Christianity is under siege, and only The Donald can rescue it. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
Opinion writer

THE MORNING PLUM:

Donald Trump’s lead over his GOP rivals seems to be holding strong in today’s polling, and his battle with Ted Cruz for front-runner status seems to be intensifying. Central to the war between Trump and Cruz are evangelical voters. Trump and Cruz are dominating among them, with Trump commanding the support of 42 percent of evangelicals to Cruz’s 25 percent in one recent poll.

And so, today the Post and the New York Times both weigh in with big reported pieces that ponder one of the most interesting subplots of the 2016 presidential contest: Why are evangelical voters apparently so drawn to The Donald, who has been married three times, wants to deport millions, favors a religious test for entry into the U.S., and regularly boasts about his spectacular wealth (and pretty much everything else about himself, too)?

The Times talks to dozens of evangelicals in multiple states and answers the question this way:

In dozens of interviews with evangelical voters in 16 states, from every region of the country outside the Northeast, those supporting Mr. Trump sounded a familiar refrain: that his heart was in the right place, that his intentions for the country were pure, that he alone was capable of delivering to a troubled country salvation in the here and now….

For many others, Mr. Trump speaks the truth and mirrors what they are feeling: fevered anger at President Obama, distress about the economy and fear that terrorists could pose as Syrian refugees to infiltrate the American heartland. Rather than recoiling from his harsh language about immigrants and insults of people he dislikes, these voters said Mr. Trump was merely being honest.

All this has deeply puzzled some evangelical leaders. The Post quotes one evangelical leader describing Trump as a “thrice married owner of casinos with strip clubs,” and adding that he is “the most immoral and ungodly man to ever run for President of the United States.”

But even if Trump is not a very good Christian in the eyes of some evangelical leaders, the Times interviews with evangelical voters suggest that Trump’s personal morality may not matter much to them. Instead, Trump’s success among evangelical voters may be rooted in the fact that, more than any other GOP candidate, Trump is able to speak to their sense of being under siege. Trump somehow conveys that he understands on a gut level that both Christianity and the country at large are under siege, and what’s more, he is not constrained by politically correct niceties from saying so and proposing drastic measures to reverse this slide into chaos and godlessness.

I recently talked to Robert Jones, the CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute, who has been studying evangelical opinion for many years. His research has led him to believe that Trump is very good at speaking to evangelicals’ sense of a lost, mythical golden age in America that predates the political and cultural turmoil of the 1960s.

Recent PRRI polls have shown that large majorities of evangelicals think the American culture and way of life have “mostly changed for the worse” since the 1950s, think that “the growing number of newcomers from other countries” is a threat to “traditional American culture and values,” and think the values of Islam are at odds with American values and the American way of life.

Trump appears to be consciously trying to appeal to those sentiments, and tie them to a sense that Christianity itself is besieged. In his speech at Liberty University yesterday, Trump said, “Christianity, it’s under siege,” adding: “We’re going to protect Christianity. I don’t have to be politically correct.” In an interview with David Brody, Trump repeated that Christianity is “under siege,” tying that notion to persecution of Christians in Syria (and of course, Trump has seized on the Syrian refugees coming to the U.S. in order to argue for his Fortress America approach).

And so, if Trump does not exactly comport himself as a model of piety, and if Trump flubs the details about Christianity and the Bible, none of that may matter much at all. Instead, what really matters, as one evangelical voter put it, is this: “He is the only one who can pull us back from the abyss.”

If it turns out that millions of voters actually believe this, then, er, God help us.

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* TED CRUZ RIPS INTO THE DONALD: After months of adopting a hands-off approach, Ted Cruz tore into Donald Trump on the campaign trail last night, arguing that Trump was not there when conservatives were fighting to stop comprehensive immigration reform in 2013:

“We were on the verge of losing this fight and 12 million people here illegally being granted amnesty,” Cruz said. “And yet, when that fight was being fought, Donald was nowhere to be found.” He then told the voters they have “reason to doubt the credibility” of a candidate who takes these hardline positions only after announcing his candidacy.

