Evangelical Christians On Faith And Politics

Nov 11, 2019
Originally published on November 11, 2019 6:30 pm
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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

As congressional testimony over Ukraine started to heat up a few weeks ago, we learned that President Trump took time out to pray - a group prayer in the West Wing with some high-profile guests, as tweeted by televangelist Paula White-Cain. Now, a photo showed Trump standing, eyes closed. Nearly two dozen well-known evangelical leaders with their heads bowed lay hands on his arms and shoulders.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The White House said Trump spoke with the pastors about how the communities they represent benefit from the president's policies, which is something we're going to spend the next few months digging into. We will hear from voters themselves about how their faith communities have fared under this president.

CORNISH: And we'll start in Fayetteville, N.C. That's where Trump held a rally of his supporters in September.

(SOUNDBITE OF RALLY)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Whether it has to do with religion - our evangelicals are here tonight. And they're all over the place.

(CHEERING, APPLAUSE)

TRUMP: And what we've done for them and for religion is so important. You know, the other side, I don't think they're big believers. They're not big believers in religion, that I can tell you.

CORNISH: So we put out a call for some voters from area churches to meet. The Arran Lake Baptist Church hosted us a few weeks ago in a Bible study classroom. We set out a half circle of gray chairs and this meager plate of supermarket cookies and bottled water. Then we waited. The room began to fill with a real mix of voters - evangelical but of different ages and races.

ANDREW CLARK: My name is Andrew Clark (ph). I'm 27.

WILLIAM NEILL: I'm William Neill (ph), and I'm 66.

ATIA BAKER: My name's Atia Baker (ph), and I'm 40 years old.

NICK WIEGAND: My name's Nick Wiegand (ph). I'm 39. And I...

DICK BUTTON: I'm Dick Button. I'm 72.

PEARLIE HODGES: I'm Pearlie Hodges. I am 65 years old.

CORNISH: And this being just outside of Fort Bragg, military veterans.

JOHN HODGES: I'm John Hodges, and I'm 70 years old.

DAVID CLARK: My name is David Clark.

CORNISH: Eighty-nine-year-old David Clark kicked off the conversation.

D CLARK: Politics is politics. And it's dirty and bad and everything that goes with it. But it's the way we do business, and that's the way God wants us to do business. And I voted for the guy that's in there now. I just wish he'd keep his mouth shut. I think he's doing a good job till talks. And then he just makes a monkey out of himself. And I just wish he'd quit doing that. But I don't dislike what he's done.

CORNISH: So what are those things that are fantastic for you?

D CLARK: He's building up the military. He's building up the nation. He's building up the churches.

CORNISH: In what way do you feel like he's building up the churches?

D CLARK: He's saying God every now and then. He's saying God bless you every now and then.

CORNISH: Despite Democrats like Hillary Clinton, a Methodist, and Barack Obama, a Christian Protestant, speaking publicly about their faith as candidates, Clark reflects a common sentiment among evangelical Republicans - that previous administrations, especially Democratic ones, don't embrace them.

While President Trump doesn't speak too often about his personal spirituality, he has many self-professed evangelical Cabinet members who sponsor a White House Bible study, reportedly the first in a hundred years. Vice President Mike Pence and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos are members.

But not everyone in this room thinks that sharing a faith affiliation with a Republican president is enough.

P HODGