Seeking Evangelicals’ Support Again, Trump Confronts a Changed Religious Landscape
On a recent Sunday morning at Elmbrook Church, a nondenominational evangelical megachurch in Brookfield, Wis., Jerry Wilson considered the far-off matter of his vote in 2024.
“It’s going to be a Republican,” he said, “but I don’t know who.”
In 2016 and 2020 he had voted for Donald J. Trump. “He did accomplish a lot for Christians, for evangelicals,” Mr. Wilson, 64, said. But “he’s got a lot of negative attributes, and they make you pause and think, you know? I’d like to see what the other candidates have to offer.”
White evangelical voters were central to Mr. Trump’s first election, and he remains overwhelmingly popular among them. But a Monmouth University poll in late January and early February found Ron DeSantis, the Republican governor of Florida who has not declared his candidacy for president but appears to be Mr. Trump’s most formidable early rival, leading Mr. Trump by 7 percentage points among self-identified evangelical Republican voters in a head-to-head contest.
It was an early sign that as he makes a bid for a return to office, Mr. Trump must reckon with a base that has changed since his election in 2016 — and because of it.
Some of the changes clearly benefit Mr. Trump, but others may have weakened his hold on evangelical voters and the prominent evangelical pastors who are often seen as power brokers in Republican politics.
The Supreme Court’s Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision in June, which overturned the constitutional right to an abortion, has shifted much of the fight to further roll back abortion rights — the near-singular political aim of conservative evangelicals for more than four decades — to the state level. Last year, Mr. Trump disparaged Republican candidates for focusing too much on the “abortion issue,” a statement that was viewed as a betrayal by some evangelicals on the right and an invitation to seek other options.
Conservative evangelical politics have both expanded and moved sharply rightward, animated by a new slate of issues like opposition to race and history curriculums in schools and L.G.B.T.Q. rights, and shaped by the Covid-19 lockdowns of 2020 and 2021, which some pastors rallied against as a grave affront to religious freedom. These are areas where Mr. DeSantis has aggressively staked his claim.
Who’s Running for President in 2024?
The race begins. Four years after a historically large number of candidates ran for president, the field for the 2024 campaign is starting out small and is likely to be headlined by the same two men who ran last time: President Biden and former President Donald J. Trump. Here’s who has entered the race so far, and who else might run:
Donald Trump. The former president is running to retake the office he lost in 2020. Though somewhat diminished in influence within the Republican Party — and facing several legal investigations — he retains a large and committed base of supporters, and he could be aided in the primary by multiple challengers splitting a limited anti-Trump vote.
Nikki Haley. The former governor of South Carolina and U.N. ambassador under Mr. Trump has presented herself as a member of “a new generation of leadership” and emphasized her life experience as a daughter of Indian immigrants. She was long seen as a rising G.O.P. star but her allure in the party has declined amid her on-again, off-again embrace of Mr. Trump.
Vivek Ramaswamy. The multimillionaire entrepreneur and author describes himself as “anti-woke” and is known in right-wing circles for opposing corporate efforts to advance political, social and environmental causes. He has never held elected office and does not have the name recognition of most other G.O.P. contenders.
President Biden. While Mr. Biden has not formally declared his candidacy for a second term, and there has been much hand-wringing among Democrats over whether he should seek re-election given his age, he is widely expected to run. If he does, Mr. Biden’s strategy is to frame the race as a contest between a seasoned leader and a conspiracy-minded opposition.
Marianne Williamson. The self-help author and former spiritual adviser to Oprah Winfrey is the first Democrat to formally enter the race. Kicking off her second presidential campaign, Ms. Williamson called Mr. Biden a “weak choice” and said the party shouldn’t fear a primary. Few in Democratic politics are taking her entry into the race seriously.
Others who are likely to run. Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, former Vice President Mike Pence, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina and Gov. Chris Sununu of New Hampshire are seen as weighing Republican bids for the White House.
“It is a different landscape,” said John Fea, a historian at Messiah University and author of “Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.”
This year, likely Trump rivals have sought and received the imprimatur of several pastors aligned with Mr. Trump in previous elections.
When Nikki Haley, Mr. Trump’s U.N. ambassador and the former governor of South Carolina, formally introduced her own candidacy in February, she did so alongside the televangelist John C. Hagee, who expressed his support for Mr. Trump in 2016.
In January, when former Vice President Mike Pence offered his most direct comments to date about the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, he did so at the First Baptist Dallas megachurch, in an onstage conversation with its pastor, Robert Jeffress, one of the country’s most influential evangelical leaders and a staunch ally of Mr. Trump throughout his presidency.