Why, it’s almost as if Cruz is suggesting that Trump’s call for mass deportations and vow to build a wall are not sincerely rooted in conviction and only represent an effort to con GOP voters.

* TRUMP, CLINTON STILL HOLD LARGE LEADS: From the latest NBC/Survey Monkey tracking poll:

In the GOP race, it’s Trump at 38 percent among Republican and Republican-leaning voters, Ted Cruz at 21 percent, Marco Rubio at 11 percent and Ben Carson at 8 percent — all essentially unchanged from last week….In the Democratic contest, Clinton leads Bernie Sanders nationally, 52 percent to 36 percent — again unchanged from a week ago.

Of course, when the New York Times poll last week showed Sanders had surged to within seven points of Clinton, pundits hyped the poll to the skies. Keep an eye on the polling averages, which show Clinton leading by 16 points nationally, though that is tightening.

* HILLARY PREPARES FOR LONG SLOG AGAINST BERNIE: The New York Times reports that there is a growing recognition inside the Hillary Clinton campaign that she may not be able to prevail over Bernie Sanders without a “long slog” first. Among her built-in advantages:

The Democratic Party also has “superdelegates,” or party leaders and elected officials who are free to support any candidate. Mrs. Clinton holds a large lead among these party leaders, with several hundred superdelegates signed on to support her campaign, compared with 16 or so for Mr. Sanders. Mrs. Clinton has deep support among blacks and Latinos. Mr. Sanders, by contrast, has struggled to connect with minorities and trails Mrs. Clinton by double digits in Nevada and South Carolina, which vote later next month.

A Sanders win in Iowa and New Hampshire could shift the dynamic, but there would probably have to be a large exodus of minorities from Clinton to Sanders for him to prevail.

* OBAMA GETTING HAMMERED OVER DEPORTATIONS: The Post reports that the anger among Democrats and immigration activists is on full boil over the Obama administration’s decision to step up deportations. The political context:

Growing blowback from congressional Democrats and advocacy groups has put the White House on the defensive just 14 months after President Obama sought to repair strained relations with Latino voters by taking unilateral steps to ease the deportation threat for those with deep ties to the United States….In an interview, a senior administration official blamed the public outcry on sensationalized news coverage and a climate of fear fostered by GOP campaign rhetoric.

As I’ve noted before, this could complicate Democratic efforts to seize on the rise of Trumpism to draw a sharp contrast between the two parties in the battle for Latino votes.

* GOP PRESIDENTIAL PRIMARY BATTERING PARTY’S IMAGE: Another new NBC News poll finds that the Trump-athon otherwise known as the GOP primary is hurting the party’s image in the eyes of the American people:

In the poll, 42 percent of registered voters said the primary race has made them feel less favorable about the GOP, compared to just 19 percent who said they feel more favorable. Thirty-eight percent said the brawl for the Republican nomination hasn’t changed their view of the party as a whole.

By contrast, 54 percent of voters say the Dem presidential primary has not changed their view of the party. GOP elders may have had good reason for worrying about a sustained Trump challenge.

* AND SUPER PACs GO TO WAR OVER HILLARY: The pro-Clinton Super PAC Priorities USA is out with a new ad this morning in Iowa that answers an attack ad from Karl Rove’s Super PAC. The Rove ad, amusingly enough, attacked Clinton as a tool of Wall Street for taking a lot of Wall Street money. The Rove ad asked: “Does Iowa really want Wall Street in the White House?” The Priorities ad responds that Republicans are attacking Clinton because they know she’s the “only one strong enough to stop Wall Street abuses and make the wealthy pay their fair share.”

Because as Karl Rove knows better than anyone, what Wall Street really wants most is President Hillary Clinton, not a Republican president who would cut high end taxes and roll back financial oversight.