Without the evangelical voting bloc, no Republican candidate could hope to have a path to the presidency
By Alex Morris | RollingStone | December 2019
On the morning of September 29th, six weeks before the 2016 election, Donald Trump was in a conference room at Trump Tower in New York talking to leaders of the religious right about sex-reassignment surgery. In a way, he was bringing about his own transformation. Having quashed the idea that his run for president was a lark or a publicity stunt, having come from behind to take the Republican nomination, and having fought his way up the polls to the extent that he was within striking distance of Hillary Clinton, Trump was now trying to seal the deal. And that involved something he would soon become much more known for: a discussion of other people’s genitalia.
“With the operation or without the operation?” Trump asked the conservative Christian leaders gathered specifically to ascertain whether to grant him their support. In other words, would HB2 — North Carolina’s so-called bathroom bill — apply to transgender people who had not undergone surgery to alter their sex?
“Without the operation,” Christian radio talk-show host Frank Turek confirmed, according to a tape of the meeting exclusively obtained by Rolling Stone. “If you’re a man but you feel like a woman that day, if you’re Shania Twain, you can go into a woman’s bathroom, and no one can say a word about it.”
Trump seemed to ponder this deeply. For much of his political run, the thrice-married, swindling, profane, materialistic, self-styled playboy had appealed mainly to the more fringe elements of Christianity, a ragtag group of prosperity gospelers (like his “spiritual adviser” Paula White, a televangelist who promises her donors their own personal angel), Christian dominionists (who believe that America’s laws should be founded explicitly on biblical ones — including stoning homosexuals), and charismatic or Pentecostal outliers (like Frank Amedia, the Trump campaign’s “liaison for Christian policy,” who once claimed to have raised an ant from the dead). Considering their extreme views, these folks had an alarming number of followers, but certainly nothing of voting-bloc magnitude.
And without the evangelical voting bloc, no Republican candidate could hope to have a path to the presidency. Evangelicals — a term that today refers to people who believe that Jesus died for their sins, that the Bible is the word of God, that every believer has a “born again” or salvation moment, and that the good news of Jesus should be widely disseminated — make up as much as a quarter of the country, or close to 80 million people. Around 60 percent vote, more than any other demographic, and among white evangelical voters, more than three-quarters tend to go to Republicans, thanks to wedge issues like abortion, same-sex marriage, and transgender rights.
Trump was exactly the type of character you would expect “values voters” to summarily reject — even before the famed “grab ’em by the pussy” tape, the optics weren’t great. He never gained a majority of Christian votes in the primary. Even after he secured the nomination and named Mike Pence to be his VP, a survey of Protestant pastors conducted by Christian polling group LifeWay Research that summer found that only 39 percent of evangelical pastors planned to vote for him.
The meeting on September 29th, 2016, was one of the ways he tried to move the needle, to convince the religious right that their vision for America was one he shared. Robert Jeffress, the head of 14,000-member megachurch First Baptist Dallas, a contributor to Fox News, and one of the earliest evangelical leaders to support Trump, presided over the meeting. “I usually stand when he comes in the room as a way of showing respect — he doesn’t ask that, but that’s just something that I’ve normally done,” Jeffress explained to the assembled, who included Wayne Grudem, a well-known theologian and co-founder of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood; Eric Metaxas, a bestselling Christian author and radio host; Ryan Anderson, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation; Jay Richards, a philosopher and senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, a conservative think tank that campaigns against teaching evolution in school; and Ivanka Trump, who popped in momentarily to say hello.
“What a group of people!” Trump exclaimed when he entered. “This is serious power. Fantastic. I don’t even know if I’ve ever seen this.”
