In the wake of Charlottesville, Donald Trump’s evangelical firewall may be cracking.
White Christian conservatives were Trump’s largest single voting bloc: bigger than the “white working class,” bigger than establishment Republicans, bigger than Trump’s Tea Party base. Over 80 percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump, despite the candidate’s lewdness, greed, and inability to pronounce “Second Corinthians.”
Some of these voters were making a pragmatic choice: hold your nose, and you get a conservative Supreme Court, a born-again vice president, and a reversal on social policies regarding abortion, women, and LGBT people. All of these have now come to pass, richly rewarding conservative evangelicals’ deal with the devil.
Other voters, however, were true believers. They voted for Trump because they liked most of his anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, anti-government, and anti-cosmopolitan message. Sure, they didn’t like “grab them by the pussy,” but we’re all sinners, after all. These voters have been richly rewarded as well.
Now, the seams may be slowly coming apart.
A new study by Public Religion Research Institute—based on surveys taken before Charlottesville—showed that only 65 percent of white evangelicals have a favorable view of Trump. That’s still a huge majority, of course, but it’s down from the 80 percent who voted for him, and the 78 percent who approved of his job performance in a poll taken in April.
The 65 percent figure is also less than the 78 percent with a favorable view of George W. Bush and 92 percent with a favorable view of Ronald Reagan. And it varies by gender, with 76 percent of white evangelical men having a favorable opinion, compared with 57 percent of white evangelical women.
To be sure, white evangelicals are still far more pro-Trump than other groups. For example, asked by PRRI whether Trump should be impeached, 79 percent of white evangelical Protestants said no, compared with 63 percent of mainline Protestants, 61 percent of white Catholics, and 45 percent of religiously unaffiliated Americans.
But Trump’s widely condemned responses to Charlottesville—first blaming “many sides” then backtracking, then doubling down on his original comments and adding that there were “fine people” marching alongside Nazis and white supremacists—have caused sharply divergent responses among Christian leaders.
First, there are many conservative Christians who have long rejected Trump’s vulgarity and hate-filled rhetoric, and who did so again last week. For example, Russell Moore, head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, has been so outspoken that, after Charlottesville, he could simply retweet an earlier statement of his that “The so-called Alt-Right white supremacist ideologies are anti-Christ and satanic to the core.”
Among Trump’s inner circle—“court evangelicals,” their critics call them—responses were mixed.
Only one member of Trump’s “Evangelical Executive Advisory Board”—Rev. A.R. Bernard, who is African American, based in Brooklyn, and who had quietly stepped back from the board in March—formally resigned in the wake of Charlottesville. Compare that to the dissolution of the President’s Manufacturing Council, Strategic and Policy Forum, and President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities, after mass withdrawals from each.
At the other extreme, several evangelicals on the board have backed Trump’s assertion that “many sides” were to blame for the violence, including two with familiar names: Jerry Falwell Jr., who called Trump’s first statement “bold” and “truthful,” and Franklin Graham, who said “Shame on the politicians who are trying to push blame on President Trump for what happened in #Charlottesville, VA. That’s absurd. What about the politicians such as the city council who voted to remove a memorial that had been in place since 1924, regardless of the possible repercussions?” (Graham is far more conservative than his father was: Billy Graham, for example, bailed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. out of jail, and marched with him.)
Meanwhile, board members Robert Jeffress, Marc Burns, and Rodney Howard-Browne endorsed Trump’s assertion of moral equivalence between Nazis and anti-Nazis. Howard-Browne, for example, tweeted “We strongly condemn all white supremacists, KKK, Antifa and Black Lives Matter, Main Stream Media in the strongest of terms.”
In between, things get interesting. Several evangelical board members spared Trump, remained on the board, yet harshly condemned the “Unite the Right” rally without the moral equivocation of Trump’s statements.
For example, Tony Suarez, vice president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference (NHCLC), wrote on Facebook that “The racism and hate being spewed by the alt-right and white supremacists, that have invaded our state this weekend, is an insult to Christianity and our country.”
Yet Suarez defended remaining on the board by referring once again to an obscure Biblical story in which Jesus converts an unpopular, rich, and sinful tax collector named Zacchaeus. “Jesus was willing to go to his house and have a conversation,” Suarez told a reporter last fall. “And a conversation led to a conversion. But while the conversation was taking place, the multitude was outraged that Jesus would even go to his house… My hope has been during these different conversations with Mr. Trump, and being a part of that advisory board, that there will be a change.”
After Charlottesville, Suarez tweeted, in response to calls that he step down, “Could you imagine Daniel, Jeremiah, Samuel, Nathan, or Isaiah saying they’d no longer advise or speak to the king or government?” (Actually, Jeremiah was an outsider who furiously inveighed against the corrupt leadership of his time.)
Other advisers also took a middle path. Johnnie Moore said that Republican and Democrat politicians have been “unhelpful, too emotional, and insensitive,” and condemned white supremacy specifically. Ralph Reed said that “Those who twist the cross of Christ into a swastika exchange his message of love and redemption for one of hatred and evil.” These and other evangelical insiders managed to condemn the Charlottesville neo-Nazis far more effectively than Trump did, but stopped short of condemning Trump himself.
As for their reasons, many interpretations are possible. One might take these leaders at their word. “If God called me to support and Advise @realDonaldTrump spiritually How Can you Resign?” tweeted Pastor Mark Burns. Or one might observe that the “deal with the devil” is paying off handsomely, with an arch-conservative on the Supreme Court and Obamacare’s contraception coverage a distant memory. Or, of course, it could simply be a matter of ambition and ego.
For all these reasons, the evangelical board has not gone the way of Trump’s newly defunct councils. They continue to preach and pray with the president. Yet with evangelical support for Trump showing signs of wear, it’s not clear that these “court evangelicals” are on the right side of politics, let alone the right side of history.