Polls and private concerns from top social conservatives show the president's standing with the cornerstone of his base isn't what it used to be. A photo op with the Bible was supposed to help fix that.
President Donald Trump needs every vote he got from white evangelicals in 2016 — and then some. Hoisting a Bible in the air may not be enough.
Unnerved by his slipping poll numbers and his failure to take command of the moral and public health crises straining the country, religious conservatives have expressed concern in recent weeks to the White House and the Trump campaign about the president's political standing.
Their rising discomfort spilled out into the open this week when the founder of the Christian Coalition, Pat Robertson, scolded the president for taking such a belligerent tone as the country erupted in sorrow and anger over the police killing of an unarmed black man, George Floyd, in Minneapolis.
Speaking on his newscast, The 700 Club, the televangelist whose relationship with Trump dates to the 1990s said, "You just don't do that, Mr. President," and added, "We're one race. And we need to love each other."
Three and a half years into the Trump presidency, Trump's Christian conservative allies practically have a pre written script when the time comes to defend another jaw-dropping indiscretion — bragging he was so irresistible to women that he could "grab 'em" by their genitals; paying off a pornographic film star and a Playboy Playmate to conceal his extramarital affairs; insisting he has never asked God for forgiveness; cursing at the National Prayer Breakfast.
And for the most part, this week was not much different as Trump's defenders on the religious right claimed they had no problem with an elaborate photo stunt in which the president had a park near the White House cleared of hundreds of peaceful protesters so he could walk across the street to a church that had been set on fire the night before and display a Bible in front of the cameras.
"Offended? Not at all," declared Franklin Graham, a prominent evangelical leader and the son of Rev. Billy Graham who was known as the pastor to the presidents. Writing on Facebook, Franklin Graham expressed the indignation that was common among many of the president's supporters in religious conservative circles. "This made an important statement that what took place the night before in the burning, looting and vandalism," he said, "had to end."
But numerous polls have shown that like most other Americans, religious Americans increasingly disapprove of how the president is doing his job — a shift that would imperil Trump's re-election if he is not able to reverse it.
The high marks that white evangelicals and white Catholics were giving the president earlier this year have slipped lately as the rallying effect that boosted him at the beginning of the coronavirus crisis has faded.
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Any slide with these voters — the cornerstone of his political base — is problematic. And even if voters of faith do turn out for him again in large numbers, analysts said, there may not be enough of them to help lift him to victory.
Robert P. Jones, chief executive of the Public Religion Research Institute, noted that since 2016, the share of the American population that is white and evangelical has declined by 2 percentage points, to 15 per cent.
In March, nearly 80 per cent of white evangelicals said they approved of the job Trump was doing, PRRI found. But by the end of May, with the country convulsed by racial discord, Trump's favorability among white evangelicals had fallen 15 percentage points to 62%, according to a PRRI poll released Thursday. That is consistent with declines that other surveys have picked up recently. Among white Catholics, the same poll also found that his approval has fallen by 27 points since March.
"He had an opportunity in March when people were looking to him. And then within four weeks he squandered it," Jones said.
Even if those numbers slip more between now and Election Day, it does not necessarily spell doom for the president. In the fall of 2016, his approval rating with white evangelicals was only 61%. He went on to win 81% of them in November.
As people whose cultural and political priorities have been extremely well-served by the Trump administration, many religious conservatives long ago resigned themselves to his flaws — as a president, a husband and a professed Christian. Some have come to see him as something of a divine instrument, sent by God to advance their cause.
But with the sacred often comes the profane, which is the most awkward part of the bargain Trump struck with the religious right to cement his rise to power in the Republican Party.
As strange as his appeal with the faithful might seem, it is not an entirely new phenomenon. Before he entered politics, he would often receive fan mail containing Bibles and Christian books, which he kept in a room in Trump Tower that he liked to show off to visitors. He and Robertson of The 700 Club became friendly when Trump had a large casino business in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and hosted a boxing match featuring Evander Holyfield, who brought along Robertson as his personal pastor.
