Anti-Trump Evangelicals Are Trying To Figure Out What To Do Next

The first month of 2020 has been filled with infighting over Trump among prominent evangelicals. “How do we pick up the pieces of the conservative party once he is out of office?”

It was the Monday before Christmas and Napp Nazworth was the only editor left on duty at the Christian Post. He was nearing the end of his nearly 10-hour shift, getting ready to go on his two-week family vacation, when he got sent one last piece to edit: an op-ed in support of President Trump written by two of the evangelical news outlet’s top editors.

The op-ed by executive editor Richard Land and senior managing editor John Grano was a response to an editorial published at the Christian Post’s rival, Christianity Today. That editorial, by now-retired editor-in-chief Mark Galli, was titled “Trump Should Be Removed From Office,” and argued just that. Land and Grano disagreed.

“One might well ask Mr. Galli how his obvious elitist disdain and corrosive condescension for fellow Christians with whom he disagrees … might well damage evangelical witness to an unbelieving world,” the Christian Post op-ed reads. “CT’s disdainful, dismissive, elitist posture toward their fellow Christians may well do far more long-term damage to American Christianity and its witness than any current prudential support for President Trump will ever cause.”

This defense of Trump was a 180 from what Nazworth and his fellow Christian Post editors wrote together a few years before, when they published their first-ever editorial, titled “Donald Trump Is a Scam. Evangelical Voters Should Back Away.” Grano himself had published a piece before the last presidential election titled “5 Reasons Why Trump Is Dangerous for Evangelicals.” But Nazworth had watched this shift happen over the past few years, so he was not surprised. He sighed and began to edit the piece.

“I didn’t agree with it, but I was fine with publishing it. I publish op-eds I disagree with all the time,” Nazworth, a self-described “Never Trumper,” told BuzzFeed News.

But then his phone rang. It was the managing editor telling him they wanted to publish the piece as an editorial, as the Christian Post’s official stance.

“I said, ‘You know I can’t support that,’” Nazworth told BuzzFeed News. “If you publish this as an editorial, it's like you're announcing to the world that the Christian Post is joining Team Trump.”

The managing editor responded that that, more or less, was their intention, Nazworth said. (The Christian Post did not respond to BuzzFeed News’ request for comment).

In response, Nazworth resigned.

From the beginning of Trump’s political ascent, influential religious leaders have taken issue with his character.

The man had never seemed particularly religious in his previous, very public life. He notoriously fraternized with socially liberal figureheads, porn stars, and Jeffrey Epstein, and donated to influential elected Democrats. Many prominent evangelicals believed he could not be trusted, that he was posing for their vote.

“Trump claims to be a Christian, yet says he has never asked for forgiveness,” the February 2016 Christian Post editorial reads. “Trump is a misogynist and philanderer. He demeans women and minorities. His preferred forms of communication are insults, obscenities and untruths. While Christians have been guilty of all of these, we, unlike Trump, acknowledge our sins, ask for forgiveness and seek restitution with the aid of the Holy Spirit and our community of believers.”

Over the course of his term, as Trump appointed conservative anti-abortion judges and justices and enacted versions of the policies he promised them in his campaign, many of the once-wary evangelicals kept quiet, and many have changed their tune. But now as the 2020 election approaches, the arguments of those skeptics have started to resurface.

The questions faced by evangelicals who distrust or disapprove of Trump (anywhere from 36% to 42% of evangelicals of all races, depending on the poll) are about what he would do with a second term and how beholden he’d be to evangelicals who make up a good chunk of his base.

“Trump has a long history in the public eye, his circle is well-known, and in that long history, he has only very recently included this large group of self-identified evangelicals, who now happen to form a large part of his base,” a prominent figure in the political conservative movement (who asked to remain anonymous in order to speak freely) told BuzzFeed News. When Trump doesn’t need them anymore, what’s to stop him from abandoning the issues important to conservative voters and handing the reins over to those members of his administration who are even less conservative than he is?

It’s practically a given that Trump will have strong support among white evangelicals. Even if they disapprove of Trump’s character, the Democratic party’s stance on social issues like abortion and LGBTQ rights mean many of them feel they have no one else to vote for. The question they are asking now is not how to defeat Trump but “how do we pick up the pieces of the conservative party once he is out of office?” as one conservative lobbyist put it.

