Since his campaign, President Trump has taken a page from President Ronald Reagan’s playbook.
“I know you can’t endorse me,” Reagan famously told a room full of evangelicals in 1980. “But . . . I want you to know that I endorse you.”
Whenever he takes the stage in front of conservative Christians, Trump uses those opportunities to remind them of his promises, like appointing Supreme Court justices who could help overturn Roe v. Wade and making “Merry Christmas” a more common greeting during the holidays.
“We’re going to protect Christianity,” Trump said during a 2016 speech at Liberty University.
On Thursday morning, during an address to the National Prayer Breakfast, Trump was explicit.
“I will never let you down. I can say that. Never," he told leaders from all over the globe, including clergy, diplomats and lobbyists. The annual event at the Washington Hilton especially attracts conservative evangelicals jockeying to rub shoulders with Washington’s elite. Every president since Dwight D. Eisenhower has attended the event that draws several thousand people, and this year’s event was co-chaired by Sen. James Lankford, (R-Okla.) and Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.).
For the past two years, Trump has used the speech to reiterate the promises he has made that speak to a core concern among many conservative Christians: that their influence is waning and that their livelihoods could even come under attack.
Trump’s promises usually have the same theme: He will keep them safe.
“Many evangelicals trust that the infusion of God people and some God talk will result in God-intentioned things,” said Gerardo Marti, a sociologist at Davidson College who studies religion and recently published a journal article on evangelicals' affinity for Trump. “It’s a nice platform for Trump to say, ‘See, I’m with you.’”
As Trump’s approval ratings took a hit after the shutdown of the government, he tweeted praise of states that have proposed introducing Bible literacy classes in public schools.
“My sense is that when Trump needs a boost, he routinely turns to those issues he knows will resonate with the significant minority of Americans who want to see Christianity privileged in the public sphere,” said Andrew Whitehead, a sociologist at Clemson University who researches Christian nationalism, the idea that America is a distinctly Christian nation.
Jeff Hunt, a vice president at Colorado Christian University who has attended and ushered during numerous prayer breakfasts, said religious conservatives believe there has been a growing sentiment that religious freedom is subservient to other rights, such as LGBT rights.
“I think there’s a real movement, at least among people of faith, who feel like the Democrats think we’re criminals,” Hunt said. “They think that the way we want to practice our faith, the values we take seriously, are somehow in violation of the law.”
Hunt pointed to examples of when politicians like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and, most recently, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) have questioned the religious beliefs of potential judicial nominees. Many conservative Christians like Hunt were disappointed by the scrutiny second lady Karen Pence faced when she chose to teach at a Christian school that bars LGBT students and teachers.
“There’s a lot of people that go, ‘Gosh. They see our religious values, our beliefs, as almost criminal, something to be ushered out of the public square.’… Part of the reason I think evangelicals are so attracted to the president is he stood up for the importance of religious values in the public square.”
Trump has consistently enjoyed higher favorability ratings among white evangelicals, who make up about a quarter of the country, than any other religious group. A June 2018 Pew survey asked Americans whether Trump has respect for various groups, as well as “people like you.” Among religious groups, 74 percent of white evangelicals say Trump has a great deal or fair amount of respect for people like them, compared with 54 percent of white mainline Protestants. Fewer than half of Catholics (44 percent) say Trump has at least a fair amount of respect for people like them; just 34 percent of those with no religious affiliation and 18 percent of black Protestants say the same.
During his first prayer breakfast speech in 2017, Trump promised to help end the Johnson Amendment, which prohibits churches from endorsing or opposing political candidates.
Although attempts to repeal the law in Congress were unsuccessful, Trump issued an executive order directing the IRS not to penalize churches, then bragged that he had “gotten rid” of the amendment during a 2018 gathering of evangelical leaders at the White House. “They really have silenced you,” he said, according to the New York Times. “But now you’re not silenced anymore.”
During last year’s prayer breakfast, Trump spoke of a collective desire to “worship without fear,” a nod to religious freedom concerns, an issue that resonates with evangelicals, who have been particularly concerned about their personal freedoms and the status of Christianity in society. These concerns often emerge during Supreme Court cases, including last year’s case involving a baker who declined to make cakes for same-sex weddings.
“Our rights are not given to us by men; our rights are given to us from our creator,” Trump said. “No matter what, no earthly force can take those rights away.”
Trump was not initially the preferred candidate among white evangelical Republicans who attend church (Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas drew the most support during the campaign). In past decades, conservative Christian groups like Moral Majority, which was active in the 1980s, aggressively attempted to promote and elect their preferred candidates on topics like school prayer and opposition to same-sex marriage, said George Yancey, a sociologist at the University of North Texas who has written on anti-Christian bias. Now many of them just want a leader who will keep them safe from policies that could threaten their livelihoods, he said.
“Some are still aggressive, but now there’s a defensive mentality,” Yancey said. “Now I think there’s a sense of, ‘I just want to be left alone.’”
Under President Barack Obama, conservative evangelicals were coming to terms with their apparent failure to win the culture wars, but they also began to fear they were losing the ability to live according to their own values, said Kristin Du Mez, a historian at Calvin College, who has a forthcoming book on evangelical masculinity and militarism. During Obama’s term, many leaders began to sound the alarm that their personal freedoms were under attack. The legalization of same-sex marriage during Obama’s term ushered in questions over when LGBT rights and religious beliefs conflict. And many conservative Christian leaders were alarmed after the Obama administration required that institutions provide certain kinds of birth control to employees.
Conservative evangelicals are used to seeing male leaders like Trump who promise to protect them against malevolent outside forces, according to Du Mez. Men like radio host James Dobson, the late Jerry Falwell Sr., and former megachurch pastor Mark Driscoll “built their own religious empires by provoking a sense of danger and embattlement, and then offering fearful followers their own brand of truth and ‘protection.’”
So not only have some of these same evangelical leaders like Dobson, Falwell and Driscoll stoked fears about feminists or non-Christians, “we also have them primed to look to a strong man who embodies a God-given militant masculinity to rescue them from these dangers,” Du Mez said.
Dallas-based megachurch pastor Robert Jeffress, who attended this year’s prayer breakfast, said beforehand that he hoped Trump would talk about late-term abortion like he did in his State of the Union address on Tuesday to show he cares about the issues that alarm conservative Christians. Jeffress said that Americans have shifted on attitudes on sexuality, and this and other cultural change leave conservative Christians feeling politically vulnerable. Trump, he said, gives them a sense of relief.
“I think he gave voice to what many people felt: that Christianity was being marginalized in society. I’ve been with him now for three years. I’ve heard him talk about ‘Merry Christmas.’ Some people think that’s very superficial, but to him, saying ‘Merry Christmas’ is really code for not marginalizing faith in America.”
Scott Clement contributed to this report.
correction: An earlier version of this report mistakenly referred to Sen. Barbara Boxer instead of Sen. Dianne Feinstein in reference to questioning the religious beliefs of potential judicial nominees.