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The rocky marriage between Trump and evangelicals won't lead to a separation

It's far too early to count out Trump or dismiss the considerable traction he still has with his white evangelical base.
Faith leaders pray over President Donald Trump during a "Evangelicals for Trump" campaign event at the King Jesus International Ministry on Jan. 3, 2020 in Miami.
Faith leaders pray over President Donald Trump during a "Evangelicals for Trump" campaign event at the King Jesus International Ministry on Jan. 3, 2020 in Miami.Joe Raedle / Getty Images file

Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas and one of former President Donald Trump’s most ardent allies, hosted former Vice President Mike Pence at his church on Jan. 14 and Jan. 15, promoted Pence’s new book, “So Help Me God,” and characterized him as a “truly committed Christian” and “a true American patriot.” Jeffress even thanked Pence for defending the Constitution on Jan. 6, 2021, an unambiguous slight against Trump.

Trump lambasted evangelical leaders who were withholding endorsements of his 2024 run for their “disloyalty.”

And Trump certainly took it as one. The next day, on the right-wing program The Water Cooler, Trump lambasted evangelical leaders who were withholding endorsements of his 2024 run for their “disloyalty.”

In November, Jeffress had told Newsweek he would support Trump if he were the Republican nominee, but that he was staying out of the primary because “the Republican Party is headed toward a civil war that I have no desire or need to be part of.” Similarly, Franklin Graham, an iconic figure in the evangelical world and a reliably strident culture warrior on Trump’s behalf, also begged off an endorsement, telling CBS News that he would wait until Republican primary voters chose a candidate.

Jeffress was clearly under immediate pressure to mend fences after his comments to Newsweek were published. The next day he tweeted, “My decision not to endorse any candidate during primaries should not be misread as any kind of defection from President Trump. I regard him as a great friend and our greatest president since Reagan.”

This series of events has inspired a recent spate of reporting that has created the impression that evangelical voters are done with Trump. A Washington Post headline read, “Christian leaders start to break from Trump.” In a story about evangelicals, The New York Times reported that “some leaders are wavering.” And on Sunday, The Washington Post quoted a South Carolina Christian right activist who said there’s been “more than a little bit of softening” of Trump support in the key early-primary state.

But some of the details contained in those stories make clear that it’s far too early to count out Trump or dismiss the considerable traction he still has with his white evangelical base. For instance, the first Washington Post story uses the examples of an Iowa pastor and of two activists on the right flank of the Southern Baptist Convention to make the point that leaders are breaking away from Trump. But that same story notes Jeffress’ ongoing commitment to the Trump mythos and quotes him calling reports of evangelical abandonment of Trump a “false narrative” and identifying Trump as “the most likely candidate right now.” The South Carolina activist who said Trump’s support is softening there is eager to promote the possible runs of home-state prospects Sen. Tim Scott and former Gov. Nikki Haley.

Jeffress, who told The New York Times he’s keeping his powder dry, knows what it’s like to pick the wrong candidate. In 2011, he notoriously endorsed then-Texas Gov. Rick Perry over Mitt Romney (who eventually won the 2012 Republican presidential nomination) because he considered Romney’s Mormon faith a “cult.” During the early days of Trump’s 2016 primary campaign, Jeffress was cautious. He delivered a “special blessing” at a rally Trump held in Dallas in September 2015, but he did not characterize it as an endorsement. He waited until January 2016, just before the Iowa caucuses, to actually endorse Trump, and even then he claimed his endorsement wasn’t “official.”      

Jerry Falwell, Jr., the disgraced former president of Liberty University, also endorsed Trump on the eve of the 2016 Iowa caucuses. The political press incorrectly viewed it as a game-changer for Trump, but Falwell later admitted that he was just following the preferences of the evangelical base, which by that time had made its choice clear.

Again, the reticence of politically attuned players such as Graham and Jeffress shows that they’re more concerned about being out of step with what rank-and-file evangelicals want than they are with roiling their personal relationships with Trump. Other religious right leaders might be worried about Trump’s prospects of winning the general election, something of perhaps less concern to his most ardent base supporters.

A survey by the Public Religion Research Institute, released just before the 2022 midterms, showed white evangelicals nearly evenly divided on whether Trump should be the 2024 GOP nominee, with 49% preferring Trump and 50% preferring “someone else.” But when the “someone else” could be one of half a dozen or more candidates, Trump could once again end up on top by winning states in the Republican primary with less than a majority of the votes.

Trump and evangelical leaders have weathered storms in their relationship before.

The presidential primaries are a year away, and a great deal could happen between now and then to alter Trump’s relationship with his elite leadership allies and the evangelical base. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis prevailed in an unscientific straw poll of anti-abortion activists last weekend, which is perhaps a sign of the movement’s discontent with Trump’s Jan. 2 social media post blaming anti-abortion activists for Republicans’ poor showing in the 2022 midterm elections. But Trump and evangelical leaders have weathered storms in their relationship before. In any case, Trump is far from finished, especially if he continues to hold sway over about one-half of white evangelicals and his rivals split the other.