Where politics meets the apocalypse
Trump and the Puritans co-author Martyn Whittock assesses US evangelical support for President Donald Trump in a time of chaos
As President Trump continues to court controversy in the USA, he still receives considerable support from his electoral base, including huge numbers of evangelical Christians.
In 2016 Trump attracted the support of 81 percent of US (mostly white) evangelicals. At over thirty million votes, this was a significant contribution to his electoral success. Since then, this support has been maintained to a remarkable degree. In January 2019, polling by the US Pew Research Center found that 69 percent of white evangelicals approved of the Trump presidency. This was despite the fact that earlier polling by the same organisation had revealed that about half of them thought that Trump had not set a high moral standard. 
Clearly, their perception that he will ‘deliver’ on issues in line with conservative goals outweighs all other considerations. These include: the appointment of conservative Supreme Court judges; anticipated anti-abortion legislation; US relations with Israel; ‘the Wall’ and harsh policies on immigration; climate-change scepticism; dismantling ‘Obamacare’; cutting environmental protection; strident unilateral promotion of American national interests; antipathy to international organisations and commitments. Some of these are issues long associated with evangelical Christian concerns. Others are from the playbook of right wing populist nationalism seen across the globe in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis and exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic and its attendant turmoil.
More recent polling has revealed that in less than a year (from May 2019 to March 2020), the number of weekly church-attending white Protestants who are convinced that Donald Trump was ‘anointed by God to be president’ grew from 29.6 percent to 49.5 percent. 
Since then, things have become more complex. In late April-early May, polling by the Pew Research Center found that the share of white evangelicals approving his handling of the Covid-19 crisis had fallen six percentage points compared with the second half of March. Nevertheless, three-quarters of these evangelicals still thought that Trump was doing an excellent (43 percent) or good job (32 percent) job responding to the pandemic. 
However, some commentators have noticed a shift in Trump’s relationship with evangelicals, suggesting that he now favours a number of proponents of the so-called ‘prosperity gospel’ (most notably televangelists such as Paula White and Guillermo Maldonado) over more mainstream evangelical leaders. This may be because of the considerable media presence of these televangelists.  There are risks in this, from Trump’s perspective, since it is vital that he shores up, rather than fragments, his support from the evangelical base.
A general appeal to the wider evangelical community clearly explains the Bible-brandishing photo-opportunity outside Washington’s St John’s Church on 1 June. That this occurred just minutes after Trump threatened to unilaterally deploy the military on the streets of US cities, and after teargas and rubber bullets had been used to clear largely-peaceful protestors from his route to the church, revealed the intense symbolism of the moment. The ‘conservative Christian vote’ was the target of the gesture. Trump was determined to present the unrest in US cities as a law and order issue, rather than revealing deep structural racial problems in the nation. It may also have been prompted by the recognition that the vast majority of evangelicals who support him are white. This makes the pitch at the church all the more obvious and, to many observers, all the more alarming.
The question is: has Trump succeeded in this pitch? The answer is a qualified ‘Yes’. Franklin Graham, via Facebook, asserted he was not offended by the events at the church. He was not alone, among leaders of the evangelical-right, to voice such sentiments. This suggests that many evangelicals are now so committed to the Trump cause that there is no going back.
However, the situation is complex. From the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, to early June and the unrest following the death of George Floyd, unease has occurred among some evangelicals. Recent polling by the Public Religion Research Institute revealed that between March (start of the Covid-19 crisis) and end of May (race-related unrest), Trump’s approval rating among white evangelicals fell from nearly 80 percent to 62 percent. 
But, when push comes to shove, how will evangelicals vote? The evidence from 2016 may be prescient. As the presidential election of that year approached, Trump’s approval rating among evangelicals stood at 61 percent. Yet at the polls he took 81 percent of their votes. And in the culture war gripping the USA, the ratcheting up of rhetoric is increasing and it is drawing in non-evangelicals who make common cause with the US right. On 7 June, Archbishop Viganò, the former Vatican nuncio in Washington D.C. published an open letter in support of Trump and blaming the current crises gripping the USA, and the world, on a malign international ‘deep state’, and a ‘deep church’ in alliance with it. The letter was soon being promoted by the online platform QAnon.
With millions of followers, this right wing source is pro-Trump, anti ‘liberal media’, promotes conspiracy theories, and reflects an extreme evangelical viewpoint on the current conflict in the USA as representing ‘good’ (ie Trump) versus ‘evil’. Followers have been associated with denunciations of Covid-19 as a fake or a destabilising strategy by a ‘deep state’ secret world elite intended to damage Trump’s re-election.  This all reads like a sensationalist political thriller or TV drama, but the combination of the Trumpian base, online far-right conspiracy theory promoters, conservative evangelicals and right wing traditionalist Catholics is real enough. One could not make it up.
Chaos is Trump’s ‘natural environment’ and the current situation may yet provide an opportunity for him to rally his support base. However, the ‘chaos candidate’ has met a ‘chaos event’ in the Covid-19 pandemic, and in the unrest on the streets, that possesses the potential to lay bare the inadequacies of his presidency. But never underestimate his self-promotion; his spinning of events and promulgation of alternative narratives; his online presence in a society where many no longer get their news from the mainstream media; his angry shifting of blame onto ‘enemies’ in ways that chime with anxious and angry people; nor should one forget a US evangelical tendency to cast current events in apocalyptic terms.
In the intensifying battle for the soul of America, a long hot summer is only just beginning.
Image | History in HD | Unsplash
Martyn Whittock’s latest book, Trump and the Puritans (co-author James Roberts), was published in January 2020. It came out in the USA the day after Donald Trump’s Bible photo-opp.
Martyn is a Licensed Lay Minister in the Church of England
 Philip Schwadel and Gregory A. Smith, “Evangelical approval of Trump remains high, but other religious groups are less supportive”, Pew Research Center, 18 March 2019, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/03/18/evangelical-approval-of-trump-remains-high-but-other-religious-groups- are-less-supportive/ (accessed July 2019).
 Thomas B. Edsall, “Trump Is Staking Out His Own Universe of ‘Alternative Facts’”, New York Times, 13 May, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/13/opinion/trump-digital-campaign.html (accessed June 2020).
 Gregory A. Smith, “White evangelicals among groups with slipping confidence in Trump’s handling of COVID-19”, Pew Research Center, 14 May, 2020, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/05/14/white-evangelicals-among-groups-with-slipping-confidence-in-trumps-handling-of-covid-19/ (accessed June 2020).
 Patrick Geddis, “The kind of evangelicals who support Trump are changing. And that could be a big problem”, Independent, 18 May 2020, https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/evangelicals-trump-prosperity-gospel-michele-bachmann-mark-grenon-coronavirus-a9520926.html (accessed June 2020).
 Jeremy W. Peters, “Trump’s Approval Slips Where He Can’t Afford to Lose It: Among Evangelicals”, New York Times, 4 June, 2020, updated 9 June, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/04/us/politics/trump-polls-christians-evangelicals.html (accessed June 2020).
 James Roberts, “The road to perdition”, The Tablet, 13 June, 2020, p. 10.
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