Dismissed by the cultural elite. Disrespected by the mainstream media. Delegitimized by the American left. And desperate to stop the bleeding.
This is the story of Donald Trump, the perpetually insecure 45th president whose conquest of the White House was fueled by the contempt of a political class that never took him seriously. But it is equally the story of American evangelicalism, whose adherents feel marginalized in a culture that they believe no longer reflects its core values or tolerates its most polarizing principles.
Academics, intellectuals and journalists have devoted considerable time to the question of how Trump, a thrice-married casino owner who claimed never to have asked God for forgiveness, earned historic support from born-again Christians in the 2016 presidential election. Critics denounced this union as electoral opportunism devoid of any moral consistency; meanwhile, religious voters, facing a binary choice between Trump and Hillary Clinton, justified their support for the Republican nominee by pointing to the far-reaching political implications of Supreme Court appointments and policy changes on abortion and religious liberty.
But while this provides a more nuanced understanding of why Christians voted for Trump—81 percent of them, according to exit polling—it never illuminated why they felt a connection with him as a candidate, or why many feel an even stronger kinship with him as president today. One fascinating explanation, proffered repeatedly during conversations with evangelicals over the past year, is that they identify with Trump because both he and they have been systematically targeted in the public square—oftentimes by the same adversaries. This explains why Trump, speaking last week to the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s annual gathering in Washington, offered an extraordinary sentiment in pledging to support the evangelical community.
“We’re under siege. You understand that,” the president said. “But we will come out bigger and better and stronger than ever.”
It was a stroke of polysemantic genius from Trump and his speechwriters. As heads nodded in agreement across the hotel ballroom, media outlets seized—as the White House knew they would—on the phrase, “We’re under siege.” After all, at that very moment, just six miles from where Trump was speaking, former FBI Director James Comey was testifying under oath in front of the Senate Intelligence Committee about his unseemly interactions with the commander in chief. These were the tensest hours of Trump’s young presidency, and here he was, acknowledging a defensive posture. But he was also expressing solidarity with an audience that can relate to feeling victimized.
“The most politically incorrect thing to do these days is talk about Christianity,” says Steve Scheffler, president of Faith and Freedom Coalition’s Iowa chapter and a prominent grassroots player in Trump’s victory there last fall. “Religion has been under siege for a long time. And I don’t want to sound like an alarmist, but if Hillary Clinton had won, religious liberty in America would basically be finished because of her appointments to the courts.”
Yes, evangelical leaders say, they were wary of the candidate’s personal history and disgusted by what they heard on the “Access Hollywood” tape. And, no, they aren’t under any illusion that this is a Bible-toting, Scripture-inspired president like many who have come before him. Yet for Christians who feel they are engaged in a great struggle for the identity of America—and fear that their side has been losing ground—the most important question is not whether Trump believes in their cause, but whether he can win their wars. “Jimmy Carter sat in the pew with us. But he never fought for us,” Ralph Reed, chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, told me after the president’s speech. “Donald Trump fights. And he fights for us.”
This casting of Trump as a great champion of the faithful, engaging the forces of secularism on behalf of a beleaguered religious right, is essential to understanding his appeal among evangelicals. Of course, the core premise of their alliance—that America has turned menacingly against Christianity—is disputable. It remains far and away the largest religion in the country, though it has traded majority status for plurality status thanks to a growing number of theologically unaffiliated Americans. And the United States as a whole views evangelicals in a positive light, according to the Pew Research Center. Critics point to religious people occupying the highest public offices and governing by their faith, often to the detriment of non-believers; they see Christianity prevalent in every sphere of American society and wonder how this sense of martyrdom came to be so misplaced.
Evangelicals see it altogether differently. From their perspective, Christianity is under attack from the worldly influences of academia and entertainment and media, all of which have a vested interest in loosening religion’s grip on society. They see people and organizations of faith—florists, wedding cake bakers, Hobby Lobby, the Little Sisters of the Poor—persecuted for living their spiritual convictions. They shudder as pastors are subpoenaed for their sermons. And they fear, as same-sex marriage becomes culturally entrenched, a cascade of further defeats as the population, the electorate and ultimately the government becomes less pious and more accepting of ideologies that have no place in their vision of a Judeo-Christian nation.
“We are being discriminated against. There is an anti-Christian movement in the culture,” Fr. Paul Grant, a priest with the Catholic Information Center in Washington, told me after Vice President Mike Pence addressed the Faith and Freedom gathering on Saturday night. “The devil is using his tools to keep us out of the public square.”
Many Christians believe in the idea of “spiritual warfare,” the concept of God and Satan enlisting their armies of angels and demons to battle for the souls of people through everyday occurrences and experiences. Many also believe in what might be described as divine irony—that is, the notion that God uses flawed, unlikely individuals to achieve his ends and advance his kingdom. (Jacob, Moses, David, et al.) Living within that worldview, it’s not irrational to see Trump as an imperfect vessel for the Almighty at a watershed moment in history, especially when other, more godly leaders have failed to stem the decline.
“George W. Bush was one of them, but he was a compassionate conservative. They want someone who’s a fighter, and they view Trump as a fighter,” says Travis Korson, the senior vice president of Madison Strategies, a consulting firm that does extensive work with conservatives and Christian groups. “It’s a lot of things: the policy battles, the way he ran his campaign, the way, frankly, that he’s handling the FBI investigation into Russia. Trump doesn’t back down. And that kind of leadership, evangelicals feel like they haven’t seen it from the White House.”
So far, Trump hasn’t just been fighting their battles—he’s been winning them. More than any other constituency, Christian conservatives have watched with delight as the president delivered on his core promises to them: nominating a conservative in Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court; reinstating and strengthening the Mexico City policy, which eliminates U.S. funding for international nongovernmental organizations that perform abortions; signing the Congressional Review Act to route federal money away from Planned Parenthood; and issuing an executive order that begins to broaden religious liberty guidelines, with promises of more action to come.
Evangelical Christians are known to keep something of a cultural scorecard, tallying their victories and defeats to gauge which direction the winds of civilization are blowing. After generations of ceding ground to what they view as a militant, secular left—with Roe v. Wade cementing protections for abortion, Engel v. Vitale taking prayer out of public schools and Obergefell v. Hodges legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide, among other defeats—social conservatives are finally feeling momentum on their side. And it took a Trump presidency to swing it. “I believe we’re winning this battle,” James Dobson, the lionized Christian author and radio host, said to thunderous applause Saturday night during the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s closing dinner.
Whether Trump feels he’s winning is another story. His aforementioned successes aside, the president’s legislative agenda has been sabotaged by controversy and infighting, and the investigations into his campaign and administration continue to spawn damaging new narratives. With setbacks piling up and public opinion steadily turning against him, Trump is right to feel “under siege.” There is, however, a silver lining: By standing up and fighting on behalf of a community that has long felt the same way, Trump has earned their lasting loyalty. In months of discussions with evangelical Christians, none of the president’s self-inflicted wounds seem to register. Trump is one of their own now— his grievance is their grievance—and therefore, quite naturally, he finds himself in the lion’s den beside them.
The Rev. Richard Lee said as much in his benediction Saturday night. “Father, we pray for our president today. Thank you, Lord, that you’ve given us a man who will stand for right, a man who will stand for truth,” Lee said. “Father, he is under attack, which is to be expected.”