When Donald Trump stepped to the podium in a football stadium in Mobile, Alabama, filled with 30,000 people there to hear him spread the gospel of Trump, he was overcome.
“Now I know how the great Billy Graham felt,” Trump said last month.
Trump and Graham, the famed Baptist revival preacher and counselor to presidents, are not exactly cut from the same cloth. And yet, Trump is winning over Christian conservatives in the current Republican presidential primary.
That’s right — the candidate currently leading among the most faith-filled voters is a twice-divorced casino mogul, who isn’t an active member of any church, once supported abortion rights, has a history of crass language — and who says he’s never asked God’s forgiveness for any of it.
If that sounds like an Onion story, it’s not. His blunt talk against a broken political system in a country rank-and-file evangelicals believe is veering away from its traditional cultural roots is connecting. He pledges to “Make America Great Again,” a positive spin on the similar Tea Party refrain of “Take Our Country Back.”
That redeeming message — and his tough talk on immigration, foreign policy and the Republican establishment — is quite literally trumping traditional evangelical concerns about a candidate’s morality or religious beliefs.
“I’ve come to see somebody that’s not scared to say what he thinks, and he thinks like I think,” gushed Joe Smart, a security guard who was at a Trump event in Greenville, S.C., last month. “He’s religious, and from what I hear, he’s going to change the White House back to Christianity. I pray every night that our nation will come back to God.”
It’s all left prominent evangelical leaders in disbelief.
“Trump has made his living as a casino mogul in an industry that preys on the poor and incentivizes immoral and often criminal behavior,” said Dr. Russell Moore, head of the influential Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.
Moore offered a searingly blunt assessment of the current GOP front-runner in an interview with NPR. “He’s someone who is an unrepentant serial adulterer who has abandoned two wives for other women,” he added. “He’s someone who has spoken in vulgar and harsh terms about women, as well as in ugly and hateful ways about immigrants and other minorities. I don’t think this is someone who represents the values that evangelicals in this country aspire to.”
Whether evangelical voters — who have been so key to national Republican presidential success — will heed that message or stick with a candidate who seems so anathema to many of their core beliefs will be tested as the campaign wears on.
Finding Trump Appeal In The Buckle Of The Bible Belt
In the heart of the Bible Belt at a Greenville, S.C., convention center last month — just down the road from the iconic evangelical school Bob Jones University — the line was long to get in to hear Trump’s latest sermon against political demons.
When pressed, many in the crowd in the key early primary state said they didn’t know about some of Trump’s more controversial statements regarding his faith.
On whether he’d ever asked for forgiveness from God for his sins, he told pollster Frank Luntz this in Iowa in July:
“I am not sure I have. I just go on and try to do a better job from there … think if I do something wrong, I think, I just try and make it right. I don’t bring God into that picture. I don’t.”
He went on to describe the sacrament of communion this way:
“When I drink my little wine — which is about the only wine I drink — and have my little cracker, I guess that is a form of asking for forgiveness, and I do that as often as possible because I feel cleansed. I think in terms of, ‘Let’s go on, and let’s make it right.’ ”
Audrey Lindsey of Spartanburg, S.C., said she hadn’t heard those comments, but believed his later exhortations of his faith. “He says his favorite book is the Bible,” Lindsey said, “and I believe that’s what it’s going to take — good, honest Christian people praying for this country.”
But Trump, who says he ranks the Bible just ahead of his own Art of the Deal, has been unable in this campaign to name his favorite Bible verse or even testament.
“Well, I wouldn’t want to get into it, because to me, that’s very personal,” Trump told Bloomberg. When pressed, he demurred, saying, “I don’t want to get into specifics.”
He said the Old and New Testaments were “probably equal.”
So, is Trump one of those “good, honest Christian people”?
“That’s a question mark,” Lindsey said. “That’s between him and God. I know people make mistakes, and you can change your life. I’m hoping through this situation that if he’s not a Christian, he’ll come to know Christ.”
Larry Linsin of Seneca, S.C., is also willing to give Trump the benefit of the doubt.
“People do change, if it’s an honest, legitimate turnaround,” said Linsin, who is also considering voting for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, someone with long evangelical credentials. “None of us has a perfect past.”
‘I Love Them. They Love Me.’
Like with most things, Trump is confident about his appeal to evangelical voters.
“I love them. They love me,” he said in a press conference following his Greenville speech. “I am protestant — I am Presbyterian. I love the evangelicals. Why do they love me? You’ll have to ask them — but they do.”
The polls so far bear that out. A national CNN poll out last week showed Trump (32 percent) and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson (28 percent) as the top choices among self-identified evangelicals.
In South Carolina, a state where nearly two-thirds of the GOP electorate identifies as evangelical or born-again Christians, Trump led Carson 33 to 13 percent, according to an August Monmouth University poll. In Iowa, Monmouth had Trump narrowly behind Carson with religious voters.
It’s an astonishing development, particularly considering the rest of the Republican presidential field. He leads a Southern Baptist minister in former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, two sons of preachers in Cruz and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, plus former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who won over Iowa evangelicals four years ago to take the first presidential nominating contest.
Bob Vander Plaats, an influential evangelical leader in Iowa and president of The Family Leader, said many religious voters see a kinship with Trump in his targets.
“It’s not surprising is that the enemy of our enemy is our friend,” Vander Plaats said. “That’s the art of political warfare. He’s calling out the establishment, the ‘media elite,’ and he’s calling out a lot of people.”
