WASHINGTON –Despite the president’s three marriages, a scandal with adult film actress, Stormy Daniels and sexual assault allegations, evangelical Christians continue to support President Donald Trump. The confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh and the appointment of over 200 federal judges, his stance on abortion and his vice president choice, Mike Pence, contributed to his election win in 2016 and his continued success among evangelical voters.
“They’re a little tired of all of the policies, and being forgotten in the forgotten parts of America,” Anthony Cozzello, pastor at Revolution Community Church in Logansport, Indiana, said in a phone interview. Cozzello has been involved in ministry for 17 years and a lead pastor for 10. Cozzello, a political moderate, compared Trump to an ice breaker boat that that sails ahead of other boats to break up the ice in the Arctic Sea. “He just says whatever he’s thinking, there’s not much political correctness, and it’s breaking things up,” he said. “It’s changing the climate politically, and I think that’s what a lot of people wanted.”
Trump was overwhelmingly successful among Christians because “people went to the polls not seeking a pastor-in-chief,” Tim Goeglein, vice president of external and government relations for Focus on the Family, said in a phone interview. “They were seeking a person who could sometimes be a bodyguard,” for the issues evangelical Christians are most passionate about, Goeglein said.
Timothy Head, executive director at Faith and Freedom Coalition, said Trump was successful in 2016 because he took clear positions about issues evangelicals care about, like abortion and religious liberty. “He likes to say, ‘promises made, promises kept,’” Head said. A lot of evangelicals like how Trump is doing what he said he was going to do during the campaign. He’s kept a lot of those promises in three years, despite the resistance from Congress and unfavorable media coverage, Head said.
Goeglein said one of the reasons why Trump was overwhelmingly successful during the 2016 campaign was because he released the names of some of the Supreme Court nominees he might consider if elected. “That had never been done in American history by a president of either party,” he said. The short list was mostly made up of conservative judges who evangelical Christians hoped would overturn Roe v. Wade and promote religious freedom, according to CNN.
In February of 2016, Antonin Scalia, one of the most “consequential conservative (Supreme Court justices) of the last century” died. People wanted to know if the vacancy would be filled by another conservative in the “Scalia mold.” “When people went to the polls … they were also thinking about the vacancy on the Supreme Court,” Goeglein said.
“Trump’s handling of that vacant seat became, in essence, kind of the unifying rally cry for most evangelicals,” Timothy Head, executive director for the Faith and Freedom Coalition, said in a phone interview. “It wound up being enormously reassuring and consolidating for tons of evangelicals.”
Head thinks Trump’s “clearest and most profound” accomplishment in his three years of being in office is the number of judicial appointments and confirmations. He’s appointed just over 200 federal judges, including district-court judges, appellate judges, and two Supreme Court justices.
While Trump was clear on his policy positions, he also chose one of the most high-profile evangelicals in politics, Goeglein said. Mike Pence, a leader for the religious right and advocate for anti-LGBTQ and anti-abortion policies, was the first vice president to attend the March for Life rally in 2016. “President Trump choosing Vice President Pence sent a very strong signal to the conservative base,” he said.
Trump was also the first sitting president to attend the March for Life rally in January. “To be part of the March for Life is a pretty bold move to speak towards what he believes is correct with that policy,” Cozzello said.
Maggie Garrett, vice president for public policy for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said in a phone interview, the Trump administration has been pushing policies that use religion to discriminate against and undermine the rights of others. Currently, the group is co-running a coalition that opposes private school vouchers because they “primarily fund religious education with public money,” the Americans United website said.
The organization is also working to protect the Johnson Amendment. The amendment is a provision in the tax code that says non-profit organizations, including churches, can’t endorse political candidates. “When President Trump realized that meant that churches couldn’t endorse him, he decided that he would get rid of it,” Garrett said.
In May of 2017, Trump signed an executive order that would repeal the amendment. However, only Congress can repeal the amendment. “The Order does not exempt religious organization from the restrictions on political campaign activity applicable to all tax-exempt organizations,” attorneys with the Department of Justice said in an article by Americans United. Currently, houses of worship can still preach about political and social issues, but they cannot endorse or oppose political candidates.
Americans United has also been outspoken about Trump’s unofficial evangelical advisory board. “In the beginning of his presidency, they were boasting about the unprecedented influence they had on policy, personnel, judges, they would have meetings with him frequently,” Garret said. “A lot of his policies, including some of his anti-trans policies, came out of their meetings.” Religion News Service said evangelicals have discussed a wide range of issues in the board’s meetings, including abortion, transgender rights and international religious freedom.
The organization has called on the board to disband. In 2018, they sent an official letter to the White House, citing the group for not complying with the Federal Advisory Committee Act, a law that requires the committees who meet with the executive branch to be transparent about their meetings. “It is clear that the President’s Evangelical Advisory Board is doing substantive work with the Trump Administration behind closed doors—without any sunlight for the public,” the statement said.
“It is very clear the access he is giving to his base of supporters, white, evangelical, conservative Christians, is significantly greater than he gives to others,” Garrett said.
In contrast to the Trump administration, Obama had an advisory council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships that were diverse by religion. “It wasn’t just Christians, there were Jewish groups, Muslim groups, secular groups. It was also diverse politically. There were people on both sides of the aisle,” Garrett said.
Ultimately, Trump continues to be successful among evangelical Christians because he champions their issues. According to a Pew Research Center study, 94% of white evangelical Protestants believe it’s somewhat or very important for the president to stand up for people with the same religious beliefs. The same study shows 76% of evangelicals believe it is somewhat or very important for the president to share the same beliefs as them. Trump is the messenger and there is this “centripetal compulsion” to only focus on the messenger, “but there is really little effort to understand the audience,” Head said.
“Those (evangelical Christians) that I know are extremely generous and want to make a difference in the here and now,” Cozzello said. “I don’t know what it is that gives them that out of touch persona in the media, but I don’t see that as truth, especially when it comes to wanting to make an impact in the world for good.”
“They (the media) think that they can cover the messenger (in a) different way the audience will dissipate. The reality is that the audience is the one that the messenger understands that this is what the audience cares about,” Head said. “All they think about is the messenger. If they can disprove the messenger, the audience will act accordingly, and that’s not the case.”
“God used immoral leaders in the Old Testament of the Bible. Leaders that maybe spewed off things they shouldn’t say or did things they shouldn’t do, but God still used them to make a difference in the nation,” Cozzello said.