Over the next hour, the message was that theirs was a power Trump would heed — and heed more than any other president. He would end the contraception mandate of Obamacare (“We’re getting rid of Obamacare anyway”); he would select only anti-choice judges (“And this president could choose, I mean, it could be five”); he would do away with the Johnson Amendment, which prohibits tax-exempt entities from endorsing politicians (“Wouldn’t it be nice if you could actually go and say, ‘I want Donald Trump’?”); he would support prayer in school (“I saw the other day a coach was giving a prayer before a football game, and they want to fire the coach now!”); he would oppose any bill that pulled funding from Christian schools that were charged with discrimination (“I can only tell you that if I’m president, it will be vetoed, OK?”); he would keep transgender people from using the “wrong” bathrooms and locker rooms (“We’ll get it straightened out”); and he would protect Israel, following the biblical pronouncement that nations that do so would be blessed (“[Obama’s] been the worst thing that’s happened to Israel; I was with Bibi Netanyahu the other day, and he said he can’t even believe it”). In other words, when it came to religious liberty as the attendees defined it, he would make sure that America was on the right side of God.
The meeting was chummy, solicitous. None of the points mentioned were likely to be ones that Steve Bannon would have let escape Trump’s attention, but the gathering allowed him to demonstrate not just his allegiance but also his attention. “[Romney] made no outreach like you’re doing,” Jeffress pointed out. “Bush didn’t do it. McCain didn’t do it. You’re the only candidate who’s asked people to come and share.” As the leaders went around the table, Trump got talking points, things to say on the trail that would — like a dog whistle — signal something meaningful to a massive group of voters. In turn, the leaders got the promise of a bully pulpit, someone willing to be their mouthpiece on the American political stage that the whole world was watching. “You go out on the campaign trail,” said Turek, “and every news organization is going to cover what you say.”
More than anything, it allowed Trump to display how his brand of pugnacious individualism could be used in service to the cause. “Are you allowed to use the word ‘Christmas’? Is there a restriction on the word ‘Christmas’?” Trump asked at one point, playing to the house.
“As long as you don’t refer to the baby Jesus as a ‘he,’ ” an attendee joked. “His preferred gender pronoun that day, that’s what you have to use.”
Throughout it all, Trump was not positioning himself as a true believer — “You know, I went to Sunday school,” he said with a shrug — but rather as a strongman, the likes of which the religious right had never seen. “Liberals are being the bullies here,” the Heritage Foundation’s Anderson told him at one point. “If there is a culture war in the United States, conservatives aren’t the aggressors, liberals are waging a culture war. They are trying to impose their liberal values.” Trump assured the group that, in his presidency, liberal oppression would end. “Many of these things, I would say 80 percent of them, will be done immediately,” he promised. “I can tell you, you have my support.”
In Jeffress’ final argument, he reminded everyone — in apocalyptic terms — what that support would mean. “What I want to say in closing is this election is not a battle between Republicans and Democrats. It’s a battle between good and evil, light and darkness, righteousness and unrighteousness. . . . This is the last chance we have, I’m convinced, as a country to turn this country around.”
The meeting and other events like it, spread the word, sending radio talk-show hosts and pastors and educators out into the world to preach the gospel of Donald Trump. On Election Day, close to 81 percent of white evangelicals cast their ballots for him, turning out to vote in greater numbers than they had for Mitt Romney and George W. Bush. And their faithfulness paid off. From naming Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, to transgender military bans and Muslim bans, to defunding Planned Parenthood and creating a division of Religious Freedom, Trump has followed through on the promises he made to powerfully push back on liberal aggression.
Today, 82 percent of white evangelicals would cast their ballots for Trump. Two-thirds believe that he has not damaged the decency of the presidency, 55 percent agree with Sarah Huckabee Sanders that “God wanted him to be president,” and 99 percent oppose impeachment.
Politics is a transactional game, and presidents don’t need to be moral to be effective. While much has been made of the hypocrisy of Trump’s Christian supporters, these “values voters” who’d once gone apoplectic over Bill Clinton’s indiscretions and now capitulated to the most immoral president in living memory, the meeting at Trump Tower shows the logical framing of the argument that would lead a certain type of Christian to vote for Trump. “I don’t think Trump changed after that meeting,” Jeffress tells Rolling Stone. “But I know some of those in the room did. Never, never have evangelicals had the access to the president that they have under President Trump.”
