There’s good news and there’s bad news for GOP front-runner Donald Trump as he wades into the treacherous South Carolina Republican presidential-primary waters this week. The good news is his opposition is splintered. The bad news is evangelical leaders don’t trust the stiffness of his moral compass.
In the Carolina low country down along the coast near Hilton Head Island, there is a rural, vibrant area called Shell Point, home to the Community Bible Church. “A lot of evangelicals are suspicious of Trump,” says Carl Broggi, the church’s senior pastor. “We have been played by past candidates who have made promises and then not kept them.” The Community Bible Church sanctuary seats 1,800, and it fills up twice on Sundays. Who does Broggi favor in the upcoming primary? Ted Cruz.
In the Carolina up-country, Al Phillips feels similarly. “Evangelicals don’t trust Trump on the key sanctity of life, sanctity of marriage, and religious-liberty issues,” says Phillips, the director of missions at the Greenville Baptist Association, which includes a membership of 2,500 Southern Baptist churches that, as a denomination, universally describe themselves as evangelical. Who does Phillips favor in the upcoming primary? Marco Rubio.
The Augusta Street Church in West Columbia, South Carolina, is a small independent evangelical congregation. Its sanctuary seats about 200 and offers one service on Sundays. There, Roy Williams, a disabled U.S. Army veteran who is a deacon and treasurer at Augusta Street, says that he is “a conservative” and that he has always voted Republican—but this year, if the choice is between Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump, he’ll vote for the socialist. Who does Williams favor in the upcoming primary? Well, he was an enthusiastic Rand Paul supporter—and he had previously been for Ron Paul—but now he’s undecided. “I’ll decide on the basis of my church views,” he says.
So what does all this mean for Trump? Well, Trump has been unable to name one South Carolinian evangelical leader who endorses him. The campaign’s website, however, does trumpet the news of an endorsement from Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, an institution closely associated with evangelicalism. But as the real-estate mogul found in Iowa, substantial numbers of evangelical voters told pollsters they would support Trump, only to desert him when they got in the caucus room. Why? Because many pastors hold their cards tight and don’t put the word out about their political recommendations until the last few days—like at the Wednesday-night church supper before the Saturday vote. And there’s plenty of time for surprises between now and then. John McCain found that out in 2000, when on the heels of a big win in New Hampshire, he rolled down to South Carolina and smack into Ralph Reed and the Christian Coalition; his campaign never recovered.
The term “evangelical Christian” is generally used to describe Christians who rely more heavily on the words in the Bible than they do on an interpretation by any organized religion. South Carolinians are independent thinkers, and the evangelical approach to religion suits them. Practical and patriotic, they are unmatched in their record of picking the eventual GOP nominee in the state’s early voting primary, getting it right all but once since 1980. Past exit polls have indicated that 50 to 65 percent of the state’s GOP presidential-primary voters identify themselves as evangelicals, and there is no reason to believe that number will be lower this year. After all, the tight race between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton can only enhance the total effectiveness of the evangelical bloc, as it likely means fewer Democrats will cross over to vote in the Republican primary, as is their right under South Carolina law. South Carolina’s evangelical Republicans are poised to play a powerful role in which candidate ultimately takes the state.
What’s more, televangelist Billy Graham’s son, Franklin Graham, is working hard to help turn out those evangelical votes. Graham is on a “Decision 2016” tour, “challenging Christians to live out their faith at home, in public, and at the ballot box.” He held a “prayer rally” on the steps of the South Carolina State Capitol in Columbia on February 9 that drew more than 7,000 people. “Vote for candidates that stand for Biblical truths and Biblical tenets and are willing to live them,” Graham urged the crowd.
It’s a familiar evangelical message here. “My beliefs as an evangelical Christian should determine how I vote,” preaches Perry Noble, the senior pastor at the vast NewSpring Church network, “because I do not believe in the privatization of my walk with the Lord.” NewSpring, located in 17 locations throughout South Carolina, serves 32,000 parishioners each Sunday.
