In Iowa, white evangelicals are embracing Donald Trump, not Jesus
The critics were right about conservative Christians' true loyalties
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White evangelicals are worshiping Donald Trump over Jesus, and the upcoming Iowa caucuses are revealing their true loyalties.
That’s the takeaway from a New York Times piece (gift article) looking at the influence of Christians in Iowa ahead of next Monday’s caucuses. We’ve long known that white evangelicals are more motivated to go to the polls by conservative causes (fighting abortion rights, hurting LGBTQ people, banning books) than by policies meant to help the poor or serve the “least of these.” Republicans know that if they want to increase voter turnout, they need to put hot-button issues front and center.
But that approach now appears to be failing.
That’s because, for the first time, there’s a Republican candidate—Ron DeSantis—who is openly fighting those traditional “culture war” battles and talks about his religious (albeit Catholic) faith and has been embraced by evangelical leaders in the state … and then there’s Donald Trump, who doesn’t actually give a shit about anything policy-related but is extremely good at riling up his base by exploiting their biggest fears. It’s Trump who’s demolishing the competition.
The fact that white evangelicals are flocking to Trump, even though DeSantis would advance a nearly identical agenda, says a lot about how much Christianity really motivates these people. It doesn’t. At least not nearly as much as it used to.
Jesus, we’ve long known, is an excuse many conservatives used to cover up their outright bigotry. It’s a lot easier for them to say they’re “faith-based” voters than admitting they’re just supporting the candidate who hates the same people they do (and knows how to sprinkle “God” into campaign messaging).
Now those people are openly ditching the “Jesus” excuse and just telling us what we’ve always suspected: The MAGA faithful might use religious language but they don’t really care about what the Bible says.
“Trump is our David and our Goliath,” [Karen] Johnson said recently as she waited outside a hotel in eastern Iowa to hear the former president speak.
At Mr. Trump’s rally in Coralville, it was Joel Tenney, a 27-year-old local evangelist who does not lead a church, who delivered the opening prayer.
The crowd responded tepidly to his impassioned recitation of several Bible verses. But the rallygoers roared to life when he set aside the Scripture and told them what they had come to hear.
“This election is part of a spiritual battle,” Mr. Tenney said. “When Donald Trump becomes the 47th president of the United States, there will be retribution against all those who have promoted evil in this country.”
Karen Johnson, whose admiration for Goliath (?!) raises all kinds of additional questions, is the stereotypical MAGA cultist. She uses biblical language to justify political positions that have no basis in anything Jesus talked about. It’s telling that others like her “roared to life” when a pastor stopped boring them with the Bible and openly promoted Trumpian revenge.
This isn’t just a story with a few anecdotes, though. There are numbers to back it up.
In short, a lot of surveys show that church attendance—once a strong marker of evangelical identity—has gone significantly down, but self-professed Christian identity hasn’t changed much at all.
It raises the question: What does it even mean to be an evangelical these days?
In the farming communities of Calhoun County, for instance, church adherence fell 31 percent from 2010 to 2020 — the steepest decline in the state — even as 80 percent of the population continued to identify in surveys as white Christians. More than 70 percent of the county’s voters cast ballots for Trump in 2020.
“I voted for Trump twice, and I’ll vote for him again,” said Cydney Hatfield, a retired corrections officer in Lohrville, a town of 381 people in Calhoun County. “He’s the only savior I can see.” Raised as a Baptist, Ms. Hatfield no longer attends church. “I just try to do right,” she said. “I pray to God every night.”
Far from anything theological, “evangelical Christian” appears to be nothing more than a signifier of your politics. It signals what conspiracies you believe in, which groups you (falsely) think are persecuting you, and the kind of filter bubble you prefer. Those same people aren’t even as interested in “traditional” right-wing issues like abortion as much as their predecessors.
While they almost universally opposed abortion, they were also often skeptical of the more uncompromising policies that candidates like Mr. DeSantis have championed.
Abortion policy is “one thing I don’t really stress,” said JoAnn Sweeting, who pulled her eighth-grade son out of school to attend a rally for Mr. Trump last month in Coralville, Iowa. Referring to the overturning of Roe v. Wade, she said: “I feel like the policies set for us now seem to be working.”
The irony is that if Trump suddenly did an about-face and said he supports abortion rights, there are probably large numbers of conservative Christians who would find a way to rationalize it and follow suit…
In Iowa, DeSantis has racked up endorsements from white evangelical leaders like Bob Vander Plaats. That used to mean something. Not anymore.
A September memo from Trump's pollsters suggested that if Vander Plaats endorses DeSantis, it would have "no significant impact on the Presidential ballot."
"There was no statistically significant change to the ballot other than Undecideds increasing slightly from 7% to 13%" wrote pollsters Tony Fabrizio, David Lee and Travis Tunis.
There was a time when conservative Christians in Iowa supported the most conservative Christian option—people like Ted Cruz, Rick Santorum, and Mike Huckabee—even when other Republicans weren’t interested. Not anymore. The candidate most comfortable in an evangelical church is now losing to a candidate who rarely attends and who famously used a church as a prop.
Trump isn’t devout in any meaningful way. He just tells evangelicals whatever he thinks they want to hear. They foolishly believe he means it. Because he gave them the judges they wanted—something any other Republican would have done—they don’t give a damn about the criminal indictments, the Hitleresque rhetoric, the adoration of international fascists, the selfishness, or the embrace of ignorance.
The Times’ Ruth Graham and Charles Homans summarize it well:
Being evangelical once suggested regular church attendance, a focus on salvation and conversion and strongly held views on specific issues such as abortion. Today, it is as often used to describe a cultural and political identity: one in which Christians are considered a persecuted minority, traditional institutions are viewed skeptically and Mr. Trump looms large.
Conservative Christians love pretending to be persecuted, and no one acts like a victim more than Trump.
Another Iowa Christian put it even more bluntly to the Associated Press: He said he supported Trump because he was the most Jesus-like candidate in the race.
Ron Betts, a 72-year-old Republican who said he plans to caucus for “Trump all the way,” said he felt the former president “exemplified what Jesus would do.”
The 72-year-old Betts likened Trump’s legal troubles — from the 91 criminal charges he currently faces to the effort in some states to keep him off the 2024 presidential ballot because of his push to overturn his 2020 election loss — to a crucifixion.
“I think they are doing the same thing they did to Jesus on the cross,” Betts said. "I can see a lot of correlation there.”
If a Democratic politician ever compared Jesus to any mortal, it would be a non-stop talking point in right-wing media for days. But this guy’s equating Jesus with Trump.
That doesn’t make Trump look good. That makes Jesus look awful.
If there’s any silver lining to this, it’s that this switch from worshiping Jesus to worshiping Trump has pushed a lot of decent people, especially young people, out of organized religion entirely. (The downside is that the people who remain are more extreme than ever.)
But if (when) Trump wins next week, it’ll prove what critics of Christian Nationalism have been saying for decades: Those Republicans were never “values voters.” They were conservatives who merely used religion as a weapon to hurt their enemies. Now that they found someone who speaks their language, they’re ready to ditch the religious stuff they never really cared about anyway.