shared some concerns with them on other issues,” Ms. Prior said.
“But it turned into a sort of wedge that, as we see decades later, is being used to divide true believers from those that the true believers say aren’t really Christians because they might vote another way,” she added.
That dynamic served to widen the already growing gap between the voting pattern of evangelicals and other Protestants who typically attended historic Protestant churches referred to as “mainline denominations.”
Evangelicals largely abandoned President Carter in the 1980 election, despite his religious bona fides. Although both men professed to be born again, only Mr. Reagan was unequivocally pro-life. Two-thirds of evangelicals voted for Mr. Reagan.
Some 80 percent of evangelicals voted to reelect President Reagan in 1984, and the same percentage went for George H. W. Bush in 1988.
By the early 2000s, evangelicals had cemented their place as the largest religious demographic in the country, comprising some 30 percent of the population, according to Pew Research.
Since then, evangelicals have voted for Republican presidential candidates in overwhelming numbers, ranging from 68 percent 86 percent. They have also accounted for about 20 percent of the Republican vote, making evangelicals a force to be reckoned with within the GOP.
Yet the 2016 election put that marriage of religious identity and party loyalty to the test.
As the Trump candidacy gained momentum, evangelicals faced a dilemma.
On the one hand, they had sharply criticized former presidents for moral shortcomings. Those included President Carter, who had given an interview with Playboy magazine in which he admitted to the sin of lust, and President Bill Clinton, whose affair with a White House intern became a national scandal. Both happened to be pro-choice Democrats.
In candidate Trump, evangelicals had a candidate who was ideologically compatible but morally questionable, especially after the release of the infamous Access Hollywood recording just before the election.
The angst was real, according to Mr. Helfenbein.
“It was a struggle among evangelicals to vote for a three-time married interloper,” Mr. Helfenbein said. “The public was made aware of all of these things and more.”
“There were a lot of issues within the rank and file of the evangelical world. There was a lot of clamoring, vociferous writing, and many evangelicals were fighting amongst each other over the candidacy of Donald Trump,” Mr. Helfenbein recalls.
Those included Mr. Moore, who was then president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission at the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination and one of the most thoroughly evangelical. Mr. Moore referred to Trump as an “awful candidate,” and in an October 2016 speech warned evangelicals against setting aside ethical concerns to achieve political aims.
Even current House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.), well known for his evangelical faith, had deep reservations about the Trump candidacy.
“The thing about Donald Trump is that he lacks the character and the moral center we desperately need again in the White House,” Mr. Johnson, then a Louisiana state legislator, wrote on social media in 2015, according to The New York Times.
While some evangelicals, like Mr. Moore, never relented in opposition to President Trump, others, including Mr. Johnson, became enthusiastic supporters. A major factor in that turnaround was the open seat on the U.S. Supreme Court, vacated by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia.
When Justice Scalia died in February 2016, then-Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) refused to hold confirmation hearings for President Barack Obama’s nominee until after the presidential election. That put the issue of abortion, always a point of contention in confirmation hearings, squarely at the center of the 2016 presidential race.
Faced with a choice between a pro-life Republican with character issues and a pro-choice Democrat, Hillary Clinton, whom many evangelicals distrusted, evangelicals chose candidate Trump.
The 2016 election appears to have been the first time those voters chose the advancement of their political agenda over their perceived character of the candidate.
Transgenderism, the New Abortion
A lot has changed since 2020. President Trump has made a deep impact on the Republican Party, the electorate in general, and evangelicalism itself.
With the overturning of Roe v. Wade, abortion matters have largely been left to the states. The pro-life record of red states is mixed. Some have passed highly restrictive laws on the procedure, including Florida with a ban after six weeks of pregnancy.
But six states have held referendums addressing the issue, and pro-life advocates lost in all six cases. Those included the reliably red states of Kentucky and Kansas. In Ohio, voters added a right to abortion to the state’s constitution.
Apparently realizing that Republican voters have become more tolerant on the issue, President Trump, has called Florida’s six-week ban “harsh.”
Will that diminish evangelical support for President Trump? Not necessarily.
One reason is that evangelicals are shifting their focus to fighting identity politics, particularly the cultural acceptance of transgenderism, which they see as being foisted on them through the educational system and rigid political correctness in public life.
Mr. Helfenbein explains: “Roe v. Wade was overturned, but now the question is about federal bans, state bans on abortion to protect and defend life and the sanctity of life. But then also coming down to sexual orientation and gender identity, how do we protect those who want to exercise their faith when it comes to education … to marriage, and want to retain the right to disagree?”
While President Trump may appear soft on abortion, evangelicals still have ample reason to support him as their champion of religious freedom.
The Trump Effect
Perhaps unexpectedly, President Trump became an evangelist of sorts for evangelicalism. The ranks of evangelicals had been declining since the early 2000s. Yet they increased slightly during the Trump presidency, apparently due to an influx of Trump supporters, according to Pew Research.
