Robert Jeffress, a megachurch pastor from Texas, likes to recount the story of how he first met Donald Trump, star of US reality TV.

It was mid-2015, not long into the Republican primary race. More than a handful of candidates with big followings among America’s Christian right were still in the running. Then there was Trump, a twice-divorced, New York real estate scion famous for a flashy lifestyle and lewd interviews with radio “shock jock” Howard Stern. 

Other evangelical leaders were questioning Trump’s motives. Jeffress, a diminutive but sharp-tongued 64-year-old, who is pastor at the 14,000-member First Baptist Dallas church, appeared on Fox News and praised Trump — a candidate who shared his own derision for the Obama administration and was not trying to move the Republican party to the ideological centre. Soon after, Jeffress received an invitation to meet him at Trump Tower. “We were friends instantly,” Jeffress recalls. Trump, he says, told him: “Robert, I may not read my Bible as much as I should, but I’m a great leader.”

“And it’s true,” Jeffress adds. “Donald Trump has never been one to falsely portray himself as a pious individual, but he is an extremely strong leader.” For evangelicals, “outward policies” should matter more than “personal piety”.

Since Trump won the presidency in 2016, Jeffress’s support has been unwavering. He spoke up for the administration’s family-separation policy at the US-Mexico border; when Trump suggested that “both sides” were responsible for violence at white nationalist protests in Charlottesville; after it emerged that Trump had paid off a porn star over allegations of an extramarital affair, and throughout the president’s most controversial tweets and one-liners, including his remark that the US would no longer accept refugees from “shithole countries”.

Trump greeting Robert Jeffress of First Baptist Dallas church at a rally in 2017; the pastor is a longtime supporter of the president and gave the sermon at his inauguration
Trump greeting Robert Jeffress of First Baptist Dallas church at a rally in 2017; the pastor is a longtime supporter of the president and gave the sermon at his inauguration © Getty Images

When I ask Jeffress about Trump’s decision to stand in front of a Washington DC church, Bible in hand, after a fire broke out during protests following the police killing of George Floyd, he is unequivocal that the president did the right thing. Some other evangelical supporters have expressed concern that Trump had used the Bible as a prop. “He was standing in front of a church that almost 24 hours earlier was nearly burned to the ground . . . For him to stand in front of that church was highly appropriate,” Jeffress says.

It is perhaps then no shock that Jeffress, who gave the sermon at Trump’s inauguration and the opening prayer at the dedication of the new US embassy in Jerusalem, is standing by his man ahead of next month’s presidential election. What is striking is how many evangelicals who were sceptical about Trump four years ago have joined him.

Indeed, while a Pew Research Center poll in June found that Trump’s support among white evangelicals had dipped from 67 per cent to 59 per cent between April and June, that same survey found that at least 82 per cent of white evangelicals were still preparing to vote for him in November. Overall, there were more than 60 million evangelical adults in the US in 2018-19, according to Pew. A 2014 Pew poll found 76 per cent were white, 11 per cent Latino and 6 per cent black.

Samuel Rodriguez, a pastor and president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, who has been campaigning for Trump, says internal campaign figures suggest that the president is on track to win as much as 85 per cent of the evangelical vote, thanks to growing support among non-white evangelicals. These include Latinos who are staunchly pro-life and, given that many emigrated to the US from socialist countries, more likely to be turned off by the positive rhetoric about socialism coming from some ­corners of the Democratic party. 

Over the course of the summer and autumn, I spoke to a number of evangelical leaders who in 2016 had voted for Trump reluctantly or not at all. Among them was a theological seminary leader in Kentucky; a Southern Baptist radio host in South Carolina; a black pastor in Florida; and a white pastor in Virginia. Some had been prepared to abandon the president during low points in the administration such as his equivocation over the violence in Charlottesville. Yet with Trump an even more polarising figure than he was four years ago, all are planning to cast ballots for him in 2020. What made up their minds? 


To understand how the evangelical community rallied behind Trump, it’s important to go back to the movement’s roots as a kingmaker in US politics. Mid-last century, Billy Graham, a Southern Baptist minister so beloved he was known as “America’s Preacher”, advised presidents of both parties including Dwight D Eisenhower and Lyndon B Johnson, bringing evangelical Christianity into the mainstream.

