Washington, DC – Huddled around Donald Trump‘s Air Force One desk last month, two reporters from the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) interviewed the US president as he embarked on a cross-country blitz to drum up Republican support for the midterm elections.
The conversation quickly pivoted to Trump’s expectations from his lauded evangelical base.
“They’re going to show up for me because nobody’s done more for Christians or evangelicals or, frankly, religion than I have,” Trump said.
About 80 percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump in the 2016 presidential election. Since then, his administration has prioritised, and delivered, on numerous campaign promises to evangelicals, like appointing conservative Supreme Court judges and moving the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.
Sixty-one percent of evangelicals say the US is headed in the right direction, according to a 2018 poll by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI). In stark contrast, the same poll revealed that 64 percent of the overall public, which includes a majority of other Christian groups, believe the country is seriously off track.
Since the 2016 election, much has been said and written about the bewildering kinship between evangelical Christians and Trump. Lost in some of the coverage is the complex nature of US evangelicalism and its conflation with the religious right. So, what’s important to know?
What defines evangelicals and what’s their connection to the religious right?
“Evangelicals” is an umbrella term that encompasses numerous Protestant denominations that share core tenets of Christianity. This includes the Bible as the ultimate moral and historical authority, the desire to evangelise and spread the faith and the need for a religious conversion known as being “born again”.
More than a quarter (25.4 percent) of US Christians identify as evangelical, according to the latest Pew data. Of that number a vast majority, 76 percent, are white, 11 percent are Hispanic, six percent are black, and two percent are Asian.
“Across all racial groups, those who define themselves as evangelical tend to be much more conservative than those who do not define themselves with that label,” said Janelle Wong, a professor of American studies at the University of Mary and the author of, Immigrants, Evangelicals, and Politics in an Era of Demographic Change.
While white evangelicals overwhelmingly backed Trump in the 2016 presidential elections [File: Jae C Hong/Al Jazeera]
There was a clear racial divide, however, when it came time to 2016 vote. While white evangelicals overwhelmingly backed Trump, only seven percent of black evangelicals voted for him. About 31 percent of Latinos and 37 percent of Asians voted for him.
The other key reason white evangelicals have a big effect on elections: They vote.
Although Trump is not on Tuesday’s ballot, the midterms still serve as an emphatic litmus test for his administration. And the support from his evangelical base is likely to play a decisive factor.
“There’s a striking finding that white evangelicals over the last 10 years shrunk from 27 percent of the population to 15 percent, yet in the electorate, they have held very steady at about one in four,” said Wong. “That’s an amazing feat in American politics to mobilise so dramatically above your proportion in the population.”
Muddying the waters in understanding evangelicals is the label “religious right”. Many often conflate and confuse the two.
The religious right is a potluck of conservative religious groups joined together by similar moral values and political goals. It is comprised mainly of evangelical Christians, but also includes Catholics, Jews, and Mormons. And on election night 2016, these groups showed their support, too: 61 percent of Mormons voted for Trump, as did 52 percent of Catholics, and 24 percent of Jews, according to Pew.
The religious right’s other hallmark feature is its organisational structure, which comprises a loose network of conservative political actors, religious organisations and political pressure groups.
How did the religious right form and who shaped its mandate?
The religious right has a well-defined origin and agenda. Although conservative values and US Christianity have long been intertwined, it crystallised into a political strategy in the 1970s under the guidance of evangelicals like Jerry Falwell. Falwell, a Southern Baptist preacher and televangelist, utilised his influence and political savvy to create the “Moral Majority”, a religious political organisation.
Part of Falwell’s blueprint for the religious right was to win over a wide range of believers by selecting certain moral issues that would unite them and manufacture votes for Republican candidates. Central rallying calls included a rejection of same-sex marriage and abortion.
Mel White, a former pastor and ghost biographer of many leading evangelicals including Jerry Falwell, witnessed the origins of the religious right. He recalled a significant conversation between Falwell and Francis Schaeffer, another prominent evangelical leader.
“Francis Schaeffer was talking to Jerry Falwell and Jerry said, ‘I need to win the world to Christ, but I can’t do it with all the Christians we have, we need more,'” said White. “Francis Schaeffer said the Bible shows we can use pagans to do God’s will … And that’s when they invented the term co-belligerents. Find issues that they are co-belligerent with, so the Catholics will come on board against abortion, the fundamentalists will come on board with you against homosexuality.”
Many credit Falwell’s work for helping to elect Republican president Ronald Reagan.
“Jimmy Carter was an evangelical. Reagan didn’t know whether he was saved or unsaved,” said White. “When Jerry went for Reagan and left Carter, you knew something had changed ethically in the evangelical world. I think that was the beginning of the end.”