Some prominent conservatives who spoke to BuzzFeed News said that one of the first issues they could see Trump abandoning was anything related to the LGBTQ community. While his administration has enacted and pushed for policies that would disproportionately, negatively affect LGBTQ people, such as allowing government-funded institutions such as hospitals, schools, and adoption agencies to deny service or otherwise discriminate due to “religious or moral beliefs,” they see the issue as unimportant to Trump.

“One thing Trump has been consistent about throughout his life is desire for acceptance. It’s an innate flaw he has — he has to be a strong man, he has to be the smartest man,” Shermichael Singleton, a conservative political strategist said in response to a question about Trump relaxing his stance on LGBTQ issues. Singleton’s sentiment was echoed by several of the people who spoke to BuzzFeed News.

When the day comes that Trump is near the end of his presidency and preparing to return to civilian life, Singleton, who organized evangelical voters for Ben Carson’s presidential campaign, continued, “I wouldn’t be surprised if he softened his stances on some issues in a way that wouldn’t totally isolate the evangelicals, but would help him rebuild a rapport with some of his old friends on the other side.”

Two of the people who spoke to BuzzFeed News pointed to a specific piece of legislation they believe Trump will allow through if he is reelected: the Equality Act, which would ban LGBTQ discrimination. The bill, which passed the House in May but stalled in the Senate, would "prohibit discrimination on the basis of the sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, or pregnancy, childbirth, or a related medical condition of an individual, as well as because of sex-based stereotypes.” One influential conservative lobbyist, who asked to remain anonymous so as not to affect business relationships, said that if Democrats gained any seats in the Senate, the Equality Act would be an easy win for the left, and that Ivanka Trump would encourage her father to turn a blind eye to or even support the bill.

“The Trump Administration absolutely opposes discrimination of any kind and supports the equal treatment of all,” a spokesperson for the White House told BuzzFeed News when asked for comment on this theory, “however, [the Equality Act] in its current form is filled with poison pills that threaten to undermine parental and conscience rights.”

On the other hand, Nazworth told BuzzFeed News his opposition to Trump was not about what he might do in the future, but what he has already done.

“He hasn't really done much for evangelicals other than the judges, which are very important, can't deny that,” Nazworth said, referring to the appointment of conservative Supreme Court Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, and the more than 100 federal judges now confirmed by the Senate. “But the evangelicals are getting scammed — they're not really getting what they elected him for.”

Trump made several promises to evangelicals when he was courting their vote in 2016, most notably that he would appoint anti-abortion justices to the Supreme Court, defund Planned Parenthood, and “totally destroy” the Johnson Amendment, a provision in the tax code that prevents nonprofit organizations from endorsing political candidates. In Trump’s recent speeches to evangelicals, he has claimed to have accomplished all three of these goals. In reality, he has only accomplished one of them.

While the Trump administration enacted a rule that prevents Planned Parenthood from receiving federal family planning grants, the organization and others like it still receive federal funding through Medicaid reimbursements. And though Trump has repeatedly claimed that he “got rid” of the Johnson Amendment, what he actually did was sign a somewhat vague executive order in 2017, which Trump’s own Justice Department confirmed in a court filing had no effect on the Johnson Amendment and was essentially symbolic.

In 2016, as Trump began winning over some evangelical leaders, earning the nomination and choosing evangelical Vice President Mike Pence as his running mate, several evangelical opponents stood strong, identifying themselves publicly as “Never Trumpers” and even having several in-person meetings to try and build support for an independent candidate. After Trump won the election and was sworn into office, much of that contingent grew quiet, waiting to see whether he would fulfill his promises to their socially conservative community. Some of them stayed in touch via a Google Group, sharing news stories and columns and having heated debates, but as they grew more divided in their opinions on Trump, the president became a topic they avoided.

In December, however, this changed.

The discussion turned from whisperings at Christmas parties to a public battle after the Christianity Today editorial. In it, Galli argued that the impeachment hearings made it clear that Trump had abused his power by asking Ukraine to investigate a political opponent, and that he deserved to be removed from office, whether by impeachment or through the 2020 elections.

“If we don’t reverse course now, will anyone take anything we say about justice and righteousness with any seriousness for decades to come?” Galli wrote. “Can we say with a straight face that abortion is a great evil that cannot be tolerated and, with the same straight face, say that the bent and broken character of our nation’s leader doesn’t really matter in the end?”

That strong statement coming from an elite member of a powerful religious and political group — one that is frequently cited as Trump’s main stronghold — was enough to spark some outrage, but the sentiment coming from Christianity Today, a magazine founded in the 1950s by powerhouse evangelical preacher Billy Graham, seemed, to some, almost sacrilegious.

