The religious right forgives Trump his sins
Like republican presidents before him, Trump has massive support among white evangelicals. Climate change denial and the QAnon conspiracy theory strengthen that bond.
“It is hard to imagine a candidate who could be an atheist or an agnostic. Religion has always been incredibly important in American politics and can be more of a decisive factor this year than it has been in the past,” says Randall J. Stephens, professor of American Studies at The University of Oslo.
When American citizens cast their votes November 3rd, religion will be a dividing line between those who vote for the democratic candidate Joe Biden, and those who support the sitting republican president Donald Trump.
Trump’s ambiguous religion
Stephens’ research on religion in the US sees a firm connection between the Republican Party and certain religious groups, especially white evangelicals. The Democratic Party also courts religious voters and often emphasizes Joe Biden's Catholicism.
“If he became president, Biden would only be the second Catholic, the first being John F. Kennedy,” says the professor.
Christians in the United States
The United States does not have a state church.
About 70 percent of adult Americans identify as Christians.
About 47 percent are Protestants, and more than half of them are evangelical Christians.
Evangelical Christians belong to many different groups, including the Baptists, the Pentecostal movement, Lutherans, and more.
Common to evangelical Christians is the importance of personal conversion and a conservative stance in political matters.
Since the 1970s, evangelical Christians have become an important constituency for the Republican Party.
Sources: Pew Research Center and snl.no.
When Kennedy ran for president in 1960, he had to go out of his way to convince the American public that he wouldn't be influenced by the Catholic Church or the Vatican. The opposite is true for Trump. In the 2016 campaign, the question of whether or not Trump was a Christian came up regularly.
“Fox News asked him about his favorite passage from the Bible. He said that it was a personal issue he didn't want to talk about. And then they asked ‘are you an Old Testament guy or a New Testament guy?’ And he said ‘Probably equal. I think it’s just incredible, the whole Bible.’”
Refusing to be open about his faith is in line with the way he talks about religion in general.
“He has made claims about how a Biden presidency will hurt God. But the language that he uses is lacking in any kind of detail.”
Most popular among evangelicals
20-25 per cent of Americans view themselves as evangelicals, and more than eight out of ten white evangelicals supported Trump over Hillary Clinton in 2016. Stephens see many reasons why the president is so popular with this group.
“Quite a few evangelicals, say they view Trump as a Christian. Even if he is not as devout as they'd like him to be, he's doing things that they favor, like appointing conservative judges, and taking a position on abortion that they agree with.”
Accusations of sexual assault, obscene language, tax fraud and a non-church-like behavior, have not turned millions of white evangelicals against him.
“Many evangelicals can bracket off his lying, vulgarity, and cruelty. Some have even referred to the Old Testament, where God used flawed individuals like King David or King Cyrus. It is as if they accept that no one candidate is perfect, with the caveat that that candidate agrees with them on central issues.”
Preaching to the paranoid choir
When it comes to Trump’s denial of global warming, opposition to the mainstream media, or even his public disagreements with medical professionals concerning COVID-19, Stephens sees Trump’s agenda as fitting well with what the majority of white evangelicals believe.
“A recent survey from the Billy Graham Center at the evangelical Wheaton College showed that about 50 percent of evangelicals were deeply suspicious of mainstream news and were prone to talk about fake news when they disagreed with a news feature.”
Polls have also shown that white evangelicals are likely to doubt global warming. As a group, white evangelicals have also approved of the president’s handling of the COVID-19 at a far higher rate than any other major religious group.
“Trump is amplifying their suspicion of mainstream sources of knowledge. In September 2020 the president countered the scientific evidence that California’s wildfires are a result of climate change, remarking simply ‘It’ll start getting cooler. You just watch.’ Such comments are not costing him voters with his base. Rather the opposite,” Stephens points out.
In his 2011 book The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age, co-authored with Karl Giberson, Professor Stephens explains evangelical knowledge denial and skepticism about scientific consensus.
