Will Trump’s Weakness Threaten White Evangelical Support?

Screenshot of CNN report on Trump's complex relationship with water.

White evangelicals were critical to the election of Donald Trump in 2016, and over the past three-and-a-half years they’ve remained his stalwart supporters. Their loyalty has persisted through revelations of the Stormy Daniels affair, talk of “Mexican rapists” and “shithole countries,” the detention of children at the border, support for white nationalists, impeachment, and a fumbling response to the coronavirus pandemic. In recent weeks, however, that support appears to be slipping. 

A recent PRRI survey revealed a drop in Trump’s favorability among white evangelicals, from 77% in March to 62% at the end of May. In the past, slight declines in evangelical support have proved fleeting, and it remains to be seen whether the current downturn will also prove ephemeral. But with the 2020 election less than five months away, the president isn’t leaving things to chance. 

Earlier this month he sought to curry favor with evangelicals by staging an awkward photo op in front of a church, Bible in hand, after violently dispersing peaceful protesters. In Arizona last week, he addressed a Students for Trump conference held at an evangelical megachurch: “We don’t back down from left-wing bullies,” he railed, “and the only authority we worship is our God.”

Trump’s efforts to woo back evangelical voters through symbolic acts and religious rhetoric, however, have been undercut by a potentially devastating plot twist: the appearance of weakness. 

In 2016, white evangelicals embraced the crass, thrice-married reality TV star because they imagined him to be their strongman, their “ultimate fighting champion” who would battle against the forces that threatened their political and cultural power. For Trump and for evangelicals, winning was everything. As his evangelical supporter Robert Jeffress made clear, evangelicals wanted “the meanest, toughest SOB” who would protect the nation, and their own interests. 

At first glance, evangelical support for Trump appeared transactional at best, hypocritical at worst. In fact, evangelical support for Trump was consistent with a longstanding preference for militant masculine leadership

Militant white masculinity has always been at the center of family-values evangelicalism. In the 1960s and 1970s, evangelicals insisted that strong, patriarchal authority would defend families against the incursions of feminism and the nation against the communist threat. Moreover, an assertion of white masculine authority was at the heart of “law-and-order politics” championed by conservatives who opposed civil rights and other disruptions to the status quo. 

At the time, evangelical leaders such as Billy Graham, James Dobson, and Jerry Falwell Sr. worked to shore up patriarchal power in order to enforce order at home and abroad. Theologically, this took the form of promoting “biblical gender roles” that dictated unyielding male authority and female submission. Culturally, this resulted in the development of a strikingly militant ideal of “Christian manhood.” 

For over half a century, evangelical writers and preachers have taught that God filled men with testosterone so that they could aggressively defend faith, family, and nation. They urged parents to have little boys play with guns and to instruct older boys in the use of firearms. They denigrated feminism, pacifism, and political correctness, and championed war, law enforcement, the military, and the Second Amendment in order to promote a culture where men could exercise their God-given, testosterone-driven authority. 

Evangelical popular culture is filled with images of a militant warrior masculinity, an ideal based on mythical cowboys and soldiers, on heroic (white) men who resort to violence to achieve order. As I note in my recently-published book, Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation, favorite evangelical heroes included Teddy Roosevelt, Generals Patton and MacArthur, Mel Gibson’s William Wallace, and the actor John Wayne, men who meted out justice and pursued righteousness, confident that the ends would justify the means. Evangelicals embraced secular heroes because men unencumbered by traditional Christian virtue were those best suited to the militancy required by this rugged “Christian manhood.”

When Donald Trump appeared on the political stage, he stood firmly in this tradition of militant white masculinity. Evangelicals knew he didn’t share their religious beliefs, but he embodied many of the characteristics they had come to equate with strong leadership. Within the framework of militant white masculinity, Trump’s crassness, misogyny, racism, his repudiation of political correctness and unwillingness to play by the rules paradoxically signified his fitness for the job. 

This is why neither his crude tweets nor allegations of corruption and sexual assault, nor even his goading of violence against American citizens has done much to erode the support of his evangelical base. He would win their battles. 

With the election quickly approaching, however, Trump’s warrior status has taken several hits. 

Recent Supreme Court rulings on DACA, LGBTQ rights, and abortion rights are a stinging blow to evangelicals who had rallied behind Trump in 2016 in order to secure a conservative majority on the court and ensure the protection of their own “religious liberties.”

Moreover, as the coronavirus moves from urban epicenters to red state America, it’s becoming increasingly difficult even for the president’s devout supporters to pretend that the virus can be defeated through bombast and posturing

But perhaps most devastating to evangelical support for the president is the damage done to his image. For evangelicals who celebrate rugged heroes and mythical warriors, Trump’s recent appearances have undermined his ability to claim the warrior mantle. His West Point commencement address was derailed by his halting descent down a ramp and apparent difficulty in lifting a glass of water to his lips. An already challenging week for the president was capped off by embarrassingly low turnout at his Tulsa rally, an event intended to kick off his reelection campaign and rekindle the enthusiasm of his base. 

The ultimate fighting champion no longer appears to be winning. 

Trump has only one playbook. In the wake of the police killing of George Floyd, he doubled down on “law and order” rhetoric. At his Tulsa rally he lauded supporters as “warriors” and decried protesters as “thugs”; defended the police and the Second Amendment; and warned of “tough hombres” while praising ICE, who are “rough guys” but “great Americans” who would take on “murderers,” “rapists,” and “the worst scum on earth.”

He also spent more than 14 minutes asserting his vitality and defending his ability to walk down a ramp and drink a glass of water. At his July 4 address at Mount Rushmore, he railed against “angry mobs” and the unleashing of “a wave of violent crime,” while assuring his audience that Americans were not “weak and soft and submissive.” They would fight to defend their heroes and their “heritage.”

White evangelicals have long embraced Trump’s militancy because they trust that he will employ it on their behalf. Going forward, evangelical support for the president will likely hinge on whether they believe he still has the power to do so. If they deem him insufficiently equipped to go another round in the ring, it will be his undoing. 

Even if evangelicals do defect from Trump it won’t necessarily indicate a departure from the politics of the last four years. It may simply suggest that evangelicals have lost faith in Trump’s ability to perform. 

Even small signs of strength, however, such as Wednesday’s Supreme Court ruling upholding Trump administration regulations allowing religious exemptions to contraception coverage under the Affordable Care Act, will likely be enough to draw evangelicals back. In November, we shouldn’t be surprised to see the white evangelical vote for Trump approaching, if not exceeding, that of 2016.