What transactions don’t account for, however, is how white evangelicals seem alarmingly keen to not just vote for Trump but to also claim him as one of their own, to pronounce — as did Focus on the Family founder James Dobson — that Trump is a “baby Christian,” deserving of ample benefit of the doubt as he learns the ways of righteousness. Or suggest that it “may be immoral” not to support him, as did Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr. Or insinuate that the Stormy Daniels payment was fake news, as did Billy Graham’s son Franklin Graham. Or to go on national television and protest that removing Trump from office would lead to a “Civil War-like fracture . . . from which this country will never heal,” as did Jeffress.
The fervent embrace of Trump seemed not just expedient, but something more insidious. If Donald Trump was to be its standard-bearer, was something in American Christianity profoundly broken? The answer to that question mattered profoundly to me.
In 2016, Trump garnered over 80 percent of the white evangelical vote. Today, more than half of them believe that God wanted Trump to be president and 99 percent oppose impeachment. Photo credit: Mark Wallheiser/Getty Images
I was raised a child of the Christian right. I know what they believe because the tenets of their faith are mine too. Growing up, I attended church at least twice a week and went to Bible camp every summer, singing songs about Christian martyrs who stood up to tyrants in the name of God. My brother and sister and I learned catechism and sang in the choir, but we also attended public school and played Little League and did community theater. We read C.S. Lewis but also Beverly Cleary. We listened to Amy Grant and Simon and Garfunkel. We were taught that evolution was a lie, with NPR playing in the background. We knew that women should submit to their husbands, but also that sex within the confines of marriage could be mind-blowingly good and that we should never be ashamed of our bodies. We felt that homosexuality was a sin, but we loved my mom’s Uncle Robert and his handsome boyfriend Ken. We knew that the Republican Party was the party of family values, but we weren’t particularly political. In Birmingham, Alabama, in the 1980s, Christianity was the culture; but for my family, it was much more. We believed in the Bible stories my mother read us over our eggs each morning. They girded our lives. More than anything, they taught us that we were beautifully and wonderfully made in the image of God, and because of that we should respect ourselves and everyone else we encountered. They made us believe that our humanity held a divine spark.
It’s a concept that has long animated Christians, and explains why church history is littered with movements and leaders who have tried to hold America accountable to its theoretical ideals. Before the Civil War, Christian abolitionists fought not just for the end of slavery but also for prison reform and humane treatment of the mentally disabled, while Wheaton College — the so-called Harvard of Christian schools — served as a stop on the Underground Railroad. By the turn of the 20th century, mainstream Protestantism was engaged in a movement called the Social Gospel, which applied Christian ethics to social ills like child labor, poverty, war, and crime. Its adherents advocated in favor of women’s rights, and against racial injustice and income inequality. They believed that the kingdom of God could, through social-justice initiatives, be realized in the here and now.
There were prominent Protestants at the turn of the century who also trusted in science and, as scientific knowledge grew, accepted that the world was not created in six days but rather over millennia, and that humankind was a product of evolution. These were not necessarily hills on which Christianity needed to die — after all, evolution does not rule out the possibility of divine purpose — but the subsequent theological liberalism that grew out of these findings created a backlash that gave rise to fundamentalism, the belief that the Bible was fundamentally, historically, and scientifically true. “Fundamentalists were legalists,” says Greg Thornbury, a theologian and Christian biographer. “And fundamentalism was characterized by isolation. ‘We’re starting our own schools. We have our own churches. We have a bus running to programs.’ ”
The isolation created a stark religious and cultural divide in America. By the time of the “Scopes Monkey Trial” of 1925, in which a Tennessee high school teacher was tried for teaching the theory of evolution in class, Christian lawyer William Jennings Bryan won in actual court, but lost in the court of American opinion. Fundamentalism’s anti-scientific commitment to “alternative facts” cast the movement as backward, delusional, and worthy of scorn. For the first time in American history, Protestantism’s cultural dominance was called into question. It was a fall from a great height.