About 2 percent of white evangelicals stopped using the term to identify themselves between 2016 and 2020. However, 6 percent of white evangelicals adopted the label for themselves during that same period.
“There is solid evidence that white Americans who viewed Trump favorably and did not identify as evangelicals in 2016 were much more likely than white Trump skeptics to begin identifying as born-again or evangelical Protestants by 2020,” Pew states.
There were other effects. It appears that the character of evangelicalism also may have been impacted by its association with President Trump.
Of the 9 percent of evangelicals who withdrew their support for President Trump in 2020, there is at least anecdotal evidence that many abandoned the evangelical label as well.
Mr. Moore, who refers to himself as an “accidental exile” from his church but still an evangelical, speaks of this phenomenon in his book “Losing Our Religion.” According to Mr. Moore, the fusion of support for Trump with the evangelical identity—and related issues—are “dividing almost every church, almost every family, almost every friendship I know.”
A generation ago, Mr. Moore writes, parents often sought his advice when their children left the church for a secularized world. Now, he more often counsels young people about how to communicate with Christian parents who have become politically radicalized.
The shift concerns Ms. Prior, who wonders about its implications.
“I did hear and see many evangelicals express that the reason to support Donald Trump in 2016 was the pro-life issue,” Ms. Prior said. “And yet support for Donald Trump continues, but for other reasons. And so the question is, has something changed, or has something been revealed?
“There is an argument to be made that who Donald Trump is, and how he is, in terms of his abusive language, his degrading behavior, his will to power, actually is what some voters, including evangelicals, want,” she added.
Champion of the Right
President Trump’s combative style does appeal to evangelicals who are looking for a leader to champion their interests in a world they perceive as increasingly hardline, almost militant, in opposition to their faith and lifestyle.
Robert Jeffress, pastor of the 16,000-member First Baptist Church of Dallas, stated that succinctly when explaining his support for Mr. Trump in 2016.
“When I’m looking for a leader who’s going to fight ISIS and keep this nation secure, I don’t want some meek and mild leader or somebody who’s going to turn the other cheek. I’ve said I want the meanest, toughest SOB I can find to protect this nation,” Mr. Jeffress said in an interview with NPR.
“The evangelical is going to go with who they think not only best represents their concerns but is actually going to make good on the promises,” Mr. Helfenbein said. “If they really do believe, at the end of the day, that this candidate is going to fight to the death to defend those positions … I think that’s where their vote is going to land.”
That is exactly what some evangelical voters have told The Epoch Times.
“I pride myself on being a Christian,” Greg Abdouch of California said during the Pray, Vote, Stand Summit in Washington in September. “I’m not voting for Jesus Christ to run this country. If he was on the ballot, he’d have 100 of my support. He’s not. I’m voting for the man that I think can pull this country back to its godly Christian values.”
Who Needs Whom?
Evangelicals may still believe they need President Trump in 2024, but it’s less clear that he needs them—at least in the primary contest.
The number of evangelicals is diminishing as a share of the population, shrinking overall by 6 percent since 2007, despite the Trump bump.
And they are being replaced as the dominant force in the Republican coalition, according to Ryan Burge, an associate professor of political science at Eastern Illinois University.
“President Trump can afford some erosion of his support from evangelicals,” Mr. Burge wrote in Politico. “That’s because Trump’s real base of support in the 2016 primary contest came from a rising group in the GOP whose impact has been largely unnoticed: Republicans who hardly ever darken the door of a church, synagogue, or mosque.”
The shift toward a less evangelical Republican base is likely to accelerate as Americans become increasingly secularized.
According to Gallup, the number of Americans who associated with a house of worship in 2021 was at 47 percent, an all-time low. That number was 68 percent two decades prior. So the number of religiously affiliated Americans dropped by a third in a single generation.
“The evangelical boom that began in the 1970s was over by the early 1990s, nearly two decades ago,” wrote Robert Putnam and David Campbell in their book, “American Grace.” That caused the two scholars of public policy and political science respectively to conclude, “In 21st century America expansive evangelicalism is a feature of the past, not the present.”
That demographic shift will impact the Republican Party for years to come, according to Mr. Burge.
“The rising number of Republicans who rarely attend religious service will have long-term effects on the GOP that extend beyond the abortion debate, affecting everything from the types of candidates who run to the rhetoric they use to the kinds of issues they focus on,” Mr. Burge wrote.
During the 2016 election, it was a “hold the nose and gamble” situation, Mr. Helfenbein said. By November 2020, it was clear that the gamble had paid off in the form of not one but three pro-life Supreme Court justices and more than 200 conservative jurists placed in lower courts.
“Certainly, many people grimaced in pain when they either read the tweets or saw the quotes,” Mr. Helfenbein said. “But the reality, in terms of the record of accomplishments, was much different. And I think the substance is what matters most to conservatives, over the style.”