The movement became a political powerhouse at the end of the 1970s, when fundamentalist preachers, most notably the televangelist Jerry Falwell, galvanised Christian conservatives to come to the polls. The landmark 1973 Roe vs Wade Supreme Court decision, which legalised abortion, had grown into one of the main motives. In 1980, that voting bloc propelled Ronald Reagan, a divorced Hollywood film star, to the White House over Jimmy Carter, a born-again Christian, who had nevertheless disappointed evangelicals with some of his policies. 

“With the 1980 election, we began to see a coalition between the religious right and the far-right precincts of the Republican party and that coalition has become a fusion,” says Randall Balmer, a professor of religion at Dartmouth College and author of Evangelicalism in America

Thanks to the mobilisation and organising efforts of Falwell and others, evangelical voters have continued to play a critical role in GOP politics, to the point that no Republican presidential nominee could win the party’s primary without support from white evangelicals or social conservatives. Candidates such as George H W Bush and George W Bush actively courted the community’s vote. But the arrival in 2015 of the unconventional Trump threatened to disrupt this relationship.

READ ALSO  How Total Spend by U.S. Advertisers Has Changed, Over 20 Years

It was Falwell’s son, Jerry Falwell Jr, then president of the evangelical Liberty University, who became one of the few evangelical leaders to support Trump early in the 2015 Republican primary — not long after he had asked Trump’s then-lawyer, Michael Cohen, to prevent the release of provocative photos. (It was the start of a scandal that would eventually lead to Falwell Jr’s resignation from the university.) 

Another early supporter of Trump was Paula White, one of the few female televangelists in the US, who has known him for nearly two decades and served as his ­spiritual adviser.

The controversial pastor and televangelist Paula White has become a key figure in Trump’s administration. She has known the president for nearly 20 years, served as his spiritual adviser and now advises the White House on faith issues
The controversial pastor and televangelist Paula White has become a key figure in Trump’s administration. She has known the president for nearly 20 years, served as his spiritual adviser and now advises the White House on faith issues © Getty Images

According to Gregory Alan Thornbury, former president of The King’s College, a Christian liberal arts college in New York, the 54-year-old Florida pastor was once derided by other evangelical leaders as a heretic for saying that God believes Christians should be rewarded with material wealth. But since last year, White has been working in a formal role for the administration as an adviser on faith issues. And now those same leaders are appearing with her and President Trump at the White House.

White’s rise has been a significant factor in shaping the president’s relationship with evangelical leaders. “The genius — the evil genius of the Trump administration — is that, unlike every other single Republican administration that courted the evangelicals . . . Trump brought them right into the Oval Office,” Thornbury says.

Today, some evangelicals have incorporated scripture into their narrative about the president, likening Trump to Cyrus, the historical Persian king who liberated Jews from captivity in Babylonia despite being a non-Jew himself, or describing him as a “baby Christian” in the process of discovering his faith. 

Yet even some evangelicals who plan to support Trump in November’s election think such analogies are dangerous and misguided. “I just see that as an inappropriate appropriation of the scripture,” says Tony Beam, a Southern Baptist pastor and the host of the radio show Christian Worldview. He, along with some of the other evangelical pastors I spoke to, said he remained uncomfortable with White’s teachings. “I just don’t think you can read the scripture and say God’s favour is demonstrated by people who are made wealthy.”

In January, White came under fire again after calling for “all satanic pregnancies to miscarry right now”. She has said the language was taken out of context and that she was referring to a specific passage in the Bible. The Trump campaign declined to make the pastor available for an interview.

White’s presence at the White House has also been instrumental in the arrival of a more diverse set of evangelical leaders in Washington. In 2017, Kelvin Cobaris, the lead pastor and founder of Orlando’s Impact Church, got in touch with White after being disturbed by violence in Charlottesville and alarmed by the president’s remarks. After a long conversation and tears on both sides, according to Cobaris, White invited him to travel to the White House and meet evangelical leaders to discuss a path forward. During the session, Cobaris and the other leaders were called into the Oval Office to meet the president. 

