The Awkward Love Story of Trump and American Evangelicals

The presidential candidate has been cozying up to conservative Christians. Recently, they’ve been cozying back.

Gretchen Ertl / Reuters

A funny thing has happened on the way to Cleveland. Ahead of the Republican National Convention, Trump has knocked every Republican opponent out of the race for United States president and managed to win endorsements from numerous critics. Most notably, many evangelicals who once opposed Trump’s candidacy are now awkwardly falling for him.

This has not always been the case. When Donald Trump declared his bid for president more than a year ago, evangelical Christian leaders stood in defiant opposition. At a secret gathering of conservative religious leaders in December, 75 percent of attendees voted to bless Ted Cruz’s campaign. Marco Rubio came in a close second; support for Trump didn’t even register. Their backing seemed to represent the opinions of many of their colleagues.

A poll conducted by the National Association of Evangelicals showed Marco Rubio was the favorite candidate, with some expressing an “anyone but Trump” position. A poll of conservative Christian leaders conducted by World magazine in January also found that most opposed Trump, with 59 percent of respondents saying they would “absolutely” not vote for Trump. These strong anti-Trump opinions highlighted a split between evangelical leaders and ordinary evangelicals, who supported Trump in large numbers.

Yet, this week, Trump announced a new evangelical advisory board. The list was full of people who once vehemently opposed his candidacy.

James Dobson, the former president of Focus on the Family, was appointed to the board despite having recently said he was “very wary of Donald Trump.” Dobson previously endorsed Ted Cruz and remarked, “I would never vote for a kingpin within [the gambling] enterprise. Trump’s tendency to shoot from the hip and attack those with whom he disagrees would be an embarrassment to the nation if he should become our chief executive.” Joining Trump’s board suggests he’s had quite a change of heart.

Richard Land, the former president of the Ethics and Religious Liberties Commission, was also included on the board. (His younger successor, Russell Moore, is vocally anti-Trump). Earlier this year, Land called Trump “a scam” and encouraged Christians to steer clear.

Tony Suarez, the executive vice president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, was also named a Trump advisor. He previously called preachers who supported Trump “embarrassing.” He has now deleted tweets and Facebook posts critical of the candidate.

These leaders joined 1,000 other evangelicals at a meeting Tuesday with the real-estate mogul to discuss why they should support his candidacy. The meeting was supposed to be closed to the press, but various attendees leaked audio recordings. A couple of conservative journalists—David Brody of the Christian Broadcast Network and Todd Starnes of Fox News—were also invited, and NPR was allowed to observe. Leaders such as Franklin Graham and Ralph Reed offered praise and prayers. Attendees burst into numerous rounds of applause. But as the transcript shows, the meeting was often quite comical—though unintentionally so.

An unidentified speaker (one source said the speaker was Ralph Reed) opened the meeting by—drumroll please—misquoting Jesus:

As I sat there this morning—we just spent time with Dr. Carson and the next president of the United States, Donald Trump—I thought about two Bible verses. And I’m going to paraphrase just a bit. One is, “For such a time as this,” and the other one is this one, a commandment from our Savior, when he said, “Call unto me, and I will do great and mighty things that you do not know.”

I could only find one source for the passage he cites. It’s not spoken by Jesus, but written by the prophet Jeremiah, hundreds of years before Christ’s birth.

During the gathering, Trump declared that he was a “tremendous believer”—this, despite struggling to name his favorite Bible verse and claiming he has never asked God for forgiveness.*

In fact, Trump couldn’t be more different than the Christian pastors, authors, and activists in attendance. The reality-television star and real-estate mogul is the living, breathing embodiment of what many evangelicals have spent their careers warring against.

Many evangelicals have advocated for abstinence education in public schools, lamenting premarital and extramarital sex. Trump has repeatedly bragged about his sexual encounters and multiple affairs with married women.

Many evangelicals champion the “sanctity of marriage” and lament America’s high divorce rate. Trump has been divorced three times.

Many evangelicals fear America is becoming too secular. Trump doesn’t regularly attend church.

Evangelicals often oppose gambling. Trump has made much of his wealth from casinos.

Many evangelicals believe pornography is a social blight. In a picture from a meeting between Donald Trump and Jerry Falwell Jr. and his wife, a framed Playboy magazine cover was visible in the background.

After the meeting, the mega-church pastor Jack Graham penned a article arguing why Christians should support Trump. Eric Metaxas, a Manhattan-based leader among culturally-savvy Christians, told National Review, “We must vote for Trump.” Metaxas, the author of a bestselling biography of Dietrich Bonheoffer, also called Hillary Clinton “Hitlery.” They say timing is everything in journalism and comedy. But sometimes, the headline is the punch line.

Why would evangelicals support a candidate who stands for much of what they claim to loathe? Because Trump is promising them the thing they want most. As he told the 1,000 Christian leaders in New York (emphasis mine):

This is such an important election. And I say to you folks because you have such power, such influence. Unfortunately the government has weeded it away from you pretty strongly. But you’re going to get it back.  Remember this: If you ever add up, the men and women here are the most important, powerful lobbyists. You’re more powerful. Because you have men and women, you probably have something like 75, 80 percent of the country believing. But you don’t use your power. You don’t use your power.

Donald Trump is no dummy.  He knows his audience better than they know themselves. Evangelicals are acutely aware of their waning cultural influence and shrinking share of the population. These religious leaders care about their principles, yes. But they care about something else even more: power. While not every evangelical leader is enthusiastic about Trump, many are starting to express warm feelings toward the candidate. Expect the cascade to continue. Their fawning, fumbling efforts to push Trump into the White House prove that many of them will risk everything to reclaim cultural and political control—even if that means defying their own beliefs.

* This article originally stated that Ben Carson called Donald Trump a “great evangelist” at a meeting with evangelical leaders in New York City. He used that term to refer to Franklin Graham. We regret the error.