At a White House dinner with roughly 100 evangelical leaders on Monday, President Donald Trump warned of trouble to come if the Democrats win control of Congress in the November midterms. “You’re one election away from losing everything that you’ve got,” he said. “They will overturn everything that we’ve done and they’ll do it quickly and violently. There’s violence. When you look at Antifa and you look at some of these groups—these are violent people.” But his remarks, first reported by The New York Times, also contained a noteworthy canard: that he got “rid of” the Johnson Amendment, which prohibits churches—and any other 501(c)(3) non-profit organizations—from endorsing political candidates.
In truth, Trump has not, and cannot, get rid of that law; repealing it would require an act of Congress, which has failed to do so. Trump is likely making the claim based on an executive order, which many consider to be legally meaningless, urging the Treasury Department to be lenient with religious organizations. His lie, then, raises a familiar question for white evangelicals, who form Trump’s most consistent base of support: What have they really gotten from him?
To answer that question, many would point to Neil Gorsuch’s presence on the U.S. Supreme Court, and to Trump’s nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to replace Anthony Kennedy. Gorsuch’s confirmation did thrill evangelicals, and though Kavanaugh reportedly told Senator Susan Collins that he believes Roe v. Wade is “settled law,” evangelical leaders have largely fallen behind the campaign to get him on the bench. Evangelicals also have reason to celebrate Jeff Sessions’s tenure as attorney general. He rescinded an Obama-era memo protecting transgender people from workplace discrimination, and launched a “religious liberty task force” to counter a “dangerous movement, undetected by many but real, [that] is now challenging and eroding a great tradition of religious freedom.”
At the same time, Trump’s inability to repeal the Johnson Amendment illustrates the limitations of his promises. He can’t give evangelicals everything they want—and they haven’t been consistently pleased by his performance, either. Some have criticized the administration’s immigration policies. Franklin Graham, one of Trump’s most prominent evangelical surrogates, said the deportations of Iraqi Christians were “very disturbing” and called the family separation policy “disgraceful.” Eight evangelical leaders also wrote a letter to the president urging him to reverse his “zero tolerance” policy and “to resume a robust U.S. refugee resettlement program.”
Many have accused Trump’s evangelical supporters of hypocrisy, for supporting him despite his alleged affairs and cruel immigration policies. But the idea that white evangelicals are hypocrites for sticking with Trump presupposes that they’re so blinded by the prospect of either repealing Roe v. Wade, or weakening the ruling to death, that they allow Trump to play for them for fools. In reality, the evangelicals who walked into the State Dining Room on Monday likely did so because they believed the president really had axed the Johnson Amendment. They probably didn’t even believe his other outlandish claim: that more people are saying “Merry Christmas” now that he’s president. Rather, their attendance reflects more pragmatic motivations.
Evangelicals have regained influence in the White House, and they intend to keep it. The Christian right, after all, is an accomplished political body. If its leaders still back Trump, it’s not because they’re dupes. Rather, they’ve made a series of calculated political decisions—ones that may appear to be in conflict with their religious convictions, but which actually are in line with an overarching political agenda.
The real key to grasping the persistence of white evangelical affection for Trump can be found in his headline-making warnings about the midterms—that the conservative agenda would come under political attack, and that conservatives would come under physical attack, too. “The level of hatred, the level of anger is unbelievable,” he said. “Part of it is because of some of the things I’ve done for you and for me and for my family, but I’ve done them,” he said. The solution, he continued, was for evangelicals to vote in the midterms with their customary enthusiasm: “This November 6 election is very much a referendum on not only me, it’s a referendum on your religion, it’s a referendum on free speech and the First Amendment.”
Evangelicals aren’t strangers to such rhetoric. Their leaders have invoked a fear of physical violence to bolster their claims to spiritual and cultural persecution. Graham warned in 2015 that the U.S. Supreme Court’s impending decision on same-sex marriage would set “the stage for persecution of believers committed to living by the truth of God’s Holy Word.” Another Trump ally, Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, made comparisons to the Holocaust after the Colorado Civil Rights Commission ruled against a baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple. “I’m beginning to think, are re-education camps next? When are they going to start rolling out the boxcars to start hauling off Christians?” he said in 2014.
Evangelicals have often overlooked politicians’ personal failings. We remember President George W. Bush for his religious fervor now, but when he ran for president in 2000, the purity of his faith wasn’t so clear. He was open about his past as an alcoholic, and some wondered if his public conviction just superficially pandered to evangelical whims. “Even people who know Mr. Bush are not always sure how much issues are shaped by his conscience and how much by the political calculation that this White House has refined to high science,” Bill Keller mused in a column for The New York Times in 2003.
In return for their support, Bush empowered evangelicals and marshalled the state’s power in support of their pet causes: He pumped funds into abstinence-only sex education; re-imposed the global gag rule, which bans federally-funded international non-governmental organizations from even informing beneficiaries about abortion and contraception; and launched a faith-based initiatives program that provided federal funds to religious bodies that provide social services.
The discrepancy between Trump’s personal life and his public piety is more pronounced than any apparent discrepancy during the last Bush presidency. But evangelicals hedged the same bets during both Republican presidencies. Bush said the right things, and backed them up with substantive policy often enough to mollify them. Similarly, the accuracy of Trump’s specific claims ranks below his acquiescence on a more important point. Trump thinks there’s a war on, and casts it in terms evangelicals recognize. It’s a war they intend to win.