Friday’s event has long been popular with white evangelicals and Catholics, who helped deliver the White House to Trump in 2016. Upon news of his appearance, many conservatives championed his presence at the gathering as a huge deal months ahead of the 2020 election.
There is reason to believe, however, that his presence was tied more to how competitive the election could be for the president, despite his ongoing support with one of his most faithful groups. While Trump has remained popular with white evangelicals since winning the 2016 election, the stability of his reputation with the group has come into question in recent months after an editorial in Christianity Today, one of the most influential Christian publications in the country, called for the president to be removed from office, stating that his actions involving attempted interference in the 2020 election were “profoundly immoral.”
Trump’s appearance at Friday’s event serves as a reminder to conservative Christians that he alone is the candidate most interested in supporting their values. He attempted to make the case that criticism from the left toward him is actually tied to his commitment to Christian values, not because of concerns about the ethics and legality of his administration.
“They are coming after me because I am fighting for you, and we are fighting for those who have no voice,” he said. “And we will win because we know how to win.”
In an election in which fractions of percentage points could matter, shoring up his base seems like a good investment of Trump’s time. Republicans have spent this cycle repeatedly claiming that liberals seeking the White House, such as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg, are set on implementing policies that would offend, if not harm, religious conservatives.
Trump reminded these voters, who rank abortion and religious freedom as their top priorities, of his past decisions despite ongoing questions about his character.
“All of us understand an eternal truth: Every child is a precious and sacred gift from God,” he said. “When we see a baby in the womb, we glimpse the majesty of God’s creation.”
Republican presidents have valued the support of religious conservatives in years past but have never actually had to work much for their support against Democrats, a group that largely advocates for abortion rights. But the sheer magnitude of scandals plaguing Trump and his administration, ranging from alleged affairs to caging migrant children to being impeached, have caused some “values voters” to wonder how well the president’s values align with their own. In short, Trump has done something that other GOP presidents haven’t: made it difficult for some evangelicals to ignore other ethical issues.
Even if Trump had not attended Friday’s rally, the “abortion is all that matters or what matters most” evangelicals were never leaving him. But relying heavily on religious conservatives is not as solid a reelection strategy for Trump as it may have been for, say, George W. Bush. According to the Pew Research Center, there are fewer evangelicals in 2020 than there were in 2004, and a significant percentage of those who remain recognize that there are issues more worthy of their attention than abortion — even when it comes to “life” issues. Concerns about topics including criminal justice reform, global human rights abuses and immigration issues have caught the attention of some religious conservatives in new ways in the Trump era, forcing the president and his allies to answer new types of questions from those within their tribe.
Trump’s appearance at the March for Life proves that his team recognizes something that is a bit surprising for a president who won record levels of evangelical support: He can’t afford to lose even a few of his core voters.