Then she grew more serious. “Black people are saying, ‘We’re not voting for him.’ But what if God causes Donald Trump to correct this?”
“This” is the yard where Johnson was standing in a majority-black neighborhood on the outskirts of Dayton, before the coronavirus descended and made campaign rallies such as the one at her church the night before a thing of the past.
Johnson was gazing across the street at the house that was once her greatest achievement, and then her greatest nightmare. She was 28 when she bought the house for $105,000. She rejoiced in being a homeowner, able to provide a place for her aging mother, father, and great-aunt to live.
And then it all went wrong — her dogs dying, her parents ailing, her nights spent choking on noxious fumes from toxic waste processing. She still has the documents, showing the long list of institutions that didn’t warn her before she moved in, and didn’t fix the problem once she was there: the EPA, the firefighters, the bank, the health department, and on and on.
The only place she found solace was her church.
So when Paula White — a white televangelist whose sermons Johnson has long admired — came to her church one Friday in early March to say that Democrats have failed to fix the problems like joblessness and an unfair criminal justice system besetting black communities, and to urge Johnson to vote for President Trump this time around, Johnson listened. Even though she voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016.
“All of them say they care. I’m at the point, prove it. Come here. Prove it. You have to show me,” she said, with JESUS on her T-shirt and crosses glittering in her ears. “When I have a candidate that believes in God, that gets my attention. [Trump is] surrounded by Christian people like Paula White.”
Johnson is just the sort of voter that Trump’s campaign staff hope they can lure in November: evangelicals of color. The Republican National Committee and supportive groups on the religious right have invested millions of dollars in campaign efforts targeted specifically at nonwhite evangelicals.
The campaign’s hope is that people like Johnson represent a segment of black and Latino voters who may see Trump as an ally in their religious conservatism. This segment is narrow, but some pollsters say it could be enough to swing a few key states.
Black and Latino evangelicals have long been “politically homeless,” as the Rev. Gabriel Salguero, president of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition, puts it. They have conservative beliefs on social issues such as same-sex marriage, which they oppose at rates just slightly lower than white evangelicals, and to some extent abortion, which would put them in the Republican camp. But they also tend to favor more legalized immigration, government sensitivity toward racial justice, and help for the poor, generally pushing them toward Democratic candidates.
In 2020, the Trump campaign aims to make the case to these evangelicals of color that they should support the president’s reelection, hoping to peel away voters who might otherwise opt for the Democratic nominee or sit out the election.
Despite the president’s very low approval rating among minorities, and his record of racist remarks — from referring to certain countries as “s---hole nations” to telling minority women in Congress to “go back” to other countries — Trump’s evangelical advisers believe they can sway these voters to his side.
Before the coronavirus transformed the campaign, the RNC launched voter registration drives at churches in important states, where volunteers were trained to tell churchgoers “how the Republican Party best represents the issues they care about most,” an RNC official said.
The RNC hosted “Hispanic pastor roundtables” in New Mexico to teach clergy how to get their churches involved in the Trump campaign. In Florida, the campaign held an event specifically for Brazilian American evangelicals, and in several locations, the RNC trained “faith captains” at “Trump Victory Leadership Institute” events; these captains then train members of their churches to volunteer for Trump.
The RNC official said thousands of Latino pastors had already participated in various outreach events before March, when the virus interfered.
By early April, she said, those efforts had all gone online. In the first weeks of virtual campaigning, the RNC trained evangelical groups in Arizona, Iowa, Ohio, New Mexico and Wisconsin. Prominent pastors who support Trump hosted prayer calls for supporters in additional states, including Nevada and North Carolina.
Outside groups that typically organize white evangelicals are focused on evangelicals of color in this election, as well. Ralph Reed, a longtime Christian conservative activist, said his group Faith and Freedom Coalition plans to spend $1 million during the 2020 campaign on nonwhite evangelicals, mostly Latinos. That’s more than 10 times what the group spent in 2016.
“For the first time in history we’ve worked to build the kind of infrastructure in a constituency like we have among white evangelicals,” Reed said. Before the coronavirus, his group had hired 46 canvassers, community organizers and field staffers, half in Florida.
It’s hard to determine who precisely should be counted as “evangelical” — a religious term that traditionally refers to those who believe in personal salvation through Jesus Christ and a stricter interpretation of the Bible, which they view as without error. The Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), which asks people to self-identify as “born again” or “evangelical,” says there are 12 million black evangelical adults in the United States and almost 5 million Latino evangelical adults, compared with 36 million white evangelical adults.
Latinos are the fastest-growing segment of American evangelicalism. They’re also the least likely to be voters — PRRI found 37 percent are not registered, compared with 11 percent of white evangelicals and 15 percent of black evangelicals — so the Trump campaign views them as possible pickups in 2020. Evangelicals of each of the three races are more likely to be registered to vote than non-evangelicals of the same race.
When PRRI interviewed 9,447 evangelicals last year, they found stark differences between evangelicals based on race and ethnicity.
