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Evangelicals and Trump: Two pastors, two views

Donald Trump’s election may have shocked the nation, but it was no surprise in Georgia. After the votes were counted, the AJC dispatched eight journalists from the capital to the coast to the agricultural south to the mountainous north. Their mission: to meet the people who created the Trump groundswell. This is the last in a series seven reports.

Among all constituencies supporting Donald Trump on Election Day, the most fervent was white evangelical Christians.

Nationally, 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump Nov. 8; in Georgia the percentage was an astonishing 92 percent, exit polling showed.

This outcome might not have been predicted. Trump’s words and deeds alienated some evangelicals early in the campaign. Russell Moore, head of the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, described Trump’s language as “reality television moral sewage.”

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In May 2016 he told CBS Face the Nation, “What we have in the Donald Trump phenomenon … is an embrace of the very kind of moral and cultural decadence that conservatives have been saying for a long time is the problem,” he said.

The Rev. Bryant Wright, pastor of Johnson Ferry Baptist Church, talks about why he couldn’t vote for Donald Trump. (Screen capture from AJC video) (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

At Johnson Ferry Baptist Church in Marietta, founding pastor Rev. Bryant Wright agreed.

“It was a matter of character,” he said recently. “He just did not have the character to serve as president.”

Wright, 64, made his feelings known on Twitter and also spoke about it from the pulpit, creating consternation among the 8,500 members of his very conservative congregation.

“I got considerable trouble for that,” he said.

His opinion also put him in disagreement with his old friend and prayer partner, Dr. Michael Youssef, founding pastor of the Church of the Apostles in Buckhead.

The Rev. Michael Youssef, founding pastor of the Church of the Apostles in Buckhead, talks about why he voted for Donald Trump. (Screen capture from AJC video) (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Youssef and Wright are two of the most influential preachers in Atlanta, and their sphere extends beyond the city. (Wright, a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, is well-known for his “Right from the Heart” radio spots. Youssef has a sophisticated television ministry that reaches around the world.)

The two have been meeting for almost 30 years to pray together and to discuss faith, politics, family and the rigors of running a big church. “We ask each other the hard questions,” said Wright.

Neither one supported Trump early in the campaign. Youssef was backing Mike Huckabee, a favorite among evangelicals, and then Ted Cruz. Wright voted for Marco Rubio in the primary.

Neither addressed the campaign from the pulpit until Oct. 8, when a videotape emerged in which Trump boasted about kissing and groping women without their permission. Wright was disgusted.

That morning he posted a message on Twitter: “Praying that somehow miraculously Donald Trump will step down at last as the GOP candidate and hand the reins over to a decent man — Pence.” That’s also when he spoke to his congregation.

Trump weathered the scandal, of course, and went on to win an overwhelming share of the evangelical vote. (Christians in some churches, were less supportive. Only 52 percent of Catholics voted for Trump, and 67 percent of Hispanic Catholics voted for Hillary Clinton.)

For many, including Youssef, the decision came down to a vote on abortion and gay marriage. The winner in November would have the opportunity to install one and probably more Supreme Court justices, changing the court’s ideological complexion.

The Rev. Michael Youssef, founding pastor of the Church of the Apostles in Buckhead (left) and the Rev. Bryant Wright, pastor of Johnson Ferry Baptist Church in East Cobb, discuss their votes in November’s election. One went for Trump; the other says he couldn’t do so. (Image captured from AJC video) (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

“Sure he said some horrible things and did some horrible things,” said Youssef. “But to me (electing someone who is) pro-life and a supporter of traditional marriage are too important to not go to the booth and vote.”

Wright felt differently. “You’ve got a man not only engaged in adultery but bragging about adultery,” he said recently. “When you’ve got a guy who is that untrustworthy about his word, is he going to come through on those key issues?”

Wright also was concerned about his own consistency. In the 1990s Wright had excoriated Bill Clinton for his sexual indiscretions. “When I spoke out very strongly about Clinton’s immorality, I felt like I would have been hypocritical to overlook it with Donald Trump.”

He was also unimpressed with Trump’s credentials as a businessman after quizzing his business friends with a simple test. “I ask them, ‘Would you go into business with Trump?’ And I haven’t had anybody say they would. And yet you’re going to give him the most important business responsibility in the world?”

Youssef and Wright discussed their disagreement in an exclusive sit-down with the AJC. Youssef said the issue came down to results, not character. “I would rather buy good meat from a pagan butcher than bad meat from a Christian butcher,” he said.

Other articles in the “Making of a Trump voter” series:

He added that Trump had apologized and he intended to take Trump at his word. “If I can’t forgive,” said Youssef, “I’m preaching funny gospel.”

Wright revealed that his write-in vote was for Mike Pence. Both say they have been happy with — and reassured by — Trump’s nominees for cabinet positions.

And they both stress that outside of politics — and some doctrines concerning baptism — their views on biblical orthodoxy are identical.

Said Youssef, “I don’t think you’ll find any daylight between us.”

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