Trump has fractured the conservative evangelical base of the Republican party. His ability to draw white Christian voters away from candidates who are products of the religious conservative movement – U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, and neurosurgeon Ben Carson – could put him on top in Iowa on Monday.
His confounding ability to woo conservative Christians has also put Trump on top of polls in nearly every state in the South, including Georgia.
Last week, when Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University and son of the founder of the once-powerful Moral Majority, endorsed Trump, a shudder went through many evangelical leaders – including Russell Moore, the Southern Baptist with the Twitter habit.
Moore is the head of the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention. He has been a relentless critic of Trump, referring to the celebrity/candidate as a “Bronze Age warlord” when it comes to women. The Southern Baptist leader has condemned Trump’s call to close the United States to Muslims.
“A government that can close the borders to all Muslims simply on the basis of their religious belief can do the same thing for evangelical Christians,” Moore wrote in December.
Moore has not endorsed a presidential candidate. Others have. On the same day Falwell endorsed Trump, Tony Perkins, head of the conservative Family Research Council, backed Ted Cruz. “Leadership isn’t about making deals. Leadership is about standing on principle,” Perkins said.
And yet Trump has continued to thrive among religious Republicans. A Pew Research Center poll this week showed that “fully half of white evangelical Protestant voters” think Trump would make a “good” or “great” president.
It is not as if they haven’t notice the billionaire’s inability to name a favorite Bible verse, or that he flubbed a reference to Second Corinthians, calling it “Two Corinthians.” In a similar Pew survey, taken in early January, 60 percent of voters judged Trump as “not too” or “not at all” religious. The secular rating that was tops among the entire presidential field, including Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.
Many evangelicals simply don’t care. A strong-man argument outweighs any concern for theological purity. “This nation needs a citizen legislator who is a tough negotiator, one who has gone head to head with the best business minds in the world and won,” Falwell explained two days after his endorsement of Trump.
Even before Falwell, there was Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Dallas, a Texas church at the forefront of the evangelical shift to the Republican party in the 1980s. He campaigned for Trump in Iowa last weekend.
But last fall, Jeffress starkly explained the permission that some evangelicals have given themselves when it comes to The Donald. “Seven years of Barack Obama have drastically lowered the threshold of spiritual expectations evangelicals have of their president,” the Dallas pastor wrote. “No longer do they require their president to be one of them. Evangelicals will settle for someone who doesn’t hate them like the current occupant of the Oval Office appears to.”
In Georgia, Rock Springs Church in Milner, Ga., pastored by the Rev. Benny Tate, is a required stop of the Republican campaign circuit. Last summer, the church held its annual Fourth of July picnic. The Charlie Daniels Band provided the entertainment.
Two presidential candidates, Ted Cruz and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, showed up to work the crowd.
Tate has made no endorsements, but has met with many of the current GOP contenders. He is quick to mention Cruz and Carson as “exceptional” candidates. Yet Tate doesn’t discount Trump.
He acknowledged that Trump’s lack of fluency on the topic of religion is noticed by some members of his congregation. “I think probably there are some people who have some concern with that,” Tate said. Likewise, he’s not a fan of Trump’s expertise with profanity. But he said that Trump’s appeal to many evangelicals is real, and acknowledged that Trump could secure the GOP nomination.
“Because of the timing,” Tate said. The pastor noted that, like Cruz, Trump had successfully welded fear of terrorism with concern over illegal immigration. “People want someone who is going to be a strong leader, to protect us,” Tate said. “I think that’s why some politicians are getting traction while others are not.”
A burgeoning federal debt – Tate considers this a moral issue – is another reason that Trump has support among evangelicals, he said. “They feel like — he’s been a businessman. Perhaps he can take some of that business savvy to Washington D.C.”
“I have to remind myself sometimes that we’re not electing a pastor-in-chief,” Tate said. “We’re electing a commander-in-chief. I trust that Mr. Trump is right on the right issues, but again, I think we’ve got some great options.”
After the New Hampshire primary, the GOP presidential contest heads south. For Georgia evangelicals, the time for choosing sides is close at hand.
On a podcast put together this week by the Georgia Baptist Mission Board, the Rev. Mike Griffin, who addresses public policy issues for the denomination, offered some advice. Perhaps there was a subtle message in it. Or perhaps not.
When picking a candidate, think of Judgment Day, Griffin suggested: “Is that the kind of person that I’m willing to give an account to the Lord for one day?”