UnPresidented: Trump retains unfaltering evangelical support

Caleigh Stephens

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“UnPresidented” is a new weekly column discussing the transition and first days of the Trump administration.

 

Facing an adoring stadium of more than 50,000, Donald Trump delivered his first commencement speech as president on May 13 at the evangelical Liberty University. Following a glowing introduction from founder and former leader of the Moral Majority, Jerry Falwell, Trump took the opportunity not to comment on the recent firing of FBI director James Comey, Russia or the purported success of his first 100 days in office, but to deliver a speech based largely in religious rhetoric. As Trump continued his campaign tale of being an outsider in Washington, he declared, “In America we do not worship government, we worship God.” And indeed, in America, evangelicals seem to worship Trump.

The invocation of religion in presidential discourse, as it were, has long been used to appeal to the hearts and minds of the American public. Yet for a president whose electoral victory largely stemmed from the evangelical Christian vote, Trump has had a rocky path.

The last time he visited Liberty University, during his campaign, Trump was the target of ire after he spoke of “two Corinthians” in an incorrect reference to the section of the bible called “second Corinthians.” And late into the election a student group called Liberty United Against Trump was formed and put out a statement calling Trump “one of the worst presidential candidates in American history.” The group also claimed that in the presidential primaries in Virginia, Trump only received 90 votes from Liberty students, a “colossal rejection of his campaign.” However, any hint of the former opposition was absent at the commencement.

Despite this, evangelical support for the president has not wavered. A late-April study by Pew Research found that 78 percent of white evangelical Protestants approve of Trump’s performance as president. It is also interesting to note that support has gone up 3 percent since the election, with an October 2016 Pew study finding that 75 percent of white evangelical Protestants intended to vote for Trump for president. So it is no surprise that Trump found a welcome home at Liberty with the seemingly infallible backing of the evangelical community.

Trump’s evangelical approval percentage is especially striking when compared to the overall approval rating, which is a dismal 38 percent according to Saturday’s Gallup poll. The evangelical community, then, is undoubtedly the heart of the remaining stronghold of Trump’s base.

However, this support of Trump doesn’t seem to stem from any particular action he’s taken to please the evangelical community. In fact, his recent executive order dealing with religion, which Trump professed to be a landmark of religious liberty, has been met with lukewarm feelings all across the religious community, evangelicals included. One of the main impacts of the order is an attempt to repeal the Johnson Amendment, which opens up religious organizations to losing their tax-exempt status if they endorse or oppose a political candidate. This revocation, however, has not been welcomed by religious leaders, as 99 religious organizations (including some evangelical ones) sent a letter to Congress in April asking them to preserve the Johnson Amendment. The letter argued that “permitting electioneering in churches would give partisan groups incentive to use congregations as a conduit for political activity and expenditures.”

And a February survey from the National Association of Evangelicals found that 89 percent of respondents said that “pastors should not endorse politicians from the pulpit.” That number is quite a bit higher than the ⅔ of Americans opposed to churches endorsing candidates that Pew Research found in a 2016 study. Both show, however, that the order has failed to garner the goodwill from the religious community that Trump might have been seeking.

The rest of the executive order has little policy impact, but the action itself is indicative of the Trump administration’s purported emphasis on “religious liberty.” Vice President Pence has also furthered this, declaring at a world summit on the persecution of Christians on May 11 that “protecting religious freedom is a foreign-policy priority of the Trump administration.” There were echoes of Reagan throughout the speech as well, with the statement that “America was and is and ever will be a shining city on a hill.” The language of a “city upon a hill” has decidedly religious origins, coming from colonial John Winthrop’s comments on the colony of Massachusetts. It was invoked frequently by Reagan, who in his his farewell address even said that “I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life.” The comment also reveals that when members of the Trump administration talk about the concept of religious freedom, it is extended only to the Christian community, something already evident by Trump’s muslim-targeted travel ban.

But like most of the Trump administration, Pence’s purported campaign has been more rhetoric than concrete action. Trump wasn’t the one to quietly pass the Frank R. Wolf Act in December which elevated the position of ambassador for international religious freedom in the State Department (a position Trump has yet to fill). And with Trump’s recent visit to Saudi Arabia, he exhibited his support for the age-old American ideal that diplomacy and national security are more important than religious freedom or human rights concerns.

Since 2004, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom has designated Saudi Arabia as a tier one CPC, or country of particular concern, as a result of “continuing severe violations of religious freedom,” yet last weekend Trump basked in the regal welcome he has received by the Saudi government. This runs counter to Pence’s earlier claims of foreign policy priority.

But beyond the seeming disinterest in Trump’s actions regarding religion, there is an implicit acceptance of Trump’s personal life among evangelicals. Trump doesn’t seem the type to draw the evangelical crowd, as someone who has been married multiple times and made morally dubious statements throughout his campaign and presidency (consider the 2005 video released and his comments about women contained within).

It seems as though the white evangelical community is wholly willing to overlook any character flaws in their support of Trump. This assertion is backed up by studies from the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute. In 2011, a mere 30 percent of white evangelicals believed that “an elected official who commits an immoral act in their private life can still behave ethically and fulfill their duties in their public and professional life.” By October of 2016, the institute found that 72 percent of white evangelicals think that personal immorality and governmental performance can coexist. With this, the group shifted within a span of five years from the least likely to claim that personal actions have no bearing on the ethicality of an elected official to the most likely. The catalyst for such a dramatic shift? The only plausible explanation is the candidacy of Trump. It is clear that evangelical support of Trump extends beyond personal and political failures.

And so, the question of whether Trump supporters will turn their back on the president in light of a large political scandal, then, has been resolved. The answer, for evangelicals at least, is a resolute no.