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Why Is Donald Trump Winning Over Evangelical Voters?

Mark Wallheiser / Stringer

As Donald Trump has enjoyed an astonishing lead in a packed Republican primary field, a vexing question has gone unanswered: Why are evangelicals, those most desired of conservative voters, fond of Trump? There isn’t a single Republican in the mix who isn’t openly courting the evangelical vote. Ted Cruz kicked off his campaign at Liberty University, a project of Moral Majority founder Jerry Falwell; Scott Walker sang a couple bars of Nothing but the Blood when asked whether God had ordained his run during the varsity GOP debate on August 6th. For the old guard there is Mike Huckabee, whose orbicular, paternal presence recalls the booming televangelists of the Reagan era.  

And yet, with all of these perfectly serviceable choices, evangelicals still appear curiously interested in Trump, whose Christian bona fides add up to exactly nothing, especially when bona fide is translated literally as good faith. Despite multiple marriages and an openly lecherous attitude towards younger women; a humorlessness made even less tolerable by a short temper; and a shameless set of appetites untouched by temperance and other virtues, evangelicals appear to favor Trump over their other options. A July poll placed evangelical support for Trump at 20 percent; Walker trailed at 14, Huckabee at 12, and Cruz at an anemic 5.

What should be immediately apparent from these numbers is that evangelicals are not, in fact, all rushing out to vote Trump. In fact, among various polls, only twenty-something percent of them have registered any interest in Trump, with the remainder of their votes split among the other sixteen GOP options. As Philip Bump recently pointed out in the Washington Post: At this point, the evangelical vote is not really dissimilar from the general Republican vote—there really is no obvious evangelical pick. The curiosity of evangelical attention to Trump isn’t so much a question of how the belligerent billionaire captured the most sought after voting bloc in the Republican game (he hasn’t), but why any evangelical would have even the vaguest inclination toward him whatsoever.

The first and most obvious point to raise is that evangelicals are not all the same, as Pew found in 2007, when analyzing changes in evangelical approval ratings for George W. Bush. Though they constitute a voting bloc, the definition of 'evangelical' is somewhat mutable, and the population it encompasses is quite varied. By the end of Bush’s tenure in 2008, almost everyone was dissatisfied with him, but young, white evangelicals lost patience much more quickly and intensely than their older white counterparts. After having been among the president’s most ardent supporters, giving him an 87 percent approval rating in 2002, young evangelicals positively rated Bush at only 45 percent by 2007. Older evangelicals, meanwhile, approved of Bush at a peak rate of 80 percent in 2002, which declined to 52 percent in 2007, a significant but less sharp drop than the evangelical whippersnappers. At the time Pew thought the departure between the two age subsets within the evangelical population signaled an opening for Democrats to appeal to young evangelicals; what it really seems to have suggested is youthful dissatisfaction with the Republican party establishment.

Which, again, is nothing new. The evangelical-Republican alliance has always been a marriage of convenience, and it has been convenient primarily for Republicans. Evangelicals, being sensible observers of the world, have complained about this for some time. In 1988, televangelist Pat Robertson ran in the Republican primaries against George H. W. Bush and Bob Dole, citing an ultimate dissatisfaction with Reagan’s presidency. “Reagan had been a good president, Robertson acknowledged,” Daniel K. Williams writes in God’s Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right, “but he was not conservative enough.” Which is to say: some evangelicals were disappointed that Reagan had failed to undo the court’s ruling in Roe v. Wade, and had cooperated to some extent with the United Nations, which Robertson and his ilk viewed as a prototype of an apocalyptic one-world government. Robertson vowed to do better by evangelical principles, though evangelical leaders never supported his run, just as they haven’t supported Trump’s.

And Robertson lost. None of this meant that the contingent of evangelicals who agreed with Robertson about the Republican establishment voted Democrat or not at all; according to Bush campaign advisor Doug Wead, George H. W. Bush won the 1988 election with a greater percentage of evangelical support than his son would earn in 2000. Robertson’s brief run demonstrated that evangelicals were and are canny enough to know when their votes are being treated as a foregone conclusion, and when their priorities are being ignored. They are wary, in other words, of lip service.

Which Trump is notably not providing. Everything that might register as an obvious lack of affinity with evangelical values—his inability to name a favorite Bible verse, his open Christmas-and-Easter attendance patterns, his ranking of the Bible as only a smidgen better than his own book—might be coming off as a sight better than the same old GOP pitch. Before joining his campaign, Trump’s national co-chairman Sam Clovis wrote in an email that “’[Trump] left [him] with questions about [Trump’s] moral center and his foundational beliefs,” adding that Trump’s “comments reveal no foundation in Christ, which is a big deal.’” And it might be, but Trump is brazenly straightforward about the whole affair, routinely supplying very little religious window dressing for what is primarily a revanchist campaign against the un-American, the un-patriotic, and the effeminate.

Meanwhile, Trump’s competitors for evangelical attention have compromised their credibility with Christian voters. In September of last year, Ted Cruz inexplicably took pot shots at Middle Eastern Christians gathered to protest violence against their countrymen because, in Cruz’s view, they were not sufficiently supportive of Israel. Mike Huckabee has busied himself making off-color remarks about the Holocaust and ingratiating himself in the most public way possible with the Duggar family, now marred by a child sex abuse cover-up scandal along with confessions of infidelity. Trump, for all his filthy dealings, has at least never painted his deeds with a veneer of Christian righteousness.

There are likely other things that account for Trump’s modest popularity among evangelicals: He has been a thoroughgoing antagonist of President Obama, who is in some evangelical imaginations the anti-Christ; he has a certain machismo, which appeals to evangelicals disgruntled with the ‘feminized’ state of our culture; he’s somehow fused issues of religious liberty in America (think lawsuits over wedding cakes) with issues of religious persecution abroad (think ISIS slaughtering Christians and Yazidis).

All of these appeals might draw the stray evangelical vote here or there. But if I had to surmise which subset of the evangelical category Trump has struck a chord with, I would guess it would be that intransigent Robertson crowd, the evangelicals who are perpetually dismayed with the Republican establishment Trump is now confounding. Does this mean they won’t fall in line when the eventual Republican nominee is chosen? Probably not. But between then and now there is plenty of time for cathartic polling.