Out of the seeds of the ensuing resentment and cultural irrelevance — and as a means of overcoming them — American evangelicalism was born. In the late 1940s, preachers like Billy Graham had begun referring to “evangelical” as a movement that was theologically conservative but had “a heart for the world.” Evangelicals engaged in American culture as a way of showing they cared. By the 1950s, Graham was preaching against communism and hobnobbing with presidents — though he once horrified Harry S. Truman by praying on the ground outside the Oval Office. “They were wearing ice-cream-colored suits and hand-painted ties. I mean, country come to town,” says Thornbury. “But Graham became more sophisticated after that. He was interested in the political shape of things.”
As it turned out, Graham’s brand of engaged evangelicalism hit a sweet spot. In 1920, 43 percent of Americans were members of a church; by 1960, that figure had jumped to 63 percent. In 1976, the year that evangelical Sunday school teacher Jimmy Carter was elected president, fundamentalist pastor Jerry Falwell decided it was time to stoop to worldly matters and go on a series of “I Love America” rallies across the country to decry the decline of American morality.
What constituted that decline, in Falwell’s mind, was the 1971 case Green v. Connally, which had determined that “racially discriminatory private schools are not entitled to the federal tax exemption.” Falwell had founded just such an institution, Lynchburg Christian School, and believing in his God-given American right to exclude African Americans, he teamed up with Paul Weyrich, a religious political activist and co-founder of the conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation, who had long been searching for an issue around which to forge a Christian voting bloc. Together, they reframed the debate, creating a playbook for a defense of white supremacy. “Weyrich’s genius lay in recognizing that he was unlikely to organize a mass movement around the defense of racial segregation,” argues Randall Balmer, an Episcopal priest and historian of American religion at Dartmouth College. “That would be a tough sell. With a sleight of hand, he recast the issue as a defense of religious liberty.”
In 1979, Falwell and Weyrich also founded the Moral Majority, using Falwell’s mailing lists to create what would become one of the largest conservative lobbies in the country, one dedicated to seeing Christian ethics enshrined in American law. “The Democrats at that point were embracing feminism and gay rights and things like that,” says Peter Montgomery, a senior fellow at People for the American Way. “So conservative operatives looked at evangelical churches that had traditional ideas about the role of women and sexuality, and saw those churches as places where they could convince people that voting conservative was part of their religious duty.”
What convinced Christians of that most compellingly, folding evangelicals into Weyrich’s voting bloc once and for all, was a 1979 movie series called Whatever Happened to the Human Race? Made by pastor Frances Schaeffer and future Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, the films (and accompanying book) argued that abortion was infanticide. “The films changed everything,” says Thornbury. “They made people think that the government was coming after them. They began to see the political left as being the church of secular humanism. So, ‘If we’re going to protect our Christian heritage in America, then we’re going to have to play ball with the Republicans.’ ”
Despite having signed into law the most permissive abortion bill in the U.S. when he was governor of California, Ronald Reagan was only too happy to play ball as well, taking to the campaign trail in 1980 with an explicit endorsement of religious freedom. In so doing, Reagan cemented the idea that the Republican Party was the Everlasting Party of God.
I’m not sure exactly when my family got the idea that we were at war with larger American culture. But I know that at some point our lessons about God’s love became peppered with the idea that we were engaged in spiritual warfare, inhabiting a world where dark forces were constantly attempting to sever us from the will of God. The devil was real, and he was at work through “gay” Teletubbies and pagan Smurfs, through Dungeons & Dragons, through the horrors of MTV. At one point, my parents forbade TV altogether, and disconnected the stereo system in my car. We still loved Uncle Robert, but believed that the AIDS he’d contracted was a plague sent by God, just as we believed that abortion was our national sin, for which the country would likewise be held accountable. We awaited the Rapture, when Christians would be spirited away and Jesus would return to deal (violently) with the mess humans had made of things. Over time, and even before the introduction of Fox News, whatever nuance we might have seen in the culture evaporated into a stark polarity.
