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'You gotta be tough': White evangelicals remain enthusiastic about Donald Trump

First Church of God Pastor Charles Hundley sings a hymn during the morning service, Sunday, Jan. 7, in Des Moines, Iowa. Former President Donald Trump and his rivals for the GOP nomination have pushed for endorsements from pastors and faith communities. Evangelicals and religious Christian groups are traditionally critical to the Republican Party.
Charlie Neibergall
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AP
First Church of God Pastor Charles Hundley sings a hymn during the morning service, Sunday, Jan. 7, in Des Moines, Iowa. Former President Donald Trump and his rivals for the GOP nomination have pushed for endorsements from pastors and faith communities. Evangelicals and religious Christian groups are traditionally critical to the Republican Party.

White evangelical Christians show no signs of backing away from Donald Trump. That appears to be one takeaway from Iowa's Republican caucuses, where the former president won a decisive victory over several challengers.

In 2016, there was a lot of head-scratching about evangelical support for Trump — given his divorces, allegations of both extramarital affairs and sexual assault, and his insults toward women, immigrants and others.

But many white evangelicals, like Shelley Buhrow, look past all that.

Nobody's perfect

"Have you read the Bible?" Buhrow asked. "Many people in the Bible were married multiple times and they didn't always do the perfect thing."

Buhrow, who attended a pro-Trump event in a suburb outside Des Moines leading up to Monday's Iowa caucuses, says she's been a Trump supporter since his first Iowa caucus in 2016.

"People aren't perfect," Buhrow said. "God is perfect."

Buhrow disregards the 91 state and federal criminal charges Trump is facing — including for trying to overturn the 2020 election. She says they're illegitimate and she doesn't think they'll stick.

A binary choice, no longer

People raise their arms in prayer during a rally for evangelical supporters of President Donald Trump at the King Jesus International Ministry church on Jan. 3, 2020, in Miami.
Lynne Sladky / AP
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AP
People raise their arms in prayer during a rally for evangelical supporters of President Donald Trump at the King Jesus International Ministry church on Jan. 3, 2020, in Miami.

Around 8 in 10 white evangelicals supported Trump in the general election in 2016 and a similar number again in 2020, when he lost to President Biden. Some defended those votes as a choice between Trump, who would advance goals like restricting abortion, and a Democrat, who would not.

Luana Stoltenberg, a Republican state representative, said she had some initial concerns about Donald Trump when he first emerged on the political scene.

"I just knew him as, you know, the developer and kind of the playboy kind of a guy," she remembered.

Stoltenberg had friends who "prayed through it" and believed Trump was "supposed to be" the president, and she herself quickly came around to supporting Trump in the 2016 election.

But this year, according to CNN entrance polls, more than half of white evangelicals in Iowa still chose Trump, even when they had several other options.

Many, like Brad Sherman, who's both a state representative and an evangelical pastor, see Trump's harsh style as an asset even though the former president sometimes "says things I wouldn't say."

"Yeah, he's brash; he's a fighter," Sherman says. "That's who we need right now in the political arena, in the environment that exists. You gotta be tough."

A culture at a crossroads

White evangelicals find themselves in a paradoxical moment, as their overall share of the U.S. population steadily declines. They wield outsized power in American politics because of their grip on the Republican Party. But two long-term trends have resulted in waning numbers and cultural influence for white evangelicals: increasing racial diversity, at the same time that Americans as a whole are becoming less religious. At the same time, Latino evangelical communities appear to be growing, a trend driven in part by immigration patterns.

Al Perez is an Iowa pastor who has worked on evangelical-led efforts to connect Republican candidates with voters of color in the state. Perez says sometimes the voices of non-white evangelicals have been left out conversations about Republican politics.

Perez didn't endorse anyone in the Iowa caucuses, but he says he's concerned about the way he's seen some evangelicals talk about Trump, even comparing him to Jesus Christ.

"As an evangelical — Latino evangelical — I'm very concerned," Perez said. "That this is almost ... messianic, as though that's the best way to describe it to you. I'm very concerned."

Perez is part of the Pentecostal tradition within conservative Christianity, which emphasizes miracles and direct communication from God. He was concerned, he says, when some in his tradition became convinced that Trump would win the 2020 election because of what they believed were divine "prophecies" about Trump.

"I think the lines become blurred," he explained. "We cross certain lines when we think a certain candidate's going to solve all the ills and problems of the world, of America."

An increasingly political label

In this file photo from 2020, Pastor Paula White, left, and other faith leaders pray with President Donald Trump, center, during a rally for evangelical supporters at the King Jesus International Ministry church in Miami.
Lynne Sladky / AP
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AP
In this file photo from 2020, Pastor Paula White, left, and other faith leaders pray with President Donald Trump, center, during a rally for evangelical supporters at the King Jesus International Ministry church in Miami.

Samuel Perry, a sociologist at the University of Oklahoma, says even with recent victories like the overturning of the abortion-rights decision Roe v. Wade, many still see themselves as underdogs in a culture war.

"And they believe Trump is the guy who has in the past and continues to fight for them," Perry said.

Since Trump's rise, Perry says that the word "evangelical" has taken on an increasingly political meaning versus its religious or theological one.

"The conservative, Trump-supporting faction of evangelicalism, I think, has laid claim successfully to the evangelical space," Perry explained, "in a way that if you don't fit in that, and you don't feel like all of what that term represents now is you, then then you back away."

But Perry says most of those who still identify as evangelical show no signs of softening their support for Trump.

Still, moving even a relatively small number of those voters could make a big difference in November.

Doug Pagitt is executive director of Vote Common Good, which works to persuade evangelicals and Catholics to support progressive candidates and policies. His group will be heavily focused on a handful of key swing states this year.

"Because moving 3% of evangelicals away from voting for Donald Trump on Election Day makes it, by our estimates, impossible for him to win in those states," Pagitt predicted.

That's assuming Trump becomes the Republican nominee. For now, all eyes are on the Jan. 23 primary in New Hampshire — a state with fewer evangelical voters and more moderates — who may be somewhat more open to another candidate.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.

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