The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Christian leaders start to break from Trump — with an eye on DeSantis

The cracks in the former president’s unlikely alliance were clearer than ever this week

Attendees pray together before President Donald Trump addresses the crowd at the King Jesus International Ministry during a rally in Miami on Jan. 3, 2020. (Scott McIntyre for The Washington Post)
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Longtime evangelical pastor Brad Cranston voted twice for Donald Trump — he wasn’t perfect, Cranston reasoned, but he appointed conservative judges and advanced the antiabortion cause. Last year, he thought he could back Trump again.

But Trump’s flaws have only grown in Cranston’s eyes, as the former president launches a third bid for the White House while criticizing abortion opponents at times and fixating on “himself” and his 2020 election loss rather than “on the country and on the issues.” Now, Cranston is drawn to other prospective candidates with a “strong biblical worldview.”

“The one who I really think has the best chance and is a fighter is Ron DeSantis,” said Cranston, the Iowa-based founder of a national group called Baptists for Biblical Values. The second-term governor of Florida “has had the courage to take on the woke crowd,” he added.

Many conservative Christian leaders who once rallied behind Trump and reveled in his policy victories now say they are interested in new standard-bearers for 2024, citing similar concerns as well as worries about Trump’s political weaknesses after November’s midterm elections in which he was blamed for elevating polarizing candidates who ended up losing. Some have raised alarms as would-be rivals make strong competing appeals to the religious right.

While conservative Christian pastors and political leaders often expressed interest in potential candidates besides Trump, DeSantis came up repeatedly as a “fighter” on hot-button social issues important to their demographic, with many pointing to his restrictions on school teachings regarding sexual orientation and gender identity; his vigorous opposition to vaccine and mask mandates; and his punishment of major companies he has labeled “woke.”

The cracks in Trump’s unlikely alliance with devout Christians, especially White evangelicals, were clearer than ever this week as the 45th president lashed out at prominent pastors who have yet to endorse him and continued his complaints that opponents of abortion had hurt the GOP — or failed to show up — in the 2022 midterms.

The tensions underscore the shifting dynamics in today’s Republican Party and the conservative movement more broadly, where many former supporters of Trump, from donors to activists to lawmakers, are wary of his candidacy, particularly as they await alternative contenders.

Whether this posture has an effect on rank-and-file evangelical voters remains to be seen. Some in the movement pointed to his robust past electoral support, even as leaders were disinclined to back him. And in general, Trump voters have shown they are frequently unswayed by political cues from institutional heads.

But interviews show how some Christian conservatives who once embraced Trump to advance their agenda are increasingly doubtful he can deliver more conservative wins. Some are thrilled by DeSantis’s approach to social issues at the heart of their anxieties that religious values are under attack from liberal, secular forces.

“The most conservative evangelicals I know are in favor of DeSantis,” who “has the ability to win,” echoed Texas-based pastor Tom Buck, who couldn’t bring himself to vote for Trump in 2016 and said he prayed former vice president Mike Pence would have a spiritual influence on him.

Steven Cheung, a spokesman for Trump, said in a statement that Trump’s “unmatched record speaks for itself,” pointing to his policies and appointments of antiabortion federal judges and Supreme Court justices who overturned Roe v. Wade last summer, erasing a ruling that established a constitutional right to abortion and delivering a decades-long priority for conservative Christians. “There has been no bigger advocate for the movement than President Trump,” Cheung wrote.

Yet DeSantis is seen by many Republicans as the most formidable potential challenger to Trump. He won a resounding reelection victory in Florida last fall and has built a national reputation with the fights he has picked.

Tom Ascol, a pastor in Florida who has led prayers at a rally for DeSantis in the fall and the governor’s inauguration this year, has waged a similar campaign against “wokeness” in his evangelical Christian denomination, denouncing female preachers, critical race theory — an academic framework that views racism as systemic — and other ideas he calls liberal excess.

DeSantis, Ascol wrote in an online post last fall, “has stood against the woke crowd and … fulfilled his God-given role to be ‘God’s servant’ for the ‘good’ of Floridians.” The pastor did not respond to an interview request.

One of DeSantis’s reelection ads last fall pitched him as someone on a divine mission, with a deep voice declaring that God “made a fighter” on the eighth day of creation — DeSantis. The governor’s positioning has caught the attention of Trump and his allies, who have sometimes targeted him with public criticism.

DeSantis, who is Catholic, has not made faith as central to his public image as other politicians such as Pence, but he sometimes invokes religion. In one speech last year, he urged opponents of “the left’s schemes” to “put on the full armor of God.”

His office referred an inquiry to reelection campaign staff, who did not immediately provide comment.

While some influential pastors and Christian leaders — including former evangelical advisers to Trump — have been bluntly critical of the former president in recent months, plenty of others are simply staying out of the fray.

Trump this week criticized longtime allies who have yet to endorse him, including megachurch pastor Robert Jeffress, who gave Trump his full-throated support in 2016 and 2020 but now says he does not want to get involved in a GOP “civil war.”

“That’s a sign of disloyalty,” Trump said in an interview with “The Water Cooler with David Brody” when asked about Jeffress and other evangelical leaders, arguing that no one “has ever done more for ‘right to life’ than Donald Trump.”