Zooming out, that cleaving was by design: It created a powerful us-versus-them mentality that mobilized the Christian base fiscally and politically. We were Christian soldiers, and the weapons we had were our votes and our tithes. “The persecution trope is a hell of a fundraising pitch,” says Charles Marsh, a professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia. “For evangelical activists and leaders, many of whom run nonprofits or rely on charitable contributions, that is the most direct and successful way to captivate conservative Christians.”
The wedge issues created during the culture wars of the Eighties and Nineties were thus not matters of equality and social justice or anything that might evoke the liberalism of the Social Gospel (though Jesus spoke on such matters abundantly). Rather they were divisive, pushing the Republican Party further to the right and exacerbating Christians’ sense of being a people apart.
By the time Trump came along, the gulf was so wide that criticizing Trump’s behavior seemed beside the point. There was now a scorched-earth policy, and any leader who tackled the wedge issues with Trumpian ferocity was on the side of righteousness. Which also happened to be where the money was. “I had a huge donor that was the puppet master behind the whole Trump campaign,” says Thornbury, who was also president of the King’s College, a small Christian school, from 2013 until 2017. “Rebekah Mercer was funding Breitbart. Who is an evangelical college president going to talk to, to raise $10 million a year? Right-wing crazy people.”
And as Jesus himself pointed out, money tends to shut down moral inquiry. “It’s all about money,” Thornbury argues. “All these people were told, ‘Don’t say anything about Trump or we’re going to stop giving to your thing.’ All of the money that is behind these evangelical institutions is being given by Trump supporters.”
Not everyone capitulated. There were still those who balked at the idea of stumping for a man who famously referred to the biblical book Second Corinthians as “Two Corinthians,” and who once opined that he had never had the need to ask God for forgiveness. In a much-debated blog post titled “Decency for President,” Christian author Max Lucado wrote, “If a public personality calls on Christ one day and calls someone a ‘bimbo’ the next, is something not awry?” Likewise, pastor Tim Keller worried in The New Yorker about the damage Trump had done to the very word “evangelical”; and Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s public-policy arm, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, referred to Trump as “an arrogant huckster” and called the support evangelical leaders offered him “a disgrace.”
Moore was quickly chastised. More than 100 churches threatened to cut funding to the SBC, and some left the denomination altogether. “Immediately after the election, all of the big Southern Baptist megachurch pastors called [Moore] up and said, ‘You are to shut up about Donald Trump, or you’re out of a job,’ ” says Thornbury. “And from that point on, Russ has not said pee-diddly-who. His wings were clipped. Occasionally, he’ll pop his head up above the parapet like he did when he talked about the crisis at the border. And what happened?” Jerry Falwell Jr., perhaps not incidentally accused of hiring Michael Cohen to help him deal with some compromising “personal photos,” condemned Moore, saying the pastor was part of an “SBC deep-state regime.” Thornbury knows Moore, and watched it all transpire. “There’s now this mob,” he says with a sigh. “If you criticize Trump, they will come after you.”
Unlearning one’s religion is not a task that is easily accomplished; I had to leave America to manage it. I was in my early twenties, living in London, when my mother called to inform me that if I did not cast my absentee ballot for George W. Bush, I could not possibly be a real Christian. She was adamant, unyielding. So entwined had the policies of the Republican Party become with her faith that it seemed to me she could no longer untangle them.
