One of the big story lines in the 2024 Republican presidential-nomination contest is the competition for support from politically active conservative white Evangelicals, whose overwhelming support helped put Donald Trump in the White House. The battle is particularly acute in Iowa, where they make up close to two-thirds of the Republicans who will make someone the 2024 front-runner.
Trump actually lost Iowa Evangelicals (and the Iowa caucuses) to Ted Cruz in 2016, but won an astonishing 81 percent of self-identified white Evangelicals nationally in the 2016 general election and an only slightly less overwhelming 76 percent in 2020. So some of his 2024 rivals are praying for him to lose traction in born-again pews and pulpits.
These rivals have two potential points of leverage in seeking Evangelical defections from Trump: first, the fury he provoked among some Christian right leaders when he cited extremism on the abortion issue as a big factor in his party’s underwhelming 2022 midterm results; and second, the long-standing complaint that the heathenish 45th president is not exactly a believer himself, or even religiously literate. His former vice-president, Mike Pence, has been implicitly banging both drums: He is famously a devout Evangelical with long-standing involvement in Christian right political causes, and he’s also quickly signed onto the anti-abortion movement’s 2024 litmus test of support for a national abortion ban. South Carolina senator Tim Scott appears to be going down the same road, thumping Bibles regularly as part of his “Faith in America” road show and at least flirting with an extremist position on abortion well to Trump’s right.
But the connection between Trump and conservative Evangelicals may be stronger than can be measured by such tangible metrics as shared theological beliefs or even fidelity to Christian right political crusades. On the latter front, Trump can boast a record of keeping his promises (particularly his pledge to appoint Supreme Court justices willing to overturn Roe v. Wade) to conservative Christians that no future pledges of conservative cultural activism can ever match. And even in terms of his personal belief system, many Christian right activists treasure his willingness to fight for their values more than any profession to share them, as veteran Iowa political journalist Thomas Beaumont recently observed:
[L]oyalty to Trump was evident in interviews with more than a dozen Iowa pastors in the wake of Trump’s indictment. Each cited Trump’s role in helping overturn Roe vs. Wade as central to the long-term rethinking about him since his first campaign. Several also pointed to Trump’s recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to the holy city.
“I appreciate the fact that, for what seems like the first time in my lifetime, someone did what they said they were going to do,” said the Rev. Kerry Jech of Marshalltown. “With Donald Trump, what he promised us, he delivered on. That’s one thing I can’t get away from.”
Not a few of Trump’s Evangelical converts have said harsh things about him in the past:
During the 2016 campaign, the Rev. Mike Demastus of Des Moines supported Cruz and called Trump “morally loathsome,” “wicked” and “a reprehensible man.” Today, Demastus calls him “the most pro-life president we have ever had,” and would consider supporting him in the caucuses, along with others.
But rational assessments of Trump’s record aside, there is a more disturbing phenomenon going on among conservative Evangelicals: a Christian nationalist movement in which Trump can only be described as an irreplaceable figure whose political success is crucial to God’s plan for redeeming a sinful world. This notion was made most clearly evident in the ReAwaken America tour series of politico-religious events highlighted by Trump-pardoned scoundrels Michael Flynn and Roger Stone that flowed out of the January 6 pro-Trump insurrection, as PBS explained last year:
ReAwaken America was launched by Flynn, a former White House national security adviser, and Oklahoma entrepreneur Clay Clark a few months after the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol failed to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. Attendees and speakers still insist — against all evidence and dozens of court rulings — that Donald Trump rightfully won.
Since early last year, the ReAwaken America Tour has carried its message of a country under siege to tens of thousands of people in 15 cities and towns. The tour serves as a traveling roadshow and recruiting tool for an ascendant Christian nationalist movement that’s wrapped itself in God, patriotism and politics and has grown in power and influence inside the Republican Party.
Deeply steeped in QAnon and other right-wing conspiracy theories that treat Trump’s enemies as God’s as well, ReAwaken America may now be giving way to an actual campaign organization mobilizing the most militant of Evangelicals for Trump’s comeback, as The Guardian reports:
A far-right religious group with ties to Donald Trump loyalists Roger Stone and retired Army Lt Gen Michael Flynn is planning events with pastors in swing-state churches in Arizona, Georgia, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and elsewhere to spur more evangelical backing for the former US president’s 2024 campaign …
The Oklahoma-based evangelical pastor and businessman Jackson Lahmeyer leads the fledgling Pastors for Trump organization. Lahmeyer told the Guardian it boasts over 7,000 pastors as members and that he will unveil details about its plans on 11 May at the Trump National Doral in Miami, an event Trump will be invited to attend.
Lahmeyer ran for the Senate in 2022 with vocal backing from Flynn and Stone.
Pastors for Trump, however, may just be the tip of a Christian nationalist iceberg that conflates the 45th president with Jesus and Christianity with the MAGA cause. In an agonized column at The Atlantic, former George W. Bush speechwriter (and himself an Evangelical believer) Peter Wehner argues that a nationwide insurrection is underway in Evangelical congregations on behalf of Trump and everything he represents:
“Nearly everyone tells me there is at the very least a small group in nearly every evangelical church complaining and agitating against teaching or policies that aren’t sufficiently conservative or anti-woke,” a pastor and prominent figure within the evangelical world told me. (Like others with whom I spoke about this topic, he requested anonymity in order to speak candidly.) “It’s everywhere.”
While this divinization of cultural conservatism didn’t start or end with Trump, he very much has embodied it:
“Trump was able to add open hatred and resentments to the political-religious stance of ‘true believers …’” [historian George] Marsden said. “Tribal instincts seem to have become overwhelming.” The dominance of political religion over professed religion is seen in how, for many, the loyalty to Trump became a blind allegiance. The result is that many Christian followers of Trump “have come to see a gospel of hatreds, resentments, vilifications, put-downs, and insults as expressions of their Christianity, for which they too should be willing to fight.”
Perhaps newer culture warriors like Ron DeSantis can exploit the same passions, but as the Paul Revere of Christian nationalism, Trump will always have a special place in the hearts of militant conservatives whether they spend Sunday mornings in church or at home watching Fox News. He was and remains the slayer of civic and religious norms alike and has made it possible for self-described followers of America’s founders and of the Prince of Peace to become violent insurrectionists. And if that’s true of Evangelicals who belong to religious denominations with structured systems of doctrines anchored in centuries-old theologies, the peril of confusing Jesus with Trump will likely be much higher in the increasingly numerous nondenominational faith communities in which “spiritual warfare” against “demonic” influences is sometimes more prominent than the more conventional narratives of sin and redemption.
If Trump rides back into the White House on the shoulders of conservative Christians, we’ll know it’s time for a good hard look at what professed believers in Jesus Christ actually believe and practice.