This story has been updated.

With his signature fleece vests and suburban dad appeal, Virginia Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin spent the final weeks of his campaign laser-focused on an issue that has long animated White evangelicals: public education.

For decades, White evangelicals have gotten riled up over issues ranging from evolution to desegregation to prayer in schools, and in Virginia’s latest gubernatorial race, the culture wars in schools were front and center. Ahead of Election Day, Youngkin railed against critical race theory, often using CRT — an intellectual movement that examines the way policies and laws perpetuate systemic racism and is not part of the public school curriculum — as a way to describe schools’ efforts to teach children about race and racial disparities.

That message energized White evangelicals, who flocked to Youngkin. The National Election Pool exit poll found Youngkin won White evangelicals by 89 percent — a higher percentage than President Donald Trump, who won White evangelicals in Virginia in 2020 by 80 percent. AP VoteCast, a survey of more than 2,500 voters in Virginia conducted for the Associated Press by NORC at the University of Chicago, suggested Youngkin won by a similar margin as Trump, while exit polling showed Youngkin won by an even wider margin.

Political observers said Youngkin’s rhetoric helped him outperform Trump with this group, even as he carefully distanced himself from the former president while accepting Trump’s endorsement. But it also helped that Youngkin, a former Episcopalian-turned-evangelical who helped start a church in his basement, is one of them.

Political strategist Ralph Reed, who has been helping Republican campaigns in the state since 1981, described Youngkin as “the most explicitly evangelical candidate in the modern Virginia party since World War II.”

Basement church

Devin O’Malley, a spokesman for Youngkin, described the governor-elect as an evangelical who opened the first campaign meeting with prayer, something most staffers were not accustomed to.

Youngkin once attended a large Anglican church in London called Holy Trinity Brompton, known for launching the Alpha Course, an evangelistic ministry that has drawn both praise and concern from some evangelicals who have criticized it as too charismatic. That’s where Youngkin got the idea to help start a nondenominational Holy Trinity Church in his basement in McLean in 2011. Church officials at HTC in Virginia did not respond to interview requests.

It is described by several people who have been there as more charismatic than a traditional service but “with Anglican roots.” Youngkin was a senior warden, one of the chief lay officers for the church.

“If you start a church in your basement, your faith probably has more validity to it than going to church once a week or for Christmas and Easter,” said Travis Witt, director for strategic outreach for Liberty University’s Standing for Freedom Center. “It probably solidified [evangelicals’] belief that his faith is important to him.”

Just days before the election, Youngkin gave a speech for the conservative Leadership Institute, where he gave his faith testimony, talking about how he grew up in a family that went to church on holidays. He cited his wife’s faith as sparking “a transformation in my heart.”

“I had no idea what it meant to actually accept Christ as your Lord and savior, to say ‘I’m yours, do with me what you want,’ ” Youngkin said.

Youngkin has also served on the board of the Museum of the Bible in Washington, funded primarily by the evangelical Green family, owners of the Hobby Lobby chain.

Youngkin, who made $127 million in finance over the past five years, and his wife, Suzanne, gave $23 million between 2016 and 2018 through his nonprofit Phos Foundation. Some of the donation recipients include the evangelistic organization Alpha USA; Communio, a Catholic publication co-founded by Joseph Ratzinger before he became Pope Benedict XVI; and the Orthodox Christian nonprofit FOCUS North America, according to tax documents.

Role of critical race theory

Youngkin’s campaign enlisted help from Mike Mears, who formerly worked for conservative Christian organizations and the Republican National Committee. Mears said they would have 8:30 a.m. prayer calls that included several faith leaders, and Youngkin’s wife would often join.

Os Guinness, a popular Christian author and speaker who got to know Youngkin through mutual friends, has been to dinner parties at the Youngkins’ home, where he saw Suzanne’s love for horses and Glenn talk of basketball and their “authentic Christian faith.”

On the campaign trail, though, it was Youngkin’s opposition to CRT that appears to have inspired White evangelicals at the polls. When asked in an AP VoteCast survey what was most important, White evangelicals were similar to non-evangelicals on their priorities, but AP asked a stand-alone question about the importance of issues including critical race theory. White evangelicals were 13 points more likely to say this was the most important factor in their vote than other voters (34 percent vs. 21 percent).

The attacks on CRT resonated with Christians who aspire to a colorblind society, said Matt Lewis, a senior columnist for the Daily Beast who often writes on conservative issues. Although there is no evidence it is being taught in Virginia schools, Lewis said that colloquially for many people CRT has come to mean focusing on issues solely through the prism of race.

“It could be used to suggest Christians are more racist,” Lewis said. “But it could be used to suggest that Christians are opposed to anything that focuses on people’s skin color.”

But Robert P. Jones, CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), who has written about race and the decline of White Christians, wrote in a recent column for the Religion News Service that he sees the anti-CRT crusade as the latest political tool to sow resentment. Jones links the founding of the religious right to the defense of racist policies in private Christian schools.

“It’s time to shut down the manufactured outrage around critical race theory and call it what it is: the latest racist dog whistle in the old ‘Southern strategy’ toolbox of the GOP and the white Christian right,” Jones wrote.

Such responses, however, may have only galvanized evangelicals further. When some on the left and in the media painted Youngkin as race-baiting or worse, it especially irked evangelicals, Guinness said.

Evangelicals tend to be more suspicious of public education, and Youngkin successfully grabbed hold of the topic, said J. Miles Coleman, an analyst for the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

Coleman said that he looked at the 13 counties in Virginia that the PRRI identifies as 50 percent or more White evangelical. Largely clustered in the southwest part of the state, those counties cast 33 percent more votes this year than in 2017, while the number of votes cast statewide increased by 26 percent.

“Everyone keeps talking about how Youngkin made suburbs a little redder, which he did,” he said. “To me the bigger story of the election was he took on southwest, Trumpian counties and made them redder. He got the rural areas of the state to punch above their weight.”

A ‘relief’ after Trump

Winsome Sears, who was elected the state’s first Black female lieutenant governor, won with similar White evangelical support as Youngkin.

Several observers noted her evangelical ties. She received a master’s degree from televangelist Pat Robertson’s Regent University in 2003 and directed a women’s shelter for the Salvation Army, according to her campaign. She is a member of Victory Church, an Assemblies of God church in Winchester, Va.

Churches were a major stop for both candidates during the Virginia race, often seen as a bellwether for the 2022 midterm elections. Several observers said that a key turning point was when Democratic nominee Terry McAuliffe stated during a debate, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”

Reed said that will go down in history as one of the biggest political gaffes, because it tapped into the fear that parents had that they lacked rights or input.

Chad Connelly, who formerly ran faith outreach for the GOP and runs the nonprofit Faith Wins, said evangelicals were also animated by the U.S. military withdrawal in Afghanistan in August because many of them believed missionaries were abandoned by President Biden. Connelly also said that some people would show him recordings of what teachers were saying in Zoom classrooms about race.

“That stuff takes off inside a church community,” he said.

While attending a nondenominational church, Youngkin kept some of his former Episcopalian ties, sending his children to National Cathedral School and St. Alban’s School in Washington. And since he became governor-elect, Youngkin has reached out to people of other faiths. He wished Indian Americans a happy Diwali and visited the All Dulles Area Muslim Society mosque in Sterling for lunch and a discussion.

Michael Wear, who worked on faith outreach for President Barack Obama, said that many evangelicals were relieved to see someone like Youngkin on the ticket.

“Evangelicals are looking for Republicans they can take home to their kids,” he said. “After Trump, it was a big relief to many. He’s the kind of candidate who could be attractive at a national level.”

Scott Clement contributed to this report.