The response was an uproar. Nearly 200 evangelical leaders wrote a stern letter to Christianity Today opposing the anti-Trump editorial and saying it did not represent their beliefs. Billy Graham’s son Franklin Graham wrote on Facebook that his father had supported Trump and would be “disappointed” in his own publication. And in typical fashion, Trump took to Twitter, inaccurately calling Christianity Today a “far left” magazine. The next day his team announced plans to host an Evangelicals for Trump rally, where he launched a coalition to solidify and expand evangelical support.

....have a Radical Left nonbeliever, who wants to take your religion & your guns, than Donald Trump as your President. No President has done more for the Evangelical community, and it’s not even close. You’ll not get anything from those Dems on stage. I won’t be reading ET again!

“I think evangelicals are a wild and wily group. Though we are often presented monolithically, we are not monolithic,” Owen Strachan, a conservative commentator and professor of theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, told BuzzFeed News. “I think there is a significant, and frankly pretty influential, evangelical body that is politically centrist and does not support Donald Trump.”

More than 75% of white, self-identified evangelicals approve of Trump, according to the 2018 Harvard University Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES) and analyzed for BuzzFeed News by political scientists Paul Djupe (Denison University) and Ryan Burge at (Eastern Illinois University), who have both studied evangelical support for Trump. Evangelicals are a significant demographic, the two said, making up about a fifth of all registered voters in the US, a statistic also supported by Pew Research Center’s 2016 report. So it’s no wonder Trump quickly ramped up his focus after the Christianity Today editorial, making sure their support wouldn’t waver. But Nazworth and those who agree with him told BuzzFeed News they question whether the accepted belief that a solid majority of evangelicals support Trump is actually true.

“It really depends on how you define evangelicals,” Greg Scott, media director for the conservative Heritage Foundation, told BuzzFeed News over lunch days before the Christianity Today editorial. “What an evangelical is has been so overly defined and misdefined, it’s just meaningless now.”

There have been a few attempts to organize the anti-Trump evangelicals, including calls to cast write-in votes in the 2020 presidential election. The Lincoln Project, an anti-Trump group founded by George Conway (husband of Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway) also recently released an ad warning evangelicals to “beware of false prophets.”

But ultimately, all of the evangelicals and political analysts who spoke to BuzzFeed News agreed that the argument that has been raging among evangelical leaders and commentators over the past few weeks is moot. White evangelicals will largely end up voting for Trump again in 2020 — regardless of what they think of him — they said.

Strachan told BuzzFeed News that many of the evangelical conservatives he knows who were very wary of or opposed to Trump in 2016 have since come around to the president, either because of his attempts and successes in making good on his promises, especially in upholding anti-abortion policies, or because the left has become “even more extreme.”

“There are two groups of evangelicals today: There are evangelicals who have an idealistic portrait of leadership, and then there are evangelicals who are trying to grapple with actual, complex people,” Strachan said. “Both sides have hard choices before them. The division is, do we follow an actual clearly fallen person, fallen just like us, or should we press hard for one who seems more virtuous?”

More and more people, especially young people, have been walking away from the evangelical movement in recent years, and some of the conservatives who spoke to BuzzFeed News blame Trump, and what he represents, for some of this attrition.

Data from Pew’s 2019 study of the US religious population found that the number Protestants who describe themselves as born-again or evangelical Christians has declined about by 3% as a share of the overall US adult population over the last decade, a number that continued to decrease each year.

Three of the social conservatives who spoke to BuzzFeed News said they saw Trump and what he represents as contributing to attrition from the church, particularly among young people.

“I think that there are some evangelicals who say, ‘You know what? Yes, these [socially conservative] policies are important, but look at what this is doing to the faith,’” Singleton told BuzzFeed News.

Millennials are “leaving the church, not going to church, because they look at Trump and his supporters and see them as hypocrites, see them as judgmental,” he continued. “As this chaos continues, it’s expediting young people leaving the church. There’s a lot of evangelicals who don’t want that.”

It’s time for the conservative party and politically influential evangelicals to step back and look beyond Trump, six of the seven people who spoke to BuzzFeed News agreed. This upcoming election may be a lost cause, but it’s time to start rebuilding the party for a post-Trump world, to figure out what’s next for those who oppose Trump but feel they have no one else to vote for.

“I think the conservative movement was in need of a reformation before Trump, but now he's basically burned everything down,” Nazworth said as he prepared to write his own op-ed on “Trumpvangelicals,” now as a freelancer. “So now it's time to rebuild. And that’s good.” ●

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