Trump’s questionable morality gets a pass from evangelical voters.

Donald Trump is known for many things: bankrupt casinos, claims of adultery, bragging about sexual assault, actual sexual assault, paying hush money to a porn star, and then winning and losing the presidency.

It’s not the stuff of Sunday church sermons, unless the topic is the road to hell.

But there is one more thing Trump is known for: remarkably strong and lasting support among white evangelical Christian voters.

How does he do that?

How does Trump persuade voters who say they consider their faith when casting ballots to look his way and say, yeah, that’s my kind of guy?

I asked some people who would know. The consensus: Many evangelicals don’t need Trump to be a person of faith – or even a good person – if they feel like he has their backs.

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Trump takes on the persona evangelical voters have given him

Troy Miller, who heads the association of National Religious Broadcasters, will have Trump address the group’s International Christian Media Convention in Nashville on Thursday.

“I can say, from all of the people I meet with and talk to, and from personal experience even in my own family with lifelong Democrats, Trump has this appeal. People feel he understands them,” Miller told me. “Even though some of his life stuff doesn’t fit into their personal lifestyle or morality, they still feel like he gets them.”

Trump leans hard into that. Last month, he posted on his social media website a bizarrely self-aggrandizing video that cast him as a messianic figure while he was campaigning in Iowa ahead of that state’s caucuses.

The video opened with this narration: “And on June 14, 1946, God looked down on his planned paradise and said, ‘I need a caretaker.’ So, God gave us Trump.”

The Bible takes a dim view of such displays of ego and pride. And the video disturbed some evangelical pastors in Iowa.

Even so, Trump had an easy victory there with support from 53% of voters who identified as evangelical.

The lack of accountability from voters helps Trump’s cause

Trump doesn’t have to worry about his evangelical supporters holding him accountable. They’ve shown no inclination for that since he emerged as the Republican front-runner in 2016.

Brad Atkins, a Baptist preacher for a church with more than 3,000 members in Spartanburg County, was one of more than 100 faith leaders who endorsed Trump ahead of South Carolina’s Republican primary for president this Saturday.

Atkins, no stranger to Republican presidential politics, cited Trump’s creation of a White House Faith and Opportunity Initiative as one reason to back him. Appointing Supreme Court justices who overturned a constitutional protection for abortion was another.

Former President Donald Trump speaks at the Faith & Freedom Coalition in Washington on June 24.
Former President Donald Trump speaks at the Faith & Freedom Coalition in Washington on June 24.

“Regardless of how overt he is with his faith, he always made faith something he was a stalwart for,” Atkins said.

Since Trump has left office, one jury of his peers found in a civil case that he had sexually assaulted the writer E. Jean Carroll while a second jury awarded her $83 million in damages for his attempts to attack her character about that assault.

I had to ask. Atkins didn’t seem at all moved by any of that.

“I think everybody has a past that has an impact on their present,” he said. “There’s probably a lot of regret that everyone has in their past that they don’t want to bring up.”

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Is Trump’s relationship to evangelical voters a contract?

In one way, that’s a clear embrace of Christianity’s notion that we’re all sinners. In another way, it’s a huge pass for one guy since Trump never shows regret for anything he does to other people.

But it is consistent. Atkins told The Financial Times at the height of the 2016 Republican primaries that Trump’s “indiscretions are much more visible” than the other contenders but that he was sure they, too, had indiscretions in their pasts.

John Fea, a history professor at Messiah University in Pennsylvania, explained it as “a contractual relationship” between Trump and his evangelical supporters.

“He delivers for them. They tolerate him,” said Fea, who contributed an essay in 2020 to the book “The Spiritual Danger of Donald Trump: 30 Evangelicals on Justice, Truth and Moral Integrity.”

It wasn’t always that way.

What about Biden and his Catholic faith?

Not all evangelicals support Trump, of course. And Fea said some of them backed Sen. Joe Biden in 2020 because he had a record as a moderate Democrat who worked in a bipartisan manner.

“I think Biden disappointed those voters by pushing to the left on social issues,” Fea said.

Now the Democrats, with Biden at the top of the ticket, are making the revocation of abortion rights a clarion call for their base to turn out in November, with Trump as the top target.

“I don’t think Trump cares one bit about abortion, whether its pro-choice or pro-life,” Fea said. “It’s a political wedge issue that he can use to seek power.”

And questions about Trump’s character no longer matter.

“The politics of character in American evangelicalism is over,” Fea said. “It’s all policy-driven.”

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Religious critics have changed their minds about Trump

Eight years ago, with Trump as the Republican nominee, the National Religious Broadcasters association held a debate among high-profile evangelicals to consider if they could or should support him for president.

Erick Erickson, a conservative broadcaster and pundit, cited in that 2016 debate Trump’s adultery, his various business schemes that left fans fleeced and workers unpaid as reasons for evangelicals to reject him.

Add to that, Erickson said, Trump’s own assertion on the campaign trail that year that he had never asked God for forgiveness. Erickson called that a failure of “Christianity 101.”

Erickson’s caustic criticism was washed out by evangelical support for Trump that year. The pundit reversed course in 2019 and endorsed Trump’s bid for a second term.

AP VoteCast, a survey of the American electorate by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago for media partners that include the USA TODAY Network, found Trump won the support of about 8 in 10 white evangelical Christian voters in 2020, an echo of his support from that group four years earlier.

A contract is a contract, it seems, when it comes to religion and politics. Trump will keep winning evangelical support as long as he looks like a winner, no matter what the rest of his life looks like.


This article originally appeared on USA TODAY







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