There has been much hand wringing in the “Never Trump” camp about whether evangelicals will vote for Trump. Many will. And the reasons why are power, preference and prejudice. Trump has said: “Evangelicals understand me better than anybody.” Perhaps they do. They know he’s pandering to them, and they are happy to be pandered to – as long as their political interests and power remain viable.
Trump, despite his divorces and “worldly lifestyle”, appeals to evangelicals because he is wealthy, powerful and pays them lip service. They support him because they are tired of losing the culture wars, and are addicted to the perks of power.
While evangelicals have not had their choice in the White House for the last seven years, they have had a Republican Congress, Senate and a rightward-leaning supreme court. Recent decisions by the court on same-sex marriage, abortion restrictions and religious freedom have eroded conservatives’ ability to maintain these restrictive laws legislated by their political operatives on the state level.
Evangelicals, in other words, are losing their political positioning. Backing Trump is their best chance to influence a nomination for a supreme court justice who will support their religious beliefs, and to help the down ticket races with Republican incumbents and candidates who will continue to support evangelical political causes.
Trump also speaks the language of apocalypse, coupled with the language of preference. Evangelicals’ views resonate with both. Trump, despite his shallow depth of biblical knowledge, plays into both the apocalyptic end-time fears of evangelicals, and their nostalgia for a “small town” America.
Trump skillfully pushes these buttons by his laments about the decline of America, Islamic terror and Isis taking over. At the same time, Trump also promises to take care of terrorists through torture, and to make America strong again.
These depictions play into the ‘crusade’ language that George W Bush deployed after 9/11 to support the Iraq war. Trump may be scary, but he can also protect them through strength. He may not be their best choice, but is a pragmatic choice. Voting for Trump will either hasten the return of Jesus, according to evangelical belief, or to allow evangelicals to regain political power in the White House. Either way, it is a win-win situation.
Trump’s blatant racism and demonization of Muslims, Mexicans and immigrants also serves as a foil for white evangelicals. By othering these groups, Trump allows evangelicals to persist in their belief that white Anglo-saxon protestantism, is the default for true American Christianity and is best suited to lead America as a “Christian Nation”.
While Ted Cruz tried to become the choice for evangelicals by touting a theocratic vision of government, Trump’s promise to “Make America Great Again” is a dog whistle that evangelicals understand: Making America Great by allowing a white man to lead it again.
The recent twists and turns of James Dobson, the prominent conservative Christian leader, to prove Trump is a “born again Christian” is also in the service of convincing evangelicals to vote for him. Leaders like Ben Carson, Jerry Falwell Jr, Michelle Bachmann and others who have signed on in various ways to support Trump on his evangelical advisory board are engaged in a political calculus. They believe supporting Trump, rather than opposing him, with bring them the relevance and power they hope to maintain, while shoring up their evangelical belief system.
Trump speaks to the core of what many American evangelicals really want: to win. If evangelicals were consistent about privileging their beliefs over politics, then perhaps the Billy Graham evangelistic association would not have removed Mormonism from the list of cults in October 2012. That was done so that evangelicals, who had been taught Mormons were not really Christians, could coalesce around Republican Presidential candidate and Mormon Mitt Romney. Now, Romney stands as one of the lone Republicans willing to repudiate Trump, and withhold his support.
Trump promises over and over that Americans are going to be “so proud” of their country and that they are going to win “so much, you may even get tired of winning”. For evangelicals who have recently lost many big battles at the supreme court, winning, even with Trump, is preferable to losing the White House to Democrats once again.
Supporting Trump however, may create a permanent split among evangelicals who dislike Trump’s lifestyle and politics. Those who have sided with Trump, however, will make up the solid core of voters that the Republican Party has pandered to and exploited since the 1970’s, with success. Evangelicals who really believe in Jesus rather than the Republican party may be the ones who are truly “Left Behind”.