While 64 percent of white evangelicals told pollsters that they have a “mostly” or “very” favorable opinion of Trump, just 19 percent of black evangelicals viewed the president positively. Latino evangelicals were split: 40 percent had a positive opinion and 52 percent a negative one.
The Pew Research Center found in January an even larger gap: 86 percent of black evangelicals said they disapprove of Trump’s job performance, while 77 percent of white evangelicals said they approve. Among black evangelicals, 77 percent said they would probably or definitely vote for a Democratic candidate for president in November.
But on certain social issues, nonwhite evangelicals are only slightly less conservative than white evangelicals. Fifty-four percent of black evangelicals and 51 percent of Latino evangelicals told PRRI that they oppose same-sex marriage, compared to 60 percent of white evangelicals.
The Trump campaign hopes to leverage that conservatism, as well as the president’s record of restricting abortion access and endorsing a conservative Christian perspective on religious liberty on subjects including prayer in schools and adoption. The campaign has also heavily touted a bipartisan criminal justice bill and, before the coronavirus, low unemployment rates for black and Hispanic workers.
The campaign’s “Evangelicals for Trump” effort has focused heavily on evangelicals of color. The first event, at which the president spoke, was at a predominantly Latino megachurch in Miami. The second was in early March, at a Cincinnati church that is rare in its racial diversity — about half black and half white.
The crowd that showed up for the Friday night Evangelicals for Trump rally was much whiter than the typical Sunday service at Solid Rock Church. But the speakers focused much of their message specifically on the importance of getting minority evangelicals’ votes.
White, whose Florida megachurch and televised prosperity-gospel sermons enjoyed a large black audience long before she became Trump’s chief evangelical adviser and then joined his White House staff, told rallygoers about Trump’s support for criminal justice restructuring and historically black universities.
“Do you want to talk about the black vote?” she said, then spoke as if she were talking to Democratic candidate Joe Biden. “Biden, you’re playing by the same rule book. You assume you have the black vote. You assume you have the Hispanic vote — but you’re wrong.”
Bishop Harry Jackson, a black minister in Beltsville, Md., who is campaigning for Trump, focused his 20-minute speech at the rally on the importance of convincing evangelicals of color to vote for Trump, especially based on the issue of abortion.
“This election is going to be decided by the evangelical Christian vote and by the minority vote in America,” Jackson said. “I only need 5 to 7 percent of my minority vote to shift, to wake up … to determine we can make a difference. … My minority relatives have got to understand. They’ve got to join hands with us on the life side.”
Salguero, who leads the Latino evangelicals group and leads a 5,000-member church in Orlando, said both sides have courted him in this election. (He recently took a call from Biden, he said.) “I think the White House is correct in that evangelicals of color are politically homeless and are willing to be persuaded,” he said of the Trump campaign’s efforts. “It’s politically astute for any party to understand.”
Calling Hispanic evangelicals “quintessential swing voters,” who side with Trump on issues such as school vouchers but are also infuriated by Trump’s restrictive immigration policies, Salguero said, “Those pockets can decide a national election.“
Pablo Jimenez, the associate dean of a program for Hispanic ministry at Gordon-Conwell, an evangelical seminary, pointed out that Trump has damaged his support among Hispanic voters by his harsh attitude toward Mexicans and other Latin Americans throughout his presidency — but perhaps not as much as outsiders might think. “You have the rhetoric. When we are called — I don’t have to go into details; you know what we have been called. The attitude toward Puerto Rico, the attitude toward Mexico is very, very difficult.”
But Jimenez pointed to Trump’s history in professional wrestling, a form of entertainment popular among Mexican Americans. “A lot of things he says, we find offensive. But it’s a technique from pro wrestling. … They know he’s just playing ‘the heel,’” Jimenez said. “The heel is the one who insults, who calls people names and who trolls people. … You know these things, and you don’t take it seriously. You know that he’s just playing a role.”
And he praised Trump’s campaign for its willingness to campaign vigorously in Hispanic churches: “If a candidate doesn’t ask for your vote, he will not get it."
Janelle Wong, a political scientist at the University of Maryland who recently went to 60 evangelical churches as she researched a book on evangelicals and immigration, said Republicans have more consistently reached out to Latino evangelicals. On many issues, especially immigration but also the government’s responsibility to combat climate change and support the poor, nonwhite evangelicals “align better with Democrats,” she said. “This is the moment when Democrats should be building long-term relationships. But we’ve seen more effort among Republicans.”
When that effort reached Cincinnati,
the Rev. Arnold Culbreath, who works for a Maryland organization for conservative black pastors called the Douglass Leadership Institute, prayed: “Specifically the African American community,” that they would “refuse to continue voting down party lines. Help our votes to match our values, O God.”
The Rev. Rod Parsley told the hundreds of evangelical voters, white and black, that Democrats would always disparage them. “These misguided elites will attempt to marginalize you. They’ll label you. They’ll shout at the top of their lungs that you are nothing but deplorable and smelly Walmart shoppers clinging to your guns and toting your Bible,” he shouted.
Johnson listened, nodding, taking it all in. She still has not decided who will get her vote come November.
This story has been updated.