“He wanted us to come up and pray but it also gave us an opportunity to converse about things we had concerns about . . . That really opened the door . . . when I got the opportunity to meet with him and converse with him myself and have some candid conversations with him about some things I felt, and to see he listened to me.”

Pastor Kelvin Cobaris of Orlando’s Impact Church gets ‘a lot of pushback’ from the black community for backing Trump but says the president has given evangelical leaders like him a voice
Pastor Kelvin Cobaris of Orlando’s Impact Church gets ‘a lot of pushback’ from the black community for backing Trump but says the president has given evangelical leaders like him a voice © Sofia Valiente

With Trump, Cobaris says, he and other evangelical leaders have a voice: “President Trump is surrounding himself with the voices of faith, not just his counsellors and other fellow Republican party politicians, but with people who speak the word of the Lord Jesus Christ.” Not that everyone in the black community sees it that way, he admits: “I get a lot of pushback — some of it from people in my community saying they think I’m a sellout. They think I’ve turned against the agenda of our communities.”

Among the broader evangelical population, there is a small but vocal minority who say they no longer feel they have a home in the Republican party or the evangelical movement. Yet even though Trump’s presidency has caused irreparable divisions in some parts of the church community, overall support for him has not fallen.

Matthew Wilson, a professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, who specialises in the politics and voting behaviour of religious voters, says that while this minority is significant, it represents a fraction of the overall evangelical voting bloc. Even among Latino and black evangelicals, support for Trump is rising, albeit slightly.

“Latino evangelicals [and] evangelical churches have been an important part of keeping Trump competitive among Latinos . . . especially male, evangelical protestant Latinos,” says Wilson. He notes that Trump’s support among that group has remained consistently at about 30 per cent, despite inflammatory rhetoric about the border and Mexican and Central American immigrants.

A similar phenomenon has played out among African Americans, where black evangelical churches have provided Trump with an entry into the black community and help explain why he has performed similarly to George W Bush among black voters, and better than Mitt Romney or John McCain. In 2016, Trump got 8 per cent of the black vote. This year, national polls show that it may rise slightly to 10 per cent. 

READ ALSO  EU explores tougher curbs on City hedge fund managers
A service at the New Season Christian Worship Center in Sacramento, California, led by pastor Samuel Rodriguez, a staunch Trump supporter. The president is particularly popular with male, evangelical protestant Latinos
A service at the New Season Christian Worship Center in Sacramento, California, led by pastor Samuel Rodriguez, a staunch Trump supporter. The president is particularly popular with male, evangelical protestant Latinos © Eyevine

“There is no doubt that evangelicals still have consternation that [Trump] doesn’t always display the fruits of the spirit — gentleness, kindness,” says Bob Vander Plaats, a social conservative activist who has known the president for more than a decade. “[But] in the scripture it is also taught very clearly to judge a person by their actions as well.”

In this, he and other evangelical leaders say that Trump has delivered: moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to the holy city of Jerusalem; issuing orders limiting government funding for groups that provide abortions; securing the release of Andrew Brunson, a US pastor detained in Turkey; and appointing a roster of conservative judges to both the lower courts and the Supreme Court, where President Trump has already filled two vacancies and is now aiming to fill a third following the death last month of liberal justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

“You can argue that the Trump administration is the first administration in American history to do the bidding of the religious right,” says Balmer, noting that many evangelical leaders were disappointed by previous Republican presidents such as Ronald Reagan, George HW Bush and George W Bush. While they courted the evangelical vote during their campaigns, they largely kept faith leaders at arm’s length during their administrations and, in some leaders’ view, did not do enough to push back against the pro-choice or gay rights movements.

For some, the emergence of Trump also represented a kind of catharsis — not just for the policies he was proposing but in the manner he was proposing them, says Jerushah Duford. An evangelical author and the granddaughter of Billy Graham, she now describes herself as politically homeless but understands why some Christian conservatives were attracted to the president. “I think people of faith have felt for so long that they have to be politically correct . . . And here was this guy . . . he was going to kind of shake things up in a good way, not be politically correct.”