Jeffress said in an interview that he keeps in touch with Trump and assured him recently that reports of evangelicals abandoning him “in droves” are a “false narrative.” He praised Trump effusively, called him “the most likely candidate right now” and took no issue with Trump’s latest comments that Republicans handled abortion “poorly.”

Still, Jeffress alluded to some disagreements as he hosted Pence, now estranged from Trump, on Sunday at First Baptist Dallas, never mentioning Trump’s name while broaching “the second-biggest elephant in the room today” — the pro-Trump mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

“I think I speak for many of us when I say thank you for your courage and integrity that you exhibited on [Jan. 6],” Jeffress told Pence at the church, drawing applause from the pews. “You know, our Capitol Police, they protected the Capitol, but Mike Pence protected our Constitution. God bless you, sir, for doing that.”

The event kicked off Pence’s tour of megachurches as he weighs a 2024 presidential run — his latest effort to court the conservative Christian community where he has deep ties and helped assuage religious skepticism of Trump in 2016. Asked about Trump’s recent comments, Pence adviser Marc Short said evangelical leaders’ loyalty “is to God and not to any one political leader.”

Tony Suarez, who served on Trump’s evangelical advisory board, said Republican evangelicals are concerned with the same things as other conservative voters but with an extra focus on “wokeism — some call it godlessness or a complete departure of Judeo-Christian values.”

He said he is fully behind Trump for 2024 and that a host of supporters are “waiting for some marching orders.”

Elsewhere in conservative Christian circles, key endorsers and gatekeepers have signaled that their support must be earned in 2024.

“Anybody who simply wants loyalty without that level of, you know, ‘I’m willing to go through and do the retail part of this to have those discussions,’ is discounting concerns that we have” in the evangelical community, said Dave Wilson, president of the Palmetto Family Council in South Carolina, which advocates “biblical values” in policy and will hold a forum for 2024 contenders in March. He said he voted twice for Trump and Pence.

Faith and Freedom Coalition founder and Chairman Ralph Reed, who counts Trump as a friend, said the former president “will get a very fair hearing from voters of faith in 2024.” But, he added, “no one should assume that the evangelical community is foreclosed to them, or is beholden to a single candidate.”

Trump faced significant opposition in 2016 from conservative Christian leaders who found him personally immoral and also distrusted him on some policy issues, pointing to his support for LGBTQ rights and his past support of abortion access. But antiabortion activists who initially called for anyone but Trump eventually came around to his cause, buoyed in part by Pence, and some of the biggest names in evangelical politics became enthusiastic backers.

Rank-and-file voters were even more supportive, with White evangelicals in particular favoring Trump 80 percent to 16 percent in exit polls, even as their leaders were deeply divided. White Catholics also favored Trump over Hillary Clinton in 2016 but less dramatically — 64 percent compared with 31 percent. Catholic voters as a whole split about evenly between Joe Biden and Trump in 2020, according to an AP VoteCast survey.

“I don’t think evangelicals have much influence over their over their base,” said Jerry Falwell Jr., who jolted the Republican field by endorsing Trump early on as the president of Liberty University, one of the largest Christian universities in the world, before resigning in 2020 amid personal scandals. Falwell said he still supports Trump for 2024 — and hopes other evangelicals learn from his 2016 endorsement that “it’s not a guy who looks and talks most like other evangelicals that’s actually going to accomplish anything for evangelicals on the social issues.”

Conservative Christian leaders stuck with Trump through the 2020 election, many of them thrilled at his administration’s accomplishments. Three years ago, Trump became the first sitting president to attend the March for Life in Washington. He cited the Bible in an address to antiabortion activists who packed the National Mall.

“He should get credit for following through on things that people said for a long time,” said Chad Connelly, the founder and CEO of Faith Wins, a group that seeks to mobilize faith leaders in politics.

But Trump did not even mention this year’s March for Life, held Friday, on his Truth Social account. It was the first March since the Supreme Court overturned Roe. Cheung did not answer a question about his plans prior to the gathering, as the former president faces some pushback for suggesting that strict opposition to abortion had cost the GOP support in the midterms.

“It seems that he’s spending some time with ‘the swamp,’ as he puts it, and the consultants in the swamp,” Catholic antiabortion activist Kristan Hawkins said of Trump in an interview. In her inbox: a draft of a 2024 straw poll for attendees of this weekend’s National Pro-Life Summit.

Doubts about Trump have intensified after an underwhelming midterms season for the GOP, which many blamed on Trump’s freewheeling endorsements, divisive brand and endless desire to re-litigate his 2020 election loss with false claims.

“If Mr. Trump can’t stop his little petty issues, how does he expect people to stop major issues?” one former evangelical adviser to Trump, James Robison, asked attendees of a Christian political gathering shortly after the midterms in November. David Lane, an evangelical organizer, used his regular email to pastors to ask, “Why did the red wave die on the vine?” and to criticize Trump’s “compulsion to keep the spotlight upon himself.”

Other longtime Christian allies remain staunchly supportive of Trump — and echo his accusations of disloyalty.

Some pastors are “trying to hedge their bets,” said Darrell Scott, another member of Trump’s evangelical advisory group who formed the National Diversity Coalition for Trump in 2016. He said Jeffress and other colleagues “remind me of somebody at the roulette wheel … waiting to see which way that ball is going to drop, red or black.”

Michelle Boorstein and Michael Scherer contributed to this report.