Though I didn’t mention this to my mother, my own faith hung in the balance. Once out from under my parents’ roof, the nuance of experience had washed over me, the Bible’s complications had ineluctably presented themselves, and I had been left with two choices: Deny God, or find a new framework for understanding him. In a chilly, Victorian-era chapel not far from the tiny room I rented, I stumbled upon a Christianity divorced from the American nationalism I came to believe was poisoning my faith. Here, theology was not wrapped up in some idea of theocracy, but was instead expressed with a C.S. Lewis-style appeal to reason, to compassion, to internal rather than political renewal. An Oxford scientist in the pew next to me sometimes, under his breath, spoke in tongues. It weirded me out, but also intrigued me. Here was a fervent embrace of God’s mystery by a man who had made understanding physical reality his life’s work.
I returned to America to discover a rich tradition of progressive Christianity, with thinkers like Rob Bell and Rachel Held Evans grappling with their faith with intense intellectual honesty and a deep love for the transformative message of Jesus (Held Evans famously said she was voting for Hillary Clinton because she was “pro-life,” not just “pro-birth”). These faith leaders helped me see that no one political party had a monopoly on God; that Jesus himself was revolutionary, upsetting hierarchies wherever he went; and that a form of Christianity that could be co-opted by a political agenda was suspect at its core. “I find the term ‘Christian right’ highly objectionable because I don’t think there’s anything Christian about it, frankly,” says religion historian Balmer. “What is Christian about what’s happening at the border right now? What is Christian about the economic policies since Trump took office?”
The frustration certain Christians have over the Republican Party’s stranglehold on our faith deeply troubles Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who has consistently pushed back on the notion that Republican policies are inherently Christian. “It makes me think of the contortions of the priests and the scribes who justify the unjustifiable — and are among those who actually managed to get under the skin of Jesus in Scripture and draw not only rebuke, but even irritation and sarcasm out of him,” says Buttigieg, who is both Christian and a gay man. “And I see a lot of that in the elaborate inventions of conservatives trying to think of some reason to pretend that what they’re doing is consistent with, never mind my faith, but their own.” On the campaign trail, Buttigieg has argued in favor of a Christianity of compassion, and called for us to love our neighbors no matter who they might be. “It matters what effects these interpretations of religion have in the world,” Buttigieg tells me. “Do they serve to heal or to harm? Do they serve to unify or to divide? That tells us something about the truth beneath.”
It is a reasonable point if your ultimate concern is creating a more harmonious society. But conservative Christians often have a different goal in mind. The wedge issues have become so ingrained in their conceptions of morality that they view them as issues paramount to not just individual salvation but to the country’s salvation as a whole.
In other words, for the God-fearing evangelical, gay marriage, abortion, and the evils of socialism — as opposed to racial injustice, family separation, or income inequality — put America squarely in the path of the wrath of God. “Parts of the Old and New Testaments imply very strongly that there’s not just a judgment of individuals, but there’s a judgment of nations,” says historian Diana Butler Bass. “People who sin are keeping the nation away from a moral goodness that needs to be present, because they think that God’s coming back and is going to destroy everything, and they want America to be on the right side of that equation. They want to stand before God and say, ‘We did your will. We created a godly nation, and we’re the remnant. We’re your true people.’ ”
For an outsider, this may seem extreme, even unhinged, but it’s what televangelist Pat Robertson was talking about when he blamed 9/11 on abortion, or Hurricane Sandy on gay marriage. “When Christians get all worked up about religious liberty, it’s usually because it’s some law or cultural practice that impinges on what they think it would mean to be a godly nation,” Bass continues. “If you have to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple, then what happens in the minds of the people who are living inside of this worldview is that you’re contributing to evil. It’s way more than a wedding cake. It’s participation in sin.”
In that sense, the victimization certain Christians feel is very real. “I believe that Christians are being targeted by the gay and lesbian movement,” Franklin Graham tells me. “We’re not targeting them. I’m not targeting them.” Metaxas, the radio host who was at the September 29th meeting, agrees. “With Roe v. Wade,” he says, “and Obergefell” — the same-sex-marriage case — “the real issue was never: Should people be allowed to do something that they want to do? The issue was: Once they have that legal right, are they then going to use that to bludgeon people and say, ‘You mu