Few voting blocs back President Trump as strongly as white evangelicals. Many of them on Friday reminded the world why as they descended upon Washington for the March for Life, one of the nation's largest antiabortion gatherings.
Trump became the first sitting president to address the event and reminded those in attendance that ending legal abortion and protecting religious freedom, issues on which he campaigned, will remain priorities for him throughout his administration.
At the rally, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) credited God for Trump’s election, saying: “Can we just thank God for giving us a pro-life president back in the White House?”
While not specifically a religious event, the annual march on the Mall in Washington attracts evangelicals, Catholics and conservative Christians who share a common goal of overturning Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court ruling on abortion rights.
Before entering the 2016 presidential election, Trump was better known for his “Playboy” tendencies than possessing conservative Christian values, but many evangelicals embraced Trump as he ran for the Republican presidential nomination. Jerry Falwell Jr., the son of the founder of the Moral Majority movement and president of Liberty University, went so far as to call Trump “a dream president.”
Their support has not wavered much, even after the recent claim by porn star Stormy Daniels that Trump had an affair with her and paid her hush money before the election.
When MSNBC’s Alex Witt interviewed the Rev. Franklin Graham Saturday about many conservative Christians’ silence about the reports, the son of evangelical icon Billy Graham said, “I can promise you he is not President Perfect, and I don't think I've seen a 'President Perfect' yet [ . . .] But I appreciate the fact that the president does have a concern for Christian values.”
When she asked: “Do you think with all of the evidence out there and the fact that this president has not always been entirely truthful about everything, do you think he’s telling the truth about this to begin with? Doesn’t he have a lot to lose by telling the truth about this affair?”
Graham replied: “I found the president to be truthful with me. And when he says he’s going to do something, he does it and that is what I appreciate about him. Now, did he have an affair with this woman? I have no clue. But I believe at 70 years of age the president is a much different person today than he was four years ago, five years ago, 10 years ago whatever. We just have to give the man the benefit of the doubt. He says he didn’t do it. So okay, then say he didn’t do it. But we just have to think of our country. We’ve got to move this country forward.”
For many evangelical voters, moving America forward means continuing to support the most antiabortion candidate regardless of his track record on any other moral issue. A recent testament of that came last month, when white evangelical voters in Alabama overwhelmingly backed Senate candidate Roy Moore, despite his facing allegations of sexually assaulting multiple teenage girls while in his 30s.
Moore, who Trump endorsed, had twice been elected the state's chief justice, campaigning on his conservative Christian values.
But this “embrace the sinner” attitude is not shared by all. For a group of people who regularly view themselves as soldiers in a culture war, there is some belief that evangelicals could wind up losing the overall fight for moral authority over the country and the world.
While many white evangelicals are unapologetic about being one-issue voters when it comes to abortion, others within and outside of the Christian faith argue other topics — including character and “loving your neighbor as yourself” — must be of high importance in deciding who will lead the country forward. These voters say a comprehensive conversation about family values has to include issues beyond abortion and are looking for candidates who are willing to do that.
Trump's hard-line stand on illegal immigration, including the deportation of those who have established families in the United States, have split some Christians. At the March for Life, a group of Franciscan priests stood near the front of the stage, raising banners when Trump appeared on the screen that said: “Keeping families together is pro-life! Keep God’s dream alive!”
Trump's recent reported reference to Haiti, El Salvador and countries in Africa as “shitholes” caused conservative blogger Erick Erickson to question if some evangelicals had reached a breaking point with the president and the Republican Party. In an Acts of Faith post, he questioned the impact this would have on the 2018 elections and beyond:
These evangelicals are patriotic Americans, but their Christianity comes first and they realize they cannot separate their vote from their faith. As they see fellow Christians beclowning themselves to defend the indefensible, they want no part of it. So they will wash their hands of it and stay home or they will join African American and Hispanic Christians in voting for those who have spoken loudly against the rise of white nationalism and Trump’s abhorrent behavior.
Winning the White House has always been important to evangelicals. But historically, winning people to the Christian faith has taken higher priority. To some within the tribe, it appears the former has replaced the latter.
The Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson, a leading evangelical, recently wrote:
“At the Family Research Council's recent Values Voter Summit, the religious right effectively declared its conversion to Trumpism.
Who would now identify conservative Christian political engagement with the pursuit of the common good? Rather, the religious right is an interest group seeking preference and advancement from a strongman — and rewarding him with loyal acceptance of his priorities. The prophets have become clients. The priests have become acolytes.”