“I thank God for President Trump, because it’s because of his judicial appointments that Roe v. Wade was overturned,” said Tom Ascol, the senior pastor at Grace Baptist Church in Cape Coral, Fla. He said he would support him again in a head-to-head contest with President Biden. But the Republican presidential primary is another matter.
Mr. Ascol said he was looking for “a person of principle, and a person of courage.” Mr. Trump, he said, is “courageous and unprincipled,” citing his recent statements on abortion. In January, Mr. Ascol gave the opening prayer at Mr. DeSantis’s inauguration for his second term as governor.
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He has yet to make an endorsement in the presidential race, however. Neither has Mr. Hagee nor Mr. Jeffress. “It was not an endorsement; it was a prayer,” Ari Morgenstern, a spokesman for Mr. Hagee, said of his appearance with Ms. Haley.
In an interview, Mr. Jeffress said that “my love and support for President Trump has not changed in the last seven years,” and said he stood by the assessment he offered when Mr. Trump first announced his campaign for re-election.
“I predicted three months ago that there would be a sliver of the evangelical vote that would show an interest in the other candidates, but they would coalesce around Trump,” he said. “I think we’re already seeing that coalescing beginning.”
Indeed, the Monmouth poll, which was taken before Ms. Haley officially entered the race, found Mr. Pence and Ms. Haley commanding support in the single digits among self-identified evangelical Republican voters. But Mr. DeSantis’s strong showing, with favorable ratings comparable to Mr. Trump’s, suggested that the former president can’t take the constituency’s primary support for granted.
In 2016, Mr. Trump reordered the landscape of evangelical politics, drawing the support of white evangelical voters away from candidates with deeper evangelical bona fides and away from the warnings of church leaders, many of whom were initially wary of Mr. Trump. As president, he reordered it again by delivering on his promise to appoint Supreme Court justices who would overturn Roe v. Wade.
Michele Margolis, an associate professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania who studies religion and politics, argues that Mr. Trump’s embrace of evangelicals as a constituency has even changed the way Americans use the label “evangelical,” for themselves and others.
“This term has become a political term,” she said. “It signals something about whether you’re a Trump supporter or not.”
Along the way, Mr. Trump elevated far-right religious figures who supported him, many of them well outside of the conservative Christian mainstream, to the point that candidates now court the backing of evangelical leaders who not long ago were considered unacceptable to mainstream Republican campaigns.
During his 2008 presidential campaign, Senator John McCain rejected Mr. Hagee’s endorsement after a watchdog group unearthed a sermon in which Mr. Hagee had described Hitler and the Holocaust as part of God’s plan for bringing the Jews to Palestine. This year, Ms. Haley, who has often cast herself as more moderate than Mr. Trump, brought Mr. Hagee onstage for her campaign announcement. “He is a dear friend,” said Nachama Soloveichik, the communications director for Ms. Haley’s presidential campaign. “We have zero reservations about standing beside him.”
Mark Burns, a pastor from Easley, S.C., who served as a campaign surrogate for Mr. Trump in 2016 and has endorsed his 2024 run, said Mr. Trump’s presidency had changed evangelical voters’ expectations of what a president should deliver for them.
“There’s so many Christian presidents who sound like Christians, who act like Christians, who talk like Christians, who look like good Christians — but they don’t create Christian policies,” he said. “Donald J. Trump is not that person.”
When he first sought the Republican nomination seven years ago, Mr. Trump offered conservative evangelicals a bluntly transactional proposition: Vote for him, and he would nominate Supreme Court justices who would end legal abortion.
Steven Cheung, a spokesman for Mr. Trump’s campaign, said in a statement that “President Trump’s unmatched record speaks for itself,” noting his moves to restrict abortion beyond overturning Roe v. Wade, including blocking federal funding for Planned Parenthood and withholding U.S. government support from health organizations abroad that discuss abortion or family planning.
“There has been no bigger advocate for the movement than President Trump,” he said.
But Mr. Fea argues that Mr. Trump’s delivery on his big promise to conservative evangelicals had, paradoxically, freed conservative church leaders from their alliance of convenience with the former president.
“They tolerated a lot from Trump, and they refused to question him, because they knew there were bigger issues at stake,” he said. “But now the slate has been wiped clean, and you have to rethink the question of, Is Trump worth it? Or has he done what we needed him to do?”
Dan Simmons contributed reporting.
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