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Will Donald Trump Ever Lose His Evangelical Firewall?

By Thomas S. Kidd—

Whatever turbulence the Trump administration faces, the one group who will seemingly never turn on the president are white evangelical voters. The president knows and (mostly) appreciates this fact. When he’s in trouble, as he is at the moment over Ukraine and Syria, he hangs out with his friends. This tendency accounts for Trump’s recent appearance at the Values Voter Summit, an annual meeting of Republican evangelical insiders in Washington. Although the recent controversy over Syrian policy, Turkey, and the Kurds has elicited some of the first doubts ever regarding the unbreakable evangelical alliance with Trump, his speech there illustrates why hardcore evangelical Republicans will likely never turn on him for good.

In spite of the fact that evangelical Christians are represented in just about every ethnic group around the world, Americans tend to have tunnel vision about what the term “evangelical” means with regard to race, nation, and politics. Even in America, evangelicals are a multiethnic cohort, and the movement’s U.S. growth areas are largely among recent immigrants, especially from Latin America, the Caribbean, East Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa. Nevertheless, “evangelical” has come to connote “white religious Republican” for many Americans, including many journalists. Polling about evangelicals is almost always focused on political behavior instead of piety, and groups such as the Values Voter Summit give evidence of the ongoing reality of the politicized, overwhelmingly white segment of the evangelical movement. 

A project of the Family Research Council, the Values Voter Summit draws together politicians, parachurch ministry leaders, and figures from pro-Trump radio and TV in order to strategize about cultural and electoral challenges for the populist, nationalist Right. This was Trump’s second appearance at the Summit. In some ways, he just echoed his standard 2019 stump speech to the group. He knew that his denunciations of the impeachment inquiry and Democrats generally would find a welcoming audience there.

But he also spent extra time discussing the troubling situation for the American-allied Kurds in Syria, giving an unusually careful explanation for why he decided to withdraw remaining U.S. troops in the face of a Turkish incursion. Trump’s appeals to end “never-ending” wars in the Middle East generates sympathy from some in the Religious Right. But the situation with the Kurds also represents the first major rift between white evangelical leaders and Trump since his election. To be fair, it is not new that evangelical leaders such as Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) have been critical. Moore, who called the Kurdish situation a “disgrace,” was so antagonistic toward Trump in the 2016 election that it drew calls for his removal as head of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the SBC from other Baptist leaders. Moore also got denounced as a “nasty guy with no heart” by Trump on Twitter. 

More intriguing was criticism of the Syria policy from figures such as Franklin Graham and Pat Robertson, among the most stalwart of the pro-Trump evangelicals. Graham asked for prayer that Trump would reconsider his decision, and the televangelist Robertson suggested that Trump could lose his ostensible “mandate of heaven,” or the favor of God, if he betrayed the Kurds. 

It is hard to know how much of white evangelical support for Trump is born out of ideological conviction, and how much represents pure transactional politics. Could Trump lose his firewall if he started to take regular stances like the Syria withdrawal? Popular evangelical writer Joel Rosenberg told Haaretz that Trump did risk losing significant evangelical support if he turned his back on American allies in Syria. Many evangelicals are deeply concerned that a resurgence of ISIS in Syria and Iraq could lead to a new wave of violence against the beleaguered Christian communities there, which have ancient roots but are at real risk of vanishing altogether. If Trump’s isolationism took precedence over the safety of those groups, it could represent the first permanent rift between him and his core evangelical supporters, who do expect Trump to give attention to their concerns, in exchange for their ongoing fidelity.

Trump’s speech astutely pointed to domestic religious liberty concerns about the Democrats, however, as a way to remind Values Voter attendees that even if they don’t like his Syria policy, they have nowhere else to turn. Many white evangelicals in 2016 may not have been thrilled about Trump’s nomination (preferring Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio instead), but when the election arrived, they were certainly not going to vote for Hillary Clinton and the Democrats, who (fairly or unfairly) had been stuck with a reputation of being hostile to religious liberty at home. Trump gleefully reminded the Summit about Beto O’Rourke’s recent statement at a Democratic candidate forum proposing that congregations who did not affirm LGBT rights should lose their tax exempt status. That stance appears to be a marginal one among Democratic leaders, and O’Rourke’s once-promising candidacy seems all but defunct, so he may be simply grasping to score points among some secular Left voters. But Trump warned attendees that the Democrats would ultimately threaten churches’ financial survival if they regained the White House.

Revoking churches’ tax exempt status may be far-fetched, especially since a number of conservative mosques, synagogues, and Hispanic and African American churches would presumably run afoul of the same anti-traditionalist policy too, if enacted. But statements like O’Rourke’s are enormously helpful to Trump as he seeks to maintain his white evangelical firewall. Some rank-and-file white evangelical voters may not like the allegations of payoffs to Stormy Daniels, or quid pro quo foreign policy deals, or any number of other nonstop controversies that have defined the Trump White House. Some white evangelicals may even reject Trump’s approach to Syria. But as long as President Trump can convince “values voters” that Democrats are fundamentally hostile to traditional believers in America, there seems little realistic chance that most white evangelicals would finally abandon him in the 2020 election.

Thomas S. Kidd is the James Vardaman Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University. His books include Benjamin Franklin: The Religious Life of a Founding Father and American Colonial History: Clashing Cultures and Faiths.

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