“White evangelicals have been developing alternative knowledge communities. Creationism or Intelligent Design are just examples of that. They have created a parallel ecosystem of knowledge, separate from academic and scholarly consensus,” he says.
There are even colleges and curricula certified by their own accrediting bodies.
“You have this decentralized structure in America that is unimaginable in Norway, even to the degree that there's a creation science journal, peer-reviewed by other creationists.”
Donald Trump strengthens QAnon
The fact that evangelicals are suspicious of mainstream media and science also makes them prone to believe in conspiracy theories, according to Stephens. A current example is the internet movement and conspiracy theory QAnon, which claims that the US is run by secret networks and deep-state operatives involved in coup attempts, pedophilia rings, and satanic cults.
“Americans who hold these views are in a small minority, but QAnon has an outsized voice, also thanks to Donald Trump, who has retweeted QAnon tweets over 200 times,” says Stephens.
The professor sees a parallel in the anti-communist John Birch Society, a far-right conspiracy theorist group that was active in America in the 1960s.
“One of its founders believed that Eisenhower was a secret communist president. Of course, it was a fringe movement, and it is utterly impossible to imagine presidents John Kennedy or Richard Nixon giving it a national platform.”
Things have clearly changed.
“In a way, Trump has amplified tendencies that were already present in the Republican Party. So, there is continuity. But there are things he is doing that are so outside of the bounds of how a president is expected to behave, that it marks a break with the past,” says Stephens.
Nixon disappointed more
Another scandalous politician, who did well with evangelicals, was Richard Nixon. He won 84 percent of the evangelical vote in 1972 and was thereby even more popular among these believers than Trump has been.
“Less than two years after that landslide election, Nixon resigned from office amid scandal and humiliation. The Watergate case, revealing that that Nixon was directly involved in criminal plotting, left many evangelicals feeling betrayed and chastened,” says Stephens.
One of Nixon’s most famous supporters was the evangelist Billy Graham.
“Graham actually said that when he heard some of the White House tapes, he went and threw up because he was so appalled. He felt he had been used by Nixon.”
Nixon had at least appeared to be the devout Christian that evangelicals claimed he was. While president, he held regular prayer services at the White House, and he kept religious leaders close.
“They trusted his morals and his judgment. Compared to Trump, Nixon was more calculating and disciplined as a politician. He would not say in public the kinds of things that Trump says on a daily basis.”
“Now conservative believers have become inoculated against Trump’s excesses and vulgarities.”
Direct political action
Even though the Constitution is clear on the USA being a secular state, religion and politics are deeply intertwined in the country. You find God both in the Declaration of Independence and on dollar bills, and most presidents include the phrase “so help me God” in their speeches.
“At least in the West, the United States is exceptional in how religion and politics are fused together,” says Stephens, who explains this partly by decentralization and the lack of a unifying state church.
Around 70 per cent of adult Americans consider themselves Christian. Within this group, there are distinctions between evangelical Protestants, mainline Protestants, Catholics, historically black Protestants – often Baptist, et cetera. Addressing religious communities is an important political strategy.
“Groups like the Southern Baptist Convention, a massive, predominantly white denomination, has about 14.8 million members. If candidates can speak to them, they will,” says Stephens.
Religious groups can also mobilize political participation.
“Issues like abortion or same sex marriage can draw them into politics directly. It is an expression of their Christian faith to be opposed to some of these things. For that and other reasons, the appointment of federal judges has been a critical matter for conservative Christians.”
Voter turnout will decide
Religion will be an important factor when it comes to who voters will support on November 3rd, thinks Stephens. Even if Trump loses some white evangelical support, he believes that a large majority of conservative white Christians will still choose Trump over Biden.
“I am curious, though, about the number of white evangelicals who are disenchanted, who just might not vote and what the turnout will be. The other big factor is COVID-19, mail-in voting, and the president’s ongoing misinformation campaign about the election. It seems quite clear that this will be an election unlike any other.”