At times, including this week, it can seem as if the determination of many on the religious right to defend the president rises with inverse proportion to how most of the rest of the nation feels.
"Some of President Trump's critics seem more upset about him holding a Bible at a church than they were about the vandals who nearly burned it to the ground," Ralph Reed, founder of the Faith & Freedom Coalition, said in a statement. (In fact, the fire was contained to a small part of the church basement.)
In an interview, Reed took issue with the criticism from some on the right like Robertson, who was Reed's longtime mentor during their time together at the Christian Coalition. "You can't look at the statements the president has made, the tweets he has sent out, and say that he has not expressed empathy for and revulsion at the circumstances surrounding the death of George Floyd," Reed said.
Groups like Reed's plan to spend tens of millions of dollars trying to identify and register new religious conservative voters while hammering a message about what they see at stake in November.
Turning their back on Trump now would likely spell defeat for the president in November, which would mean the end of a streak of legal and policy victories that conservatives have not experienced since the Reagan administration. The Supreme Court, with two Trump-appointed justices, now has an advantage that favors the right 5-4. And the president's allies would like to see that grow in a second term so they might be able to finally realize long-standing goals like overturning Roe v. Wade and dismantling more of the regulatory apparatus that subjects businesses to government oversight.
Victory in these battles seems within reach — as long as Trump is in the White House.
"It's 2020, and people see it as a civilisational election on both sides," said Frank Cannon, president of the socially conservative American Principles Project.
Lost among the backlash to Trump's photo op at St. John's this week was the message that many religious conservatives took from it. "Symbolically, it was more important than how he did it," Cannon said. The next day, the president and the first lady participated in another photo op that was heavy in religious symbolism, visiting a shrine to Pope John Paul II in Washington that is owned by the conservative Catholic organization, the Knights of Columbus.
Some social conservatives had felt embattled as state and local governments closed down churches as the coronavirus spread. The raging debate over the past several weeks over whether they should be allowed to reopen has become the latest flashpoint in the country's culture wars.
Despite efforts by Attorney General William Barr to offer legal support to churches fighting orders to remain closed, some religious conservatives felt the White House had not acted quickly enough to help and expressed their displeasure to senior administration officials, according to people aware of the conversations. Some have also raised questions with the president's aides about whether his sinking poll numbers are a serious concern.
So when Trump marched across Lafayette Park to the scarred house of worship Tuesday after members of the armed forces he commands swept out the demonstrators, many took that as a sign that the president was taking a defiant stand for conservative Christians.
"I think that was a moment the president was expressing, in his own way, his support for the faith community," said Penny Nance, chief executive of Concerned Women for America. She said she wasn't at all offended by the removal of the protesters, which involved the heavy use of force and clouds of pepper spray.
Nor did it bother her that Trump did not pray — he only raised the Bible above his head and displayed it for the cameras. "He didn't come from our world," Nance said. "He's not Mike Pence."
But it did bother other Christian leaders, including the Episcopal bishop of Washington who oversees the church, St. John's, who said she was outraged that Trump would use a religious gathering place as a political prop.
Noticeably absent during the president's visit were two of the most visible religious conservatives serving in the Trump administration: Vice President Pence, an evangelical Christian, and Kellyanne Conway, a Catholic who has acted as the president's bridge to the world of activist social conservative women.
The killing of Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer has stirred up complex and often conflicting emotions among some of the president's most stalwart supporters, who have expressed anguish over the officers' conduct but have been less willing to acknowledge the pervasive racism that contributes to police brutality.
In 2018 when PRRI conducted a poll that asked about recent killings of black men by police, 70 per cent of white evangelicals said they were isolated incidents rather than reflective of a broader pattern.
The following year another PRRI poll asked white, evangelical Trump supporters if there was anything he could do to lose their support. Thirty-one percent of them said he could do almost anything and they still wouldn't turn their backs on him.
Written by: Jeremy W. Peters
Photographs by: Doug Mills and Erin Schaff
© 2020 THE NEW YORK TIMES