When a handful of evangelical leaders chose to speak out against Donald Trump in 2016, Albert Mohler’s voice was one of the loudest. In a 2016 op-ed for The Washington Post, published on the eve of the election, Mohler, president of Louisville’s Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and one of the key leaders of the largest protestant denomination in the US, denounced Trump for his “racial signalling”, “crude nationalism” and “sexual predation” and warned that conservative Christians should “not allow a national disgrace to become the Great Evangelical Embarrassment”.

Four years later, Mohler has had a change of heart. In April, his seminary released a video in which Mohler announced he would be voting for Trump’s re-election after voting for neither Trump nor Clinton in 2016. When I talked to Mohler on the phone in July, I tried to understand what had changed his mind. 

According to Mohler, 2016 was “an aberration”. “I found myself in the position of not believing that Donald Trump could win the general election, and not wanting evangelicals to crash our evangelical reputation on Trumpism.” Four years later it is clear that Trumpism has prevailed. “I cannot imagine the idea of supporting the Democratic party given its current direction in control of both the legislature and the executive branch of government.”

He says he wrote the 2016 op-ed as “a cry of the heart. I wasn’t a Never Trumper. I was a non-Trump.” I say I’m not sure I understand the distinction. “I didn’t think the President was going to be elected,” he explains.

Daniel Akin, president of the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina, spoke out against Trump in 2016 and doubts he will vote Republican in November: ‘I feel like an exile’
Daniel Akin, president of the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina, spoke out against Trump in 2016 and doubts he will vote Republican in November: ‘I feel like an exile’
But former critic Albert Mohler, president of Louisville’s Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, is backing Trump next month: ‘I wasn’t a Never Trumper. I just didn’t think [he] was going to be elected’
But former critic Albert Mohler, president of Louisville’s Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, is backing Trump next month: ‘I wasn’t a Never Trumper. I just didn’t think [he] was going to be elected’

Thornbury, who studied under Mohler, says he’s not surprised by the change. “The Trump endorsement doesn’t occur in a vacuum,” he says, noting that Mohler’s comes as he and the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary face criticism from some Christian conservatives about its 2018 report, which denounced the seminary’s legacy on slavery, Jim Crow segregation, racism and white racial supremacy.

“It just shows you how scared these institutions are of their own constituency,” says Thornbury. “Not everyone in [the evangelical community] endorsed Trump, but it’s like crickets out there . . . If you poked your head up above the parapet, you got your head blown off.”

For other evangelical leaders, the conversion to Trump appears to have happened gradually. Gary Hamrick, pastor of Cornerstone Chapel in Leesburg, Virginia, was among those sceptical in 2016. “He was an unknown . . . There [was] no history, no track record. I’ll be honest with you . . . even if he may not be friendly to our values as Christians, the potential for Supreme Court justices was a big factor for myself and others.”

In August this year, Hamrick found himself in the grounds of the White House for Trump’s acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, a scenario he could not have imagined four years earlier. There he was seated alongside some of the biggest names in the evangelical community, all throwing their weight behind the president. Franklin Graham, son of Billy, was among them. At one point, Hamrick saw Trump’s spiritual adviser Paula White. He went to introduce himself, trying to keep socially distanced, but White embraced him.

Hamrick says that, at first, he felt a little nervous to be around so many people not wearing masks in the middle of a pandemic. But, also, “it felt good”. “The talk there just as we were waiting for the president to speak — the talk among us — was very enthusiastic. We feel our congregations are enthusiastic.”

READ ALSO  Ryan Lance, the oilman defying crash with big bet on US shale

For Tony Beam, the Southern Baptist pastor who did not vote for Trump four years ago but plans to this time, part of his change of heart followed the 2018 confirmation hearings of Brett Kavanaugh, the president’s second conservative appointee to the Supreme Court. Kavanaugh had faced accusations of sexual assault from a former high-school classmate, sparking a bitter partisan fight, before his eventual appointment. “I think probably most presidents would have withdrawn his name,” says Beam. “I think they would have withered under that kind of pressure.” Trump didn’t. “That was a moment when Trump’s street-fighter instincts and stubbornness were warranted.”