Many have followed in Falwell’s footsteps, blending religious influence, financial means and political ambitions. One key figure is televangelist, and former presidential hopeful, Pat Robertson. In 1961, Robertson created CBN to influence viewers with his brand of Christian ideology. Today, the network is broadcast globally and worth hundreds of millions of dollars. CBN uses its reach and riches to promote many of the religious rights core political issues.
Robertson is infamous for his controversial comments on hot-button political, and cultural issues.
Falwell and Robertson were central in the movement’s foundation, but today, it’s groups like Tony Perkins’s Family Research Council, Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom Coalition, and leaders like Jerry Falwell Jr, and Franklin Graham, that have really taken the baton and pushed the religious right’s agenda through President Trump. They are his loudest, most steadfast, champions.
The Trump administration is also stacked with devout evangelicals, such as Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of Education Betsy Devos, and Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson.
“The [religious right’s] goal was to take operational control of one of the political parties,” Peter Montgomery, a senior fellow with the People for the American Way told Al Jazeera’s Fault Lines. “They have effectively done that. They have made the Republican Party the religious rights party”.
What promises has Trump delivered on for evangelicals?
Thus far, there is ample evidence that Trump took his promises to evangelicals, and the religious right, seriously.
“We as evangelicals feel he’s doing an A+ job,” said Joshua Ferenstein, a controversial pro-Trump evangelist and social media personality. “I would venture to say he has been anointed by God to return America to its foundation, which was Biblical truths.”
The Supreme Court and conservative judges:
Trump’s principal campaign promise to evangelicals was to nominate conservative Supreme Court judges. With the lifetime appointments of both Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch, that goal is firmly accomplished.
For the religious right, the Supreme Court provides the means to fulfill its long-standing desire to revive the country’s moral foundation. One often-touted objective is to reverse Roe v Wade, the landmark Supreme Court ruling of 1973 which deemed state restrictions to abortions as unconstitutional. It’s unclear what effect the Trump appointments may have on Roe v Wade.
“Trump delivered on his promise to nominate pro-life justices and people that believe in Biblical values,” said Ferenstein. “People who believe that there is a moral code and morality that should be at the core of American jurisprudence”.
Trump has also appointed a number of conservative federal judges.
Campaign promises for stricter immigration policies, like cracking down on undocumented immigrants and the so-called Muslim ban, have also been achieved and supported by many evangelicals, especially among white evangelicals.
A January 2018 poll by the Washington Post and ABC revealed that 75 percent of white evangelicals in the US believed the government’s crackdown on undocumented immigrants was a “positive thing”, compared with 26 percent of non-white Christians.
“Trump’s immigration agenda is the white evangelical immigration agenda,” said Wong. “They are paying attention to it and helping to shape that agenda”.
Another campaign promise that has satiated many in Trump’s evangelical base is recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving its embassy there. For many evangelicals, the move affirms the Bible. For others, the move is in accordance with the book of Revelation and helps pave the way for the end times.
One campaign promise that hasn’t been fulfilled, but continues to motivate Trump and his evangelical base is eliminating the Johnson Amendment, a 1950s tax code provision that prevents non-profit organisations from participating in political campaigns. Many on the religious right see this as a roadblock to free speech. Trump has lobbied Congress and unsuccessfully attempted an Executive Order to loosen the amendment. If removed, it could open the floodgates for religious lobbying in the US.
Will evangelicals remain loyal?
Many have wondered what it would take for evangelicals, and the religious right, to abandon Trump. But with so many promises fulfilled, Trump’s numerous immoral scandals appear to matter little.
“There’s always speculation that the group will turn away from Trump,” Wong said. “I don’t see white evangelicals abandoning Trump.”
Religious Trump supporters, like Joshua Ferenstein, remain unshakeable and turn to the Bible in Trump’s defence.
“God always used people that had a past, ” Ferenstein told Al Jazeera. “You look at David. He had multiple affairs. Yet, the Bible says he was a man after God’s own heart.”
“While I know that Trump’s past has had moral failure after moral failure, I have no doubt that he is standing on a God-centered, Biblical agenda,” he added.
|The Trump administration is loaded with evangelicals, including Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of Education Betsy Devos and Secretary of Housing and Development Ben Carson [Josh Rushing/Al Jazeera]
Other Christians, however, including Mel White who has distanced himself from evangelicals, see Tuesday’s midterms as a defining moment.
“You can’t call them evangelical. You’ve got to get rid of it. You need to talk about them as being fundamentalists, or fascists,” said White.
“If we don’t take back Congress Tuesday, to me, it’s over. There’s no way back in,” he added.