White Evangelical Christians overwhelmingly backed President Donald J. Trump in the recent election and, at least for now, are standing their ground.
The most recent presidential approval tables, published by the Pew Research Center in April, show 63 percent of white Evangelicals “approve strongly ” of the job Trump’s done so far compared to only 11 percent who “disapprove strongly.” Pew has the president’s overall approval rating at 39 percent.
Democrats, Independents and even some Republicans continue to express dismay at this unwavering support among white Christian Fundamentalist. Some evangelical leaders, however, feel like they have a voice for the first time in eight years.
“There was a sense in the mainstream [media] that Evangelical Christians were sort of a peripheral kind of nuisance to be put up with rather than the core of so many locales and states,” says Joe Martin Jr., 57. Martin is the senior pastor at Trinity Church in Dallas and Chaplin for the Southern Methodist University Football Team. He adds, “I think the perception was that Trump would create a world we could thrive in.”
For a country that celebrates religious freedom, the divide between right and left wing factions feels, increasingly, based on faith. In fact, though, politics and the pulpit have a not so distant history in contemporary America.
“Don’t commit yourself to some political party or politician. You commit yourself to the principles of God and demand those parties and politicians align themselves with the eternal values in this book,” proclaimed the Bible-wielding televangelist James Robison at the 1980 National Affairs Briefing in Dallas. Moments later Robison introduced then presidential candidate and California Governor Ronald Reagan.
Before the crowd of 15,000 Evangelical Christians, a voting bloc just beginning to realize its power, Reagan waved off the standing ovation with an air of charming humility. He thanked his hosts and said, “I know this is a nonpartisan gathering and so I know that you can’t endorse me, but I only brought that up because I want you to know that I endorse you.”
Almost 40 years later, many of the same social issues are at play – abortion and gay rights – along with some new ones, like transgender bathroom protections and immigration. Liberals view the Obama Administration’s progressive policies as an improvement to the country’s social fabric. But Conservative Christians have bucked and struggled at what they believe is a cultural assault and Trump, according to some people, is payback.
“When gay marriage became the law of the land through the Supreme Court, I think for a lot of [Christians] it was a huge thing,” says 42-year-old Randy Roberts Potts, grandson of Oral Roberts, one of America’s first and most successful televangelists.
“I’m convinced that’s what threw the switch and this feeling that the end of the world is, literally, tomorrow and we have to do something.”
Potts grew up on his grandfather’s compound in Tulsa, Oklahoma during the ’80’s-era of the Moral Majority, a political movement founded by the Reverend Jerry Falwell and embraced by the GOP. No longer a practicing Christian, Potts published his memoir on Instagram last year. He’s been estranged from his family since coming out as gay 12 years ago. Now living in a Dallas suburb with his husband of almost five years, he shares custody of his three children with his ex-wife.
“My whole life, gays were the absolute worst. We didn’t have a fear of Muslims at that time. The scariest thing on the planet was the radical homo-fascist gay person.”
When the Supreme Court upheld the right of gays to marry, it seemed to Evangelicals that this terrifying vision was coming true. Their response came at the polls.
“[Trump] seems like the conclusion or fulfillment of everything I’ve heard my whole life,” says Potts.
(a complete transcript of Randy’s interview can be found here)
Trump’s campaign promise of a Muslim ban and tougher immigration laws also earned him loyalty among Conservative Christians. Many Evangelicals felt that Obama and Hilary Clinton’s refusal to utter the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism” was proof of a liberal bias against the Christian Faith.
In a survey released earlier this year, the Public Religion Research Institute reported 57 percent of white Evangelical Christians polled believe they deal with more discrimination than Muslims in the United States.
That perception, blended with Trump’s nationalist message during the campaign, helped move a wave of born-again Christians into the Trump camp.
“I just thought it was time to kind of throw a blanket over the expansion of globalism,” says Martin, the Dallas pastor. “So when Trump began to espouse that, it was very attractive to people like me who want to see a strong America. Why, because a strong America opens the door for a strong evangelism of the world. A weak America, a watered down America, slows our ability down to do that.”
At the heart of whether “America First” is a viable policy approach lies the debate over the country’s foundation. Many Evangelicals believe the United States was founded as a Christian nation; some liberals and scholars, however, can prove otherwise.
“The U.S. was not founded as a Christian nation,” says Christopher Stroop, a writer, ex-evangelical and postdoctoral scholar at the University of South Florida.
Stroop, 36, began questioning the concept of biblical inerrancy – the doctrine that the Bible is without error – as a teenager, but didn’t completely break with evangelicalism until his mid-20’s.
Speaking from his home in suburban Tampa, he points out that the Constitution was developed through debate and compromise, and never mentions God. The idea of America as a Christian nation, he says, is rooted in the Cold War, when “intellectuals, politicians and businessmen, working together” in the ’40s and ’50s, needed to confront the Soviet Union’s “grand idea of Marxism, of the Communist future” with an ideology equally as powerful.
“So we become, in the minds of the ideologues who hashed out these ideas and popularized them…a religious country in competition with Godless Communism,” says Stroop.
Despite the facts, conservative Christians, like Martin, believe, in his words, that “Christianity played a huge role in not only the formation of our republic, but really in the governing of our republic,” and that U.S. policy should reflect these religious values.
There appears little room for common ground between Evangelical Republicans and secular Democrats. Inserting God into politics seems to be a requirement for conservative Christians, while keeping church and state separate is vital to liberals.
It’s unlikely that this administration, given its record during the campaign and in its first 150 days, can make any moves that would rattle the religious right’s devotion beyond repair. After all, as Martin asserts, God can use anyone, no matter how imperfect.
“God worked through people that weren’t Christians all the time,” he says. “You look at the Old Testament and God used kings, foreign dignitaries, to get his will accomplished.”