are evangelicals turning away from Trump?

The relationship between Donald Trump and evangelical Christians is sputtering. The former president, for whom the support of evangelical Christians was crucial in 2016, has accused Christian leaders of “disloyalty” and blamed them for the disappointing performance of the Republicans in the midterm elections.

Maggie Haberman and Michael C. BenderJanuary 25, 202303:00

Last week, Reverend Robert Jeffress, a longtime supporter of Donald Trump who has not yet endorsed his candidacy for the 2024 White House, shared the stage at his Dallas megachurch with one of the former president’s potential rivals next year: former Vice President Mike pennies. The next day, Trump lashed out at Jeffress and other evangelical leaders he has courted for years. He accused them of “disloyalty” and blamed them for the party’s disappointing performance in the 2022 midterm elections.

While Jeffress shrugged off the criticism, others weren’t so eager to let it pass. They suggested instead that it was time for Trump to get out of the way for a new generation of Republican candidates.

Evangelical leaders

The clash highlighted one of the central tensions within the Republican Party as it heads for an uncertain 2024 presidential election: the wavering support for Trump among the country’s evangelical leaders. Their church members have been an important electorate for conservatives for decades and have provided crucial support for Trump as he ascended to the White House. If these leaders break with Trump — and if evangelical voters follow suit, which is by no means certain — the result will be a tectonic shift in Republican politics.

“When I saw his statement, I thought, You’re not going to make progress by throwing the most loyal base under the bus and shifting the blame,” said Bob Vander Place, an influential evangelical activist in Iowa and the CEO of the Family. Leader organization. Vander Plaat argues that while evangelical Christians were grateful to Trump for his federal judicial appointments and for moving the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, many thought his time as leader of the party is over, given the hardened opinion of many Americans about him. When asked if Trump would garner as much support among evangelical leaders as he has in the past, Vander Plaat, who has criticized Trump in the past, replies, “Absolutely not.”

Indeed, recent polls indicate some Trump fatigue among Republican voters. But it is an open question whether evangelical voters will abandon him if prominent Christian ministers support other candidates. And Trump has succeeded in separating different types of conservative voters from their longtime leaders before, as he did during his surprise win in the Republican primary in 2016.

In a poll by The New York Times and Siena College in October, before the midterm elections, nearly half of Republican voters said they would prefer someone other than Trump to be the party’s 2024 presidential nominee. But the same poll found that 54 percent of evangelical voters plan to was to support him. A Trump spokesperson declined to comment. Paula White, the TV evangelist who led Trump’s evangelical advisory board when he was president, was not available for comment.

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Ralph Reed, founder of the conservative advocacy group Faith and Freedom Coalition.Image NYT

Campaign Promises

Since his first campaign, Trump has viewed the evangelical movement as a critical part of his base. He was aided by a relationship his attorney and intermediary at the time, Michael Cohen, had with Reverend Jerry Falwell Jr., then president of Liberty University. Trump appointed Pence as his running mate in 2016, in part to reassure wary evangelicals that a New York businessman could deliver on his campaign promises.

Many evangelicals put aside their skepticism about Trump’s sometimes outrageous behavior and focused on a long list of policy promises from the third-time reality TV star. In a memorable moment, Falwell celebrated his support for Trump in 2016 by posing with the sassy real estate developer in front of an office wall at Trump Tower holding a framed copy of a Playboycover from 1990.

The uneasy alliance between Trump and evangelical leaders showed signs of tension during an interview he gave to right-wing streaming and cable network Real America’s Voice. When asked about Jeffress’s neutrality in the 2024 campaign, Trump said he didn’t care and went on to say it was “a sign of disloyalty.” The former president pointed to last year’s Supreme Court ruling that overturned federal abortion rights — a decision led by three of Trump’s appointees — and said he was “a little disappointed” in some evangelical leaders who are “a lot harder on could have fought” during the midterms.

“A lot of them didn’t fight or weren’t really there to fight,” Trump said. “And it energized the Democrats, but a lot of the people who wanted it and fought for years to get it weren’t there to protest and do what they could have done.” Trump interviewer David Brody, who is also a longtime commentator for the Christian Broadcasting Network, seemed to sense the potential effect of Trump’s remarks on evangelical voters. He told the former president that some anti-abortion activists resented being blamed for the midterm election losses.

“Would you clear that up?” Brody asked. Whereupon Trump continued on his chosen path. “It’s pretty much what I explained to you,” he continued. “I just didn’t see them fighting in this last election – fighting for the victory of people who were on the same side as all of us.” He added: “The only rallies were the ones I gave.”

In reality, Trump, a former Democrat who once called himself an advocate for abortion rights, has often felt uncomfortable discussing the issue. That dates back to his 2016 campaign. Personally, he viewed the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade as problematic for Republicans, and he rarely talked about abortion at his 2022 campaign rallies.

Vander Plaat suggested that the Republicans’ failure to seize control of the Senate in November was partly due to Trump’s support for candidates who did not make abortion central to their candidacy, such as Pennsylvania’s Mehmet Oz. “Having an instinct to impeach a very loyal electorate, an electorate that is going to need you to vote in Iowa during the Republican primary, that is just bad instinct. Or it is really bad advice,” says Vander Plaat. He adds that “it’s time to turn the page” and put Trump’s move behind another candidate.

Trump’s political future may be complicated by multiple investigations into his conduct, both before he ran for office in 2016 and his efforts to thwart the peaceful transfer of power after he lost in November 2020. Even if those investigations close with no action taken against him, evangelical leaders and voters may have several other Republican options. One is Pence, an evangelical Christian who has visited churches in several states and has spoken out in support of the Supreme Court’s abortion ruling. Another is Mike Pompeo, who was secretary of state and CIA director under Trump. There’s also Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, whom some donors hope will run in the election.

Marc Short, a top adviser to Pence and his former chief of staff, suggested that religious leaders recognize that the former vice president is “one of them.” He said Trump is confusing “their appreciation for what he did” during his presidency with “their devotion to Christ and their church communities first and foremost.”

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Trump at Mar-a-Lago, November 2022.Image AP

Head in the sand

Ralph Reed, the founder of the conservative advocacy group Faith and Freedom Coalition, says Trump was rightly frustrated with the political response from conservatives following the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization abortion case. Democrats planned to attack Republicans over the ruling, Reed said, while Republicans struggled to mount a political defense.

“Too many Republican candidates tried to bury their heads in the sand, ignore the Dobbs ruling and talk only about inflation and gas prices, with predictable results,” Reed explained. “Trump is right that if the party wants to succeed in 2024 and beyond, it needs to get this right. We need to have a plan, go on the offensive and paint the Democrats as the extremists.”

Jeffress said in an interview that he did not view Trump’s comments as a personal attack. As the pastor of a 16,000-member church, Jeffress was one of the few political veterans who foresaw the turnaround in conservative politics six years ago and was one of Trump’s early, prominent supporters. But even now he hides his neutrality. After he News week in November that he was withholding support because “the Republican Party is heading for a civil war that I don’t want or need to be a part of,” Jeffress said last week he hadn’t endorsed a 2024 candidate, in part because Trump didn’t ask. Jeffress predicted that evangelical Christians would eventually unite around Trump, who he said will “most likely be the 2024 candidate.”

“I don’t see the need for a statement of support at this point – not for a lack of enthusiasm for President Trump, but I think keeping my powder dry is best for the president,” Jeffress said. “Timing is everything, and I think it might be a little too early to do that.”

© The New York Times

The article is in Dutch

Tags: evangelicals turning Trump

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