For months, Rose Aller kept her support for Donald Trump a secret from her colleagues at the Northern Virginia school where she works as a substitute teacher.
“You’re judged for your beliefs,” she said. “Our media branded you a racist, a bigot, a homophobe if you were Republican.”
So Aller stayed quiet. Only at church did she feel surrounded by people who think like her, people who were distraught by the changing values they saw around them and pulling for Donald Trump as their unlikely standard-bearer to bring their chosen Christian policies back into the White House.
Late Tuesday night, Aller found out she and her fellow churchgoers were far from alone. Eighty-one percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump. Aller, 46, came into school on Wednesday wearing a red-for-Republican T-shirt and beaming at a few other teachers who seemed jubilant instead of despondent about the election results. She wasn’t the only Trump supporter in school, it turns out.
And that night, at church, she was one of hundreds.
“Let’s take a moment,” Pastor Gary Hamrick opened his teaching before about 500 uplifted congregants at Cornerstone Chapel in Leesburg, Va., on Wednesday night, “to pray for our President-elect Donald Trump.”
Hands of praise shot into the air.
“Every church is going to be influenced by the culture,” Hamrick said. “The issue becomes, will the church rise up and become an influencer of the culture?”
During the eight years of the Obama administration, white evangelical Christians, who make up one-quarter of the U.S. population, felt that culture moving away from them. They watched gay marriage become the law of the land and Christians come under fire for saying they didn’t want to provide pizzas or cakes or photographs for those weddings. They heard college students demand “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings”; they heard “Black Lives Matter” and didn’t understand when they were demonized for responding “All Lives Matter.” Their president disparaged people like them who “cling to guns or religion,” and then said that religious employers should subsidize their workers’ birth control and anyone should use any bathroom they like.
And then on Wednesday, evangelicals woke up remembering what it’s like to feel victorious again in American politics.
“Their deepest desires may be enacted into laws — or hated laws repealed. Their prayers were answered — by electing a rude, crude and morally unacceptable nonbeliever,” Hartford Seminary professor Scott Thumma, who studies megachurches and nondenominational evangelical churches, wrote in an email. “I have interacted with a few evangelicals since the election … and every one of them were proud and happy to have had a part in Trump’s election — not exactly because of who Trump is, but what he stood for.”
To be sure, these white evangelical supporters knew Trump was an odd champion. He is a self-declared Presbyterian but never a churchgoer, is thrice married with a history of boasting about his infidelity and has leveled insults at everyone from a beauty queen to a disabled reporter to the pope.
Exit polls showed that 49 percent of Trump’s voters said they had reservations about him, and almost 1 in 5 people who felt Trump was unqualified to be president still voted for him. Whenever they spoke in church about Trump, they, too, did it with caveats.
Of course he’s not a Christian like we are. Of course I wish he hadn’t said that thing about grabbing women by the crotch. Of course. But.
“People wanted to vote for Hillary because they’re like, ‘Trump is a bigot.’ He is! But Hillary is 10 times worse,” Scott Risvold said, sitting on an overstuffed couch in the lobby at Cornerstone Chapel, 45 minutes early for the Wednesday night worship service.
On the opposite couch, Rob Cole nodded. “My sister, I just wanted to unfriend her on Facebook today. Because she’s a die-hard Democrat,” he said. Cole told Risvold, who worked in military intelligence before leaving the service last year at 29, about a video he watched online in which a Christian speaker abroad hailed Trump’s victory. “It really makes you feel great to be a Christian,” he said.
That’s how Aller, the substitute teacher, felt, too. “There’s been a big attack on our Christian faith. I think Christians took a big stand this time and said we’re going to stand up for our faith.”
The morning after the election, Aller said, a black second-grader came into her school and declared, “Trump was elected, so we’re moving.”
Aller said she responded, “We’re going to miss you. Let me know when your last day is. We’ll throw you a goodbye party.”
She says she’s sure the boy knew she was joking.
Then another little girl, also from a minority background, said she was unhappy about the result of the election, too. “I think you should have a more positive attitude about that,” Aller said she told her.
