But in a lengthy video recorded on Monday, Mohler, who is president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, said he plans to vote for Trump in 2020 and for the Republican presidential candidates for the rest of his life, unless the party changes its platform.
Mohler argued in the video that conservative Christians should vote based on a party’s view on abortion, Supreme Court nominees and protecting religious liberty. He said former vice president Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, had character issues for reversing his position on the Hyde Amendment, a provision barring the use of federal funds for abortion.
In an interview on Wednesday, Mohler said his opinion on Trump began to change during the 2017 Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Neil M. Gorsuch, who then was an appeals court judge. That’s when Mohler said he began to believe that Trump would do what he had promised during his campaign — to nominate judges who would overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 abortion rights decision.
Trump has also appointed a number of evangelicals throughout his administration, from Vice President Pence to Cabinet leaders to political appointees, including Mohler’s son-in-law Riley Barnes, a senior adviser in the State Department. Mohler said the percentage of evangelicals who will vote for Trump this time around, which was 80 percent in 2016, could grow even higher in November.
“In retrospect, I made my vote of minimal importance,” he said. “I don’t intend to do that in 2020. There’s a bit of regret in that.” In 2016, Mohler said he did not vote for a Democrat or a Republican and declined to say how he ultimately cast his vote.
Nathan Kitchens, associate pastor of Ezra Baptist Church outside Birmingham, Ala., called Mohler’s decision to back Trump in November a disappointment. He had shared Mohler’s statements critical of Trump leading up to the 2016 election with members of his congregation who planned to vote for the then candidate.
“It gives me one less person I can use to say, ‘Maybe you should think twice before voting for him,’ ” Kitchens said. “People are emboldened and think evangelicals should line up.”
Dwight McKissic, a black Southern Baptist pastor who leads Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, Tx., who has been vocal about his opposition to Trump as well as the denomination’s history of — and continuing problems with — racism, said he would no longer recommend Mohler’s seminary to black students. “It shows you’re tone deaf or you don’t care about the sensitivities of the majority of African Americans who find Donald Trump a repulsive personality and politician,” McKissic said.
And Karen Swallow Prior, an English professor at Liberty University who is a Southern Baptist, tweeted on Wednesday that she was “refusing to accept a bar so low.”
“In humility, hope, and faith, I will vote in November for a president who has better character, promotes more consistently life-affirming policies, and isn’t as handsy (or worse) with women than either of the two major party candidates,” Prior wrote.
But Mohler’s change of heart was also drawing praise from longtime Trump supporters. Theologian Wayne Grudem, a professor at Phoenix Seminary in Arizona and a key supporter of Trump’s in 2016, said Mohler was among several key evangelical leaders who were once reluctant to vote for Trump have changed their minds.
Pastors Bart Barber, of First Baptist Church of Farmersville, Tex., and Tom Buck, of the First Baptist Church of Lindale, Tex., tweeted that after voting for a third-party candidate in 2016, they too would vote for Trump in November.
Grudem said he understands why some evangelicals who were initially opposed to Trump have changed their minds.
“It’s hard for me to think of someone who’s done that much good for the country in that short amount of time,” Grudem said, citing his record on government regulations and his support for Israel among other issues. “He’s not the most elegant or refined in his speech, but his decisions are incredibly good for the country.”
Support for Trump among white evangelicals has changed only modestly since he was elected. When asked if Trump was performing well as president, 77 percent of white evangelicals approved of him in a March 22-25 Washington Post-ABC national poll, compared with 74 percent in February, and a record high of 81 percent mark in January.
Mohler acknowledged that he still has concerns about Trump’s actions and words. In 2016, he said he worried that some evangelical leaders were dismissing or minimizing character issues after Trump, in an “Access Hollywood” tape published by The Post, bragged about sexually assaulting a woman.
“Is it worth destroying our moral credibility to support someone who is beneath the baseline level of human decency?” Mohler asked evangelicals on CNN in October 2016.
Now, he said: “I can’t celebrate this president’s character or personality. To minimize or to deny the moral or virtue issues connected to any candidate would bring embarrassment to evangelicalism.”
Some of Trump’s advisers have said that the comments the president made in the “Access Hollywood” tapes occurred before his “Christian conversion.” Mohler said it would be “theological malpractice” for him to make an assessment. What’s most important to Mohler is what the president does and how it affects the issue of abortion, particularly through the appointment of judges.
Mohler was expected to become president of the Southern Baptist Convention this year, but its annual meeting, where the election would normally be held, was canceled because of the coronavirus.
In a statement, J.D. Greear, a North Carolina megachurch pastor and the SBC’s current president, said “Christians won’t feel totally at home in either party.”
“But I agree with Dr. Mohler that the increasingly aggressive nature of the pro-choice agenda in the Democratic Party, its hostility toward biblical morals, its elevation of identity politics and its undermining of religious freedoms is gravely disturbing,” he added.
Greear said that there “are also things to grieve in the Republican Party.”
“President Trump’s actions and words have at times fostered unnecessary division, and I grieve the tendency of some Republican leaders to protect the interests of some at the expense of others,” he said. “As Christians, we can and should be united on clear biblical morals, but I believe establishing a political calculus that determines whom all Christian should vote for is beyond the scope of the church’s mission.”
He said he would not disclose who will get his vote in November.
Scott Clement contributed to this report.
This has been updated to include the name and location of Dwight McKissic’s church.