James Guth, a professor of political science at Furman University in Greenville who studies the intersection of religion and politics, said he, like many, have been “baffled” by the rise of Trump. But he echoed Vander Plaats in noting that evangelicals like that he’s attacking a common enemy — the GOP establishment.
“He’s quite clearly putting it to the Republican Party,” Guth said, “and a lot of evangelical Christians feel like they’ve been neglected by the Republican Party.”
The Christian Broadcasting Network’s David Brody explained it this way in July:
“They like his boldness. They relate to him because when they’ve been bold about their faith they get blasted too. It’s a kinship in a strange sort of way. Here’s the point with evangelicals: they’d rather someone be honest about their views about God. The honesty resonates with them and you know what evangelicals will probably end up doing? Instead of hating Trump, they’ll put him on a church ‘prayer chain’ and get on their knees themselves and pray that Donald Trump draws closer to God through this process.”
Robert Jeffress, pastor of the megachurch First Baptist Dallas, wrote that evangelical voters aren’t under any delusion that Trump believes the same as them. Instead, they’re just glad he’s closer to their beliefs than President Obama:
“No Evangelical I know is expecting Trump to lead our nation in a spiritual revival. But seven years of Barack Obama have drastically lowered the threshold of spiritual expectations Evangelicals have of their president. No longer do they require their president to be one of them. Evangelicals will settle for someone who doesn’t HATE them like the current occupant of the Oval Office appears to.”
Skepticism From The Pulpit
When the Christian World Magazine surveyed 94 top evangelical leaders in July about who they support for 2016, Trump was near the bottom of the pack. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio was their choice.
Moore contends that polls showing Trump ahead may be inaccurately identifying evangelicals and not differentiating among people who are committed, regular churchgoers.
“There ought to be a criterion of character for candidates for public office,” Moore said. “Someone who has a life and a tenor of life that is so obviously at odds with what evangelicals claim to be their values, ought to cause some alarm.”
Trump’s lack of support among leaders may be because they are skeptical that he’s a true believer. In addition to his past support for abortion rights, his divorces and inability to identify Bible verses, questions remain about his moral conviction on abortion and same-sex marriage. And there are holes in his story about something as basic as where he goes to church.
Trump recently agreed with an interviewer’s suggestion that a good Supreme Court nominee would be his sister, Maryanne Trump Barry, a judge on the Third Circuit Court of Appeals. But she supports abortion rights. Many of Trump’s rivals and conservative groups, like Concerned Women for America, pounced.
Trump talks fondly of growing up going to Sunday School at First Presbyterian Church in the Jamaica section of Queens, N.Y. When asked by NPR where he currently attends, he said he goes to Marble Collegiate Church in Manhattan.
Yet the church says he’s not an active member.
What’s more, Marble Collegiate is part of the Reformed Church in America — typically considered more of a mainline rather than evangelical denomination. The church is supportive of gay rights, according to its website.
Vander Plaats — who backed the Iowa winners in both 2008 (Huckabee) and 2012 (Santorum) and will reveal his pick for president around Thanksgiving this year — said he thinks Trump is “very genuine.” He trusts that his conversion on issues like abortion and same-sex marriage is real.
But Vander Plaats noted that Trump’s lack of support for Kim Davis, the Rowan County, Kentucky, clerk who was jailed for not issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, could be a problem for him. Huckabee and Cruz, on the other hand, rallied to her side and stood with her as she was released from jail Tuesday.
“[Voters] will hold his feet to the fire on a very real issue,” Vander Plaats said, “and that’s a danger issue for him.”
Trump will hold a gathering of evangelical leaders at the end of the month. But it’s led by Paula White, a Florida televangelist who preaches the “prosperity gospel” — a belief that it’s God’s will to financially bless devout Christians, something controversial in many evangelical circles.
Can The Support Of The Rank-And-File Last?
Throughout the summer, Trump defied political gravity. After each gaffe that would have been fatal for a conventional candidate, Trump has instead only soared.
The large field of candidates is helping Trump with evangelicals. There isn’t one candidate the religious right has rallied around, so their support is split.
Guth, for one, is skeptical Trump’s appeal can last. “I think as time goes on, many people in the evangelical community will begin to have reservations,” he predicted. “Some of that fascination with Trump will eventually wear off once they become more aware of his downside.”
It very well could be that as religious conservatives learn more about Trump’s positions or another candidate connects as the primaries get closer, their support fades. But Moore conceded that evangelicals have not always supported the candidate who lines up exactly with what they believe. But even of those candidates, they were always men who espoused a legitimate moral turnaround.
Religious conservatives are credited with fueling George W. Bush’s 2000 election and 2004 re-election despite his past with drugs and alcohol. And one of their heroes is Ronald Reagan, who himself was divorced.
Bush, of course, is the quintessential redemption story. While he never expressed publicly that he was “born again,” he did point to a 1985 conversation with the aforementioned Billy Graham. Bush wrote in his 1999 autobiography, A Charge to Keep, that Graham “planted a mustard seed in my soul, a seed that grew over the next year.”
Trump has pointed to no such conversion.
“As of right now, Donald Trump is the incarnation of a bumper sticker,” Moore said. “The support for Donald Trump is a way of sending message of anger with the status quo, and there are many people angered with the status quo. But I don’t think that that necessarily translates into people wanting to hand the nuclear codes to that living bumper sticker.”