Sitting in the back row of Cornerstone’s huge sanctuary on Wednesday night, Aller related these stories to fellow churchgoer Morgan Hamrick, who also works as a substitute teacher. “That’s what I was telling the kids. What do you think is going to happen that’s so bad? Like, make America great again,” said Hamrick, 23.
Hamrick’s father-in-law is the pastor of this bustling church almost 40 miles west of Washington. Cornerstone’s congregation, spanning all generations and predominantly white, is growing so fast that this post-election service was the very last Wednesday worship in the church building before moving into a new building with a sanctuary twice the size. Stripped for the move, the room was bare on Wednesday night, unadorned except for an 8-foot-tall wooden cross on one wall and a few gourds on the stage where a well-amplified band played rock-style hymns.
About 500 people gathered for worship, plus about 220 children, age 1 through high school, who met separately for services at the same time.
Many of these Leesburg churchgoers make the long commute every day to work in Washington, where they often feel like the only conservatives — and perhaps even the only Christians — at their jobs, Gary Hamrick said. Church is normally their refuge for meeting with like-minded folks. When he laid out the details of the candidates’ platforms in a pre-election sermon and then preached that they should vote for the one who best matched their values, most knew he meant Trump.
While Hispanic Catholics, Jews and some other faith groups voted heavily for Clinton, and white Catholics and mainline Protestants were more divided in their choices, voters like the congregants at Cornerstone turned out in force on Election Day. White evangelicals made up 26 percent of the electorate, according to the exit polls. Three percent more of them voted for Trump than had voted for Romney in 2012.
White evangelicals were so key for Trump that, had no white evangelicals voted, Clinton would have won in a landslide, 59 percent to 35 percent.
“I’ve got real concerns with him as an individual,” Gary Hamrick said about Trump. “But that said, I still have to look at the bigger picture.” For him, that bigger picture includes Trump’s choice for his running mate, Mike Pence, who has called himself an “evangelical Catholic” and is hugely popular at Cornerstone. It also includes Trump’s pledge to appoint Supreme Court justices who will overturn Roe v. Wade.
Hamrick preached Wednesday night about the culture that has bewildered and infuriated evangelicals during the Obama years.
“There’s gender confusion. There’s sexual identity confusion — people are inventing words now,” he said in his teaching. Mentioning the pop star Miley Cyrus, he continued: “Pansexual. What do all these words mean?”
The problem, he said, is that public morality seems to have become a matter of personal choice rather than biblical dictates. “You know the reason why there is such confusion in our culture today? Without a common fixed reference point, then there’s confusion. Nobody seems to know what’s right, what’s wrong, what’s up, what’s down.”
Many churchgoers echoed that idea and said that Trump seemed to support the sort of Bible-based morality they craved, which they imagine was standard in the bygone America he offers to bring back.
“It’s like every day our morals in America are being chipped away. Now on the radio you can say words you couldn’t say eight years ago,” said Risvold, the military veteran. “The more we go immoral and crazy, and everybody’s feelings count — I feel this and I feel that.”
Cradling her 3-month-old son in the church’s bustling cafe, where she could watch the service simulcast on television, Rachael Sales, 24, said the same thing. “It’s like your definition of the word now. That’s not something I can put my faith in, someone else’s definition. My sense of morality can’t come from just what I believe in my heart. For me it’s the Bible.”
Having a baby increased her conviction, Sales said. A woman shouldn’t be able to decide to abort a fetus — that should just be wrong, period. She thinks Trump will stand against abortion and will slash taxes for businesses, which might help her get a graphic design business off the ground.
“Hopeful” was the first word Sales used to describe her feeling about Trump’s America. It was the same word that Aller used first, and Morgan Hamrick.
“Hopefully, now we can see some progress for some evangelical causes in our country,” Gary Hamrick said. “I feel like we actually have an advocate now in the White House.”
He used another word, too, to describe the mood of white evangelical America waking up as victors once again: “Relief.”