Evangelicals struggle over whether to maintain support for Trump

The airing of a 2005 video in which Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is heard making lewd comments about groping women, has sparked a debate among conservative Christian leaders over whether they can back his bid for the White House. In an apology, Trump has called the remarks “locker-room talk.” (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

The airing of a 2005 video in which Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is heard making lewd comments about groping women, has sparked a debate among conservative Christian leaders over whether they can back his bid for the White House. In an apology, Trump has called the remarks “locker-room talk.” (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

28 days until vote

Tuesday marks 28 days until Americans vote in federal and state races on Nov. 8. All year, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has brought you the key moments in those races, and it will continue to cover the campaign's main events, examine the issues and analyze candidates' finance reports until the last ballot is counted. You can follow the developments on the AJC's politics page at http://www.myajc.com/s/news/georgia-politics/ and in the Political Insider blog at http://www.myajc.com/s/news/political-insider/. You can also track our coverage on Twitter at https://twitter.com/GAPoliticsNews or Facebook at https://facebook.com/gapoliticsnewsnow.

Donald Trump has long been surprisingly popular with evangelicals, who flocked to him in droves over other Republican rivals. But the revelation over the weekend of his lewd comments about groping women have put religious conservatives in a crisis of conscience that could test their faith in their party’s nominee.

The 2005 video has rekindled a debate among conservative Christian leaders over whether they can back Trump, a thrice-married reality TV star who nevertheless has long polled well among evangelicals. Trump apologized for the remarks bragging about harassing women because he’s a star, calling them “locker-room talk” at Sunday’s debate.

Many of Trump’s most prominent conservative evangelical backers are standing by him.

Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council, said his support for the businessman “was never based upon shared values rather it was built upon shared concerns.” And Ralph Reed, a former Georgia GOP chairman who heads the Faith and Freedom Coalition, said Trump’s appointments to the U.S. Supreme Court are paramount to him.

“I also believe in the biblical principle that someone who is faithful in small things will be faithful in larger things,” Reed said Monday at Liberty University, citing Democrat Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while secretary of state. “And if someone is unfaithful in a small thing, they will also be unfaithful in a larger task.”

But other evangelical elders have abandoned Trump, raising the specter of mass defections on the rank-and-file level that could scuttle his election chances. Wayne Grudem, one of Trump’s most high-profile evangelical supporters, wrote shortly before Sunday’s second presidential debate that he can no longer back Trump and “I strongly urge him to withdraw from the election.”

And local Christian leaders are struggling with Trump’s campaign all over again. The Rev. Randy Simpkins, the pastor at Bowdon First Methodist Church in Carroll County, was a reluctant Trump supporter before the video’s release. Now, he said he’s so “disgusted” by Trump’s crude remarks that he’s back in the undecided camp.

“So much is at risk, such as the Supreme Court appointments, foreign policy, health care, economy,” he said with a sigh. “He is making it harder to have an easy choice.”

The evangelical community’s problems with Trump run much deeper than the video. Trump has struggled to name the books of the Bible and has said he’s never asked God for forgiveness. But the remarks have crystallized opposition from some who were already torn over his candidacy.

“Christians keep praying that the groundswell for Trump to withdraw will become unstoppable and Pence will be the nominee,” the Rev. Bryant Wright, the pastor of Johnson Ferry Baptist Church, said in a tweet after the video emerged. “Pray persistently.”

‘I am for Trump’

Trump has always had strong support from evangelicals in Georgia, who backed him over Texas U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz — long a favorite of Christian conservatives — in the March primary. An Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll conducted in August showed self-described evangelicals backing Trump 73 percent to 13 percent over Clinton.

But evangelicals — who make up about 40 percent of the state’s population, according to a 2014 Pew Research Center survey — have also never stopped wrestling over Trump. A Pew survey in July found that more than half of white evangelicals were not satisfied with either of their choices for president. That divide might have only grown in recent weeks.

“I’m very concerned about the video — I have a daughter and I can’t condone that at all — but I am for Trump,” said Jeff Padlo, an evangelical Christian who lives in Dunwoody.

“As much as his comments sicken me, I drive through decimated towns all the time, and the biggest thing to them is the economy and jobs,” he said. “We have two candidates at the low end of the bar of morality, but at the end of the day, it’s the jobs and the deficit that matter most to our kids.”

Jim Freeman, a firearms salesman, had a turn-the-other-cheek mentality toward Trump on Sunday on his way to the early service at Dunwoody Baptist Church.

“He’s just a man, and he’s made some mistakes,” Freeman said. “But I’m still backing him 100 percent. During the primary process he worked his way to the top, and everyone knew about his personality. This isn’t exactly a surprise.”

Drop Trump ‘for God’s sake’

Georgia Democrats are trying to seize an opening to blunt Trump’s support from evangelical voters.

The Rev. Raphael Warnock, the pastor of the famed Ebenezer Baptist Church and a likely Democratic candidate for higher office, took aim at evangelical leaders who have maintained support for Trump. He called the New York businessman an “affront to human decency” and urged other faith leaders to “disavow their support for God’s sake.”

And although Trump’s debate performance Sunday helped staunch the flow of national Republican figures abandoning his campaign, many party elites worry that Trump could cost the GOP control of both chambers of Congress. Trump, who used the debate to threaten Clinton with prosecution if he wins, has bristled at establishment Republicans who have fled his campaign.

In Georgia, where strong support from evangelicals has helped Republicans sweep every statewide office, Trump’s remarks have left politicians in a bind. While he remains popular among the party’s base, Republicans also know backing him could make it harder to appeal to women and moderates disgusted by Trump.

Most top Republican officials condemned Trump’s remarks even as they stood by the candidate — or at least refused to publicly disavow him. Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, a likely candidate for governor in 2018, said he was “sickened” by Trump’s remarks, and House Speaker David Ralston said through a spokesman that he won’t try to “defend the indefensible.”

"My chief of staff said it was disgusting, and it's certainly something that I do not condone," said Gov. Nathan Deal, referring to Chris Riley's tweet that it was "vile."

Still, other staunch evangelical supporters of Trump rallied around his candidacy on Monday.

The Rev. Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of Liberty University and one of Trump’s top Christian conservative backers, blamed the leak of the videotape on a “conspiracy among the establishment Republicans” and said he would still stick with the nominee.

“We’re never going to have a perfect candidate unless Jesus Christ is on the ballot,” Falwell said, adding that he was more concerned with the country’s fiscal and cultural challenges than Trump’s history. “I don’t think the American people want this country to go down the toilet because Donald Trump made some dumb comments on a videotape 11 years ago.”

For some evangelicals, though, the crude remarks were the final straw.

“His vulgar comments in 2005 about his sexual aggression and assaults against women were morally evil,” wrote Grudem, who had earlier penned a 5,300-word opus making his case for a Trump vote. “If I had read or heard some of these materials earlier, I would not have written as positively as I did about Donald Trump.”