When evangelicals like the Community Bible Church’s Broggi say they have been “played” by politicians in the past, they are often referring to fiscally conservative candidates who were elected to Congress with evangelical support only to reveal themselves in office as soft on social issues—like abortion, gay marriage, and transsexual rights. That’s why evangelicals recall George W. Bush more favorably than they do his father. Both Bushes enjoyed evangelical support in their primary-election efforts. But President George H.W. Bush disappointed evangelicals by naming the first openly gay judge to the federal bench and by supporting increased funding for Title X programs (read: Planned Parenthood). George W. Bush, on the other hand, advanced bills like “Lacey’s Law,” which recognized the murder of a pregnant woman as a double murder if the baby is also killed. (Although, say evangelical leaders, W.’s commendable efforts on social issues are offset somewhat by his carefree spending.)
If Trump doesn’t sound like he’d appeal to people who vote for socially conservative candidates who live by Biblical truths and come recommended by a pastor, he does have one big thing in common with evangelicals: nationalism.
Simpsonville, South Carolina, is located on the upstate “Golden Strip” near Greenville, where many newly arrived manufacturing companies have located. It is also home to the Brookwood Church, which seats 2,200 parishioners and fills up twice each Sunday. Brookwood’s senior pastor, Perry Duggar, places particular importance on whether or not candidates “value the Constitution.” After speaking with dozens of evangelical pastors, it became clear that this was a favored shorthand or code phrase among them.
So, what does “value the Constitution” mean to evangelicals? Broggi offered this interpretation: “There are two parts to that. The Constitution prescribes national borders, so ‘protecting the Constitution’ means protecting the nation’s borders. The Constitution also calls for protecting the safety of U.S. citizens, and that means ensuring order in all the nation’s neighborhoods. In London and in Paris now, there are neighborhoods where the police no longer go. They are ruled now by sharia law. We are for religious tolerance, but we are not for that.”
Border security and Muslim control—now those sound like Trump issues. That’s no coincidence. Trump’s advisers have known from the campaign’s outset that evangelical gauntlets in Iowa, South Carolina, and elsewhere stand between their candidate and the nomination. And their candidate, a twice-divorced former casino owner from Manhattan, had some ground to make up. He still does.
Trump’s efforts have been heroic—if a little spotty in their execution. On the campaign trail, he refers to the Bible as his “favorite book.” But when he was addressing Liberty University students last month, he bobbled his Biblical reference, saying the verse he was quoting could be found in “Two Corinthians,” a New Testament book that is universally called “Second Corinthians.” Trump raised more evangelical eyebrows at Liberty when in his exuberance, he wove a “We don’t know what the hell we’re doing” and a “damn computers” into his remarks—word choices that Liberty University students can be reprimanded and fined for.
Then, in Greenville, South Carolina, when asked about his church attendance, Trump said: “I’m a Presbyterian Protestant. I go to Marble Collegiate Church.” But Marble Collegiate Church, on 5th Avenue and 29th Street in Manhattan, is a progressive Reformed Church in America congregation. To make matters worse, the church issued a statement saying Trump “is not an active member of Marble.” Straining to stay inbounds , the candidate clarified: He travels all the time and attends church “as often as I can, a lot.” When he goes, he says, he partakes of the Holy Eucharist, a privilege he described to CNN recently as “I drink my little wine, have my little cracker.”
But it isn’t just these awkward moments that arouse the suspicions of evangelicals. On the central evangelical tenet of repentance, one pastor I spoke to observed: “Donald Trump says, ‘My faith is in my own goodness. That is what will get me into Heaven.’ But that is not what evangelicals believe. Jesus said, ‘Unless you repent, you will perish. Forgiveness can only be received on the basis of my death on the cross.’”
And, well, evangelicals think Trump has plenty to be repentant about.
“Other than honoring his father and mother, and just saying he’s going to kill someone on 5th Avenue but not actually doing it, I’d say, one by one, he’s publicly shredded the other eight Commandments and bragged about it,” said one pastor I spoke to.
Then there’s abortion. In January, the hugely influential evangelical talk-radio host, Mark Levin, played a recording from October 1999 of Donald Trump appearing on Meet the Press. Host Tim Russert asks, “Would President Trump ban partial-birth abortion?” Stressing his “New York” values, Trump replied: “No, I am pro-choice in every respect as far as it goes.” And yet, this campaign season, Trump swears he is pro-life.
Evangelicals are looking for a candidate with the strong moral compass necessary to halt the moral decay they see being inscribed into federal law. The question is: Will evangelicals coalesce around one candidate and beat Trump, or will they splinter and hand Trump the win?