While Beam and Hamrick have come around to the idea of Trump, others such as Daniel Akin, president of the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina, remain unconvinced and troubled by the strength of evangelical support for him. In the last presidential election, Akin wrote in the name of Marco Rubio — one of Trump’s Republican primary rivals — on his ballot. This time around, he faces a similar conundrum. 

“There is no way I would ever vote for Joe Biden under any circumstances,” he says, mainly because of the abortion issue. While Biden identifies as a Catholic, he has shifted to the left on abortion issues, announcing last year that he would no longer support a measure that bans federal funding for most abortions. At the same time, Akin is “doubtful” he will vote Republican: “I feel like I am without a political party at this particular moment. I feel like an exile.”

The feeling of being an outcast is one Mark Galli, the former editor of Christianity Today, has also experienced. Last December, in the midst of impeachment proceedings against the president, he wrote an editorial in the flagship evangelical periodical, founded in 1956 by Billy Graham, calling on Trump to be removed from office. Galli says he chose to comment as the publication had weighed in on the Nixon and Clinton impeachments.

The article went viral and the backlash was swift. Some members of the publication’s board were supportive; others were “deeply angry”, including some of Christianity Today’s big donors who were Trump supporters. “Slowly but surely it became clear I had become a problem,” Galli says. He had planned to retire as editor in January, but stay on the staff. Within two months, the board was asking for him to be removed from the masthead.

Galli’s one regret about the piece was that he did not make clear that he was addressing his criticism at evangelicals who had “drunk the Kool-Aid” and would defend Trump against any criticism — not those who voted for him reluctantly in 2016, many of whom are Galli’s friends. Some, he says, are “deeply troubled” by Trump. “They’ve said things like, ‘I don’t think I’m going to vote for him again the next time.’ But that abortion issue is just huge for them. It’s hard for them to fathom any other issue being in the same league.”

Unlike many other evangelicals, Jerushah Duford says that she does not consider herself a single-issue voter. “I wish Democrats would value life in the womb more than they do. I wish Republicans would value life outside the womb more than they do. For me, pro-life is an issue from the womb to the tomb. That’s really the way I look at it.”

The evangelical author Jerushah Duford recently criticised her community’s support for Trump in a USA Today article: ‘thousands’ of other evangelical women responded to it, she saysd
The evangelical author Jerushah Duford recently criticised her community’s support for Trump in a USA Today article: ‘thousands’ of other evangelical women responded to it, she says © Lynsey Weatherspoon

Just like Galli, however, she decided to go public about her opposition to Trump. In August, Duford, who identifies as an independent, described herself in an article for USA Today as “a homeless evangelical” who felt she no longer belonged in her community given that so many church leaders were either silent on Trump’s most controversial actions or, worse, endorsed him. The piece had been “stirring” in her for a while, she says. “I don’t want to sow divisions among families, among my family” — her uncle Franklin Graham is a high-profile Trump supporter. “But I also feel a responsibility to the God I serve and to the Jesus I read about in the scripture.”

After her piece was published, Duford says she heard from “thousands” of other evangelical women, many of whom said they had been feeling the same way, or hadn’t been able to identify what it was they were feeling until she articulated it. “I think a lot of people — especially women of faith — I think they made it to the voting booth in the last election and kind of held their breath and crossed their fingers and hoped that they were making the better choice. I don’t believe they went in confidently. I think they went in thinking he was the better of two difficult options.”

Whatever the outcome of the 2020 election, Duford is pessimistic that splits over Trump in the evangelical community will heal quickly. “I honestly think it could be decades before it’s reconciled,” she says. “I think the division that has been created largely . . . by our president has hurt the church so much . . . We were warned about this in scripture. We were warned about the division that would be sowed . . . I don’t think this is something that’s going to get fixed in January by any stretch of the imagination. I think we have a long road ahead of us.”

Courtney Weaver is the FT’s US political correspondent

Follow @FTMag on Twitter to find out about our latest stories first.


Via Financial Times