Concern about Islamic terrorists. Dismay over the legalization of same sex marriage. Fear that freedom of religion is under assault by an increasingly secular culture.
By and large, conservative evangelical voters believe that the past eight years under Barack Obama have moved the nation in the wrong direction.
But as the race for the presidency shifts South— where pulpits and pews are plentiful — they remain sharply splintered in their choice to replace him. Some are drawn to Ted Cruz’s hard-line conservative message. Others like Marco Rubio’s brand of conservatism. Even the thrice-married, casino-building Donald Trump is winning his share of Christian support in this topsy-turvy political year.
Evangelical voters have tremendous clout in the GOP race. In 2012, exit polls showed that more than six in 10 Georgia Republican primary voters were white evangelicals. Other Southern states — also set to vote in the March 1 primary — have similar concentrations of primary voters who describe themselves as evangelical, according to exit polls and other data. More than 1,000 delegates are at stake in the Southern Super Tuesday, which will be critical in thinning the large GOP field.
“There is no way to the nomination for the Republican Party — and ultimately there is no way to the White House — without … the Christian vote. It is unavoidable,” said Timothy Head, executive director of the Duluth-based Faith and Freedom Coalition, founded by former Georgia Republican Party chairman Ralph Reed.
In perhaps the strongest signal yet of the importance of the evangelical electorate in Georgia, a prayer rally on Wednesday hosted by evangelist Franklin Graham drew thousands to Liberty Plaza outside the state Capitol. Withstanding bitterly cold weather, Graham’s audience prayed aloud and waved tiny U.S. flags as Graham condemned secularism and political correctness. Graham’s appearance in Atlanta came the day after Trump and Democrat Bernie Sanders won decisive victories in New Hampshire. Graham didn’t endorse anyone, but he urged Christians to support candidates who will uphold the “sanctity of life and the sacredness of marriage.”
“The choice might not always be clear,” he said. “And you might just have to vote for the least of the two heathens.”
‘We have a danger that is out there’
In conversations with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, voters who shared strong Christian faith were nonetheless divided over theit choices in the primary. That lack of unanimity was evident at Johnson Ferry Baptist Church, a massive place of worship with 8,400 members in Marietta. The church is so large that worshippers have several Sunday services to choose from, including a contemporary one with a casually dressed band, complete with guitarists, a drummer and singers performing Christian songs atop a stage bathed in purple concert-style lighting.
A half-dozen church members interviewed for this article cited grave concerns about the national debt, Islamic terrorists and what they perceive as threats to religious freedom. All voted Republican in past presidential elections. As for the upcoming primary, some haven’t made up their minds yet. But all were critical of Donald Trump.
Keith Echols, a church deacon from Kennesaw who manages student housing at an Atlanta-area university, supports Rubio in the primaries because he would “bring different conservative groups together,” though he said he could vote for Cruz if he wins the GOP nomination. Echols voted for Mitt Romney in the last presidential election and John McCain in 2008. Echols, who is black, said he wants to hear conservative candidates address the “mass incarceration” of African-Americans and the decline of the middle class in the U.S. Echols’ focus is also on shrinking the national debt, opposing abortion and dealing with the threat of terrorism abroad.
“The issues aren’t climate change and the issues aren’t other things that our current regime talks about. We have a danger that is out there. It is ISIS that is constantly turning the other side of the world into a very dangerous place. And we need to address that,” he said. “I feel like our current president has certainly dismissed a whole segment – a whole population – of the country for his own personal gains.”
Tom Goodwin, a deacon in the church from Cobb County, favors Rubio, calling the candidate a great communicator with a compelling family story. Rubio was born in Miami to Cuban-born parents.
“I love his story of his parents,” said Goodwin, a father of five daughters and the executive director of Cru, an evangelical organization previously called Campus Crusade for Christ. “And I think that is a reflection of who we are as a country.”
“It is important to me to have a president and a leader who is not going to perpetuate the strong white majority culture rule,” he continued. “So when you look at the Republican ticket, there are a lot of opportunities there.”
Trump ‘has not asked God for forgiveness’
How Donald Trump performs among evangelical voters in the Bible belt is perhaps the most intriguing wild card in a race that is full of them. He maintains a solid lead in South Carolina, where Republican voters will have their say Feb. 20.
A survey by the Pew Research Center found that two-thirds of Republicans said it is important for a president to share their religious beliefs. Trump, however, is not viewed as religious. More than half of the Republicans or Republican-leaning registered voters surveyed said Trump would make a good or great president. Trump is reaching out to the religious community, notably with an address at Liberty University last month. And he scored some credibility with the high-profile endorsement of Jerry Falwell Jr.
Still, Justin and Eva Harp, of Marietta, pointed to the real estate mogul’s multiple marriages and his work developing casinos. They also oppose his proposal to temporarily bar Muslims from entering the U.S.
“I thought it was disgusting,” said Justin Harp, a church deacon, banker and a father of four children. “I look at it similar to any form of racism… . To paint with a broad brush that all Muslims are bad — I think that scares me.”
Bryant Wright, Johnson Ferry’s pastor and a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, said he is bothered that Trump has said he has not asked God for forgiveness, though he identifies himself as a Christian.
“That is absolutely no understanding of Christianity,” said Wright, who hasn’t endorsed anyone in the race. “For evangelicals who are supporting him – I am just astounded.”
Noting that Johnson Ferry is helping several Syrian refugee families resettle in Georgia, Wright disagreed with Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims from entering the U.S. Wright also rejected Trump’s “outrageous” assertion that McCain, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, was not a hero because he was captured.
“From a strictly Christian and biblical perspective, so many of the things he has said — and even the life he has lived — it is just very disappointing that many evangelical Christians are following him,” Wright said.
Not everyone shares that view.
‘Jesus doesn’t demand perfection’
Patricia Stewart, a retired teacher from Canton, admires Trump as a businessman and said she has used the New York billionaire’s writings and tactics in her economics classes. She considers herself an evangelical but also weighs many attributes of a candidate when deciding on her vote.
“I do want to be a good Christian,” she said. “But I also take a look at the total person.”
She said she is aware of Trump’s personal life but also finds positives in the mix.
“His children, they seem to be contributing citizens. And from what I can tell he is good to his ex-wives,” she said. “Jesus doesn’t demand perfection.”
Rene Lane, of Augusta, said that when Trump first announced he was running for president, “I thought it was a joke.”
“He’s a reality TV star so I thought it was for publicity,” she said. But as she has watched the campaign progress she has become more enamored of his blunt, pro-business message.
Lane, who was raised Southern Baptist and considers herself an evangelical Christian, said she is now leaning toward voting for him.
“Everyone deserves a second chance,” she said. “I don’t want to be judged for my stuff so I don’t want to judge him for his. That’s between him and God.”
‘The coarseness of our culture’
Many faithful like several of the candidates in the Republican field and are still making up their minds. Sara Folkins, a retired teacher from Suwanee, was among those who braved the cold last week to see Graham speak in downtown Atlanta. Hesitant about Trump, she favors Cruz and Rubio because she believes they will help small businesses — her son is an entrepreneur — and won’t raise taxes.
“They are upfront,” she said. “I believe they are more real.”
Sadie Fields, former head of the Georgia Christian Coalition, said that by splitting support among numerous candidates, evangelical voters could dilute their power.
“If we would coalesce around one candidate, we will win Georgia, but I worry that we won’t,” she said.
Fields favors Rubio. She called him a “brash upstart” who shares her worldview and Christian principles and who isn’t part of the political aristocracy of families, like the Bushes.
Fields attributes Trump’s success among evangelical voters to a profound sense that they are under siege by a wider culture that has forsaken the church.
“The increasing coarseness of our culture allows someone like Trump to even dare run for president,” Fields said.
Still, some regular churchgoers said that while spiritual values are important they are eclipsed, this year, by more earthly concerns.
“I want someone who has a good moral compass, yes,” said Ronald Erwin, of Lafayette, Ga., near the Tennessee line. “But this country is going to hell in handbasket and what I am looking for most of all is someone who can lead.”