Evangelical Trump Supporters and Critics on Repeat for 202…… | News & Reporting

Neither Donald Trump nor Joe Biden have won their parties’ respective nominations yet. But Super Tuesday, the most delegate-rich day of the primary, put both within closing distance of a rematch as Trump’s only remaining competitor, Nikki Haley, dropped out of the race.

The same crowd of white evangelical voters who supported Trump in 2016 and 2020 seems set to support him in 2024; Trump took 8 in 10 white evangelical voters in Super Tuesday states like California and North Carolina and more than three-quarters in states like Virginia.

For the minority of “Never Trump” evangelicals, his ascendency further cements their alienation from the Republican Party and, at times, the evangelical Christian circles they’ve spent their lives in.

“The era of ‘Trump is our last choice’ for evangelicals is over. It is now the era of ‘Trump is our first choice,’” David French, a New York Times columnist, told CT.

The last time there was a competitive GOP primary, he remembers evangelicals making a binary argument: It’s either Trump or a Democrat. The thrust of the argument was to “hold your nose” and vote for the lesser of two evils.

French, who has spent the majority of his career as a lawyer working on religious liberty issues, said the idea that evangelicals only reluctantly support Trump is now unpersuasive. Voters have rejected multiple other GOP options as the primary season has worn on, from former vice president Mike Pence, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, among others.

Many Republicans who backed Haley on Super Tuesday still said in exit polls that they saw their vote as “against Trump.” But evangelical Trump supporters, on the other hand, were motivated by the candidate himself, saying the former president fights for people like them and shares their values.

“A lot of evangelicals see Donald Trump as fighting for their issues, and are able to disentangle Donald Trump the person from Donald Trump the president,” said Daniel Bennett, a political science professor at John Brown University.

But another segment of those in the church, he said, “might find they aren’t as welcome in evangelical circles anymore because of their dissatisfaction with Donald Trump.”

French is a vocal member of a segment of conservative evangelicals who find Trump even more unpalatable than he was seven years ago.

“In 2024, you have Donald Trump having lost, having lied about the election, having triggered a violent uprising at the Capitol, then running again against numerous Republicans, including rising star Republicans,” he said. “And he’s not just the choice of the overwhelming majority of Republicans, he’s the choice of the overwhelming majority of evangelicals.”

Half or more of Republican Super Tuesday voters in North Carolina and Virginia said Biden didn’t win legitimately in 2020, according to CBS News exit polls.

Trump’s legal troubles haven’t seemed to hurt him: He’s been indicted in four criminal cases at both state and federal levels. So far, he faces 91 criminal charges that relate to his attempt to maintain power after the 2020 election, efforts to interfere in the 2020 election in Georgia, his handling of classified government documents after leaving office, and falsifying business records to conceal a sex scandal in 2016.

An analysis by the Times found that after Trump’s first indictment in March, he went from raising an average of $129,000 per day to raising over $778,000 per day. After the first indictment, Trump’s national polling average jumped. (Subsequent indictments did not seem to have had the same positive impact on his polling.)

John Fea, professor of American history at Messiah University and executive editor of Current, believes the loyalty to Trump underscores a shift that became obvious in 2016, that evangelicals will prioritize policy wins over character.

“What the primary so far has shown me is consistent with the argument I’ve been making since 2016 that, you know, the age of character in evangelical politics is over,” Fea said. “What white evangelicals are seeing is a guy who is going to fight for them—even if you don’t go to a MAGA rally or wear a red hat.”

Even with some shifts in what it means to be evangelical—political scientist Ryan Burge notes that now more than a quarter of people who choose the label rarely go to church—Trump still has a solid hold on many Sunday morning regulars too.

Trump critics get accused of sounding like a broken record. And at times, Fea feels like he’s said it all before. His 2018 book Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump explored the reasons a majority of white evangelicals hitched their wagon to Trump, motivated, Fea posited, by a mix of fear, power, and nostalgia, and primed to do so by “court evangelicals” who gained proximity to the halls of power by supporting Trump.

Fea plans to cast his ballot for Biden. Until then, he’s trying to do what he can “to get people to see this guy’s bad for the country, but also really is damaging the witness of the church.”

After 2020, 43 percent of evangelicals expressed concerns that the embrace of Trump by Christians had hurt the credibility of the church. Over a third of evangelicals said that the support of Trump by Christian leaders made sharing the gospel with others more difficult.

Fea said he—and other Never Trumpers—are “hoping and putting their faith in the American people, especially independent voters who make up the majority of voters, to defeat him in November.”

Both Trump and Biden have some challenges when it comes to independent voters, who have shown significant disapproval for their White House track records.

Napp Nazworth, director of the American Values Coalition and former politics editor for The Christian Post, estimates most Never Trumpers will opt to write in a candidate or vote for Biden.

“My views haven’t changed since 2016. It’s been interesting to see how others have changed,” Nazworth said. “[Trump] has even stronger support now than he did.”

French also has no plans of toning down criticism. “My job is not to shrug my shoulders and go along,” he said. “The job is to tell the truth, as best as you can discern the truth.”

Many of his critics on the Right complain when fire is directed within the party rather than at Democrats. French says the criticism is often that “if there’s some person of far lesser power and influence on the Left who might be misbehaving, they say, ‘Why don’t you talk about that person instead of Trump?’”

French isn’t persuaded: “If Trump is the standard-bearer of the Republican Party, one of the most politically and culturally influential people in the United States, not talking about it is malpractice.”

Trump’s role as standard-bearer is increasingly clear after Tuesday’s elections, where 31 states held primaries and caucuses. Republicans allocated 365 delegates for their convention in 15 GOP presidential nominating contests. Democrats allocated 1,420.

Haley, the South Carolina Methodist who lasted the longest as a Republican alternative to Trump, won only Vermont on Super Tuesday. Rather than endorsing her opponent, she challenged Trump to earn her supporters’ trust.

“It’s like a sequel nobody wants,” said Dan Darling, director of the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary’s Land Center for Cultural Engagement.

But he sees a silver lining in the continued division. He hopes it may lead to reckonings within and around the church on their political engagement. Most of his speaking engagements for the year revolve around the topic of how to navigate the election season well.

Darling believes Christian leaders are being proactive: “They want to equip their people on how to navigate this season, how to exercise their citizenship well, how to stay unified as a people. That’s a key thing.”

Meanwhile, both Trump and Biden sounded like they had already turned the page to the general election, with each pointing fingers at the other.

Trump’s victory speech in Mar-a-Lago painted a portrait of an America in dire straits under Biden’s presidency, calling out the twin disasters of immigration and inflation.

“Our cities are choking to death. Our states are dying. And frankly, our country is dying,” he said. “In some ways we’re a Third-World country.”

Biden, meanwhile, said in a written campaign statement that Tuesday’s results leave Americans with a “clear choice” between him and the former GOP president: “Are we going to keep moving forward or will we allow Donald Trump to drag us backwards into the chaos, division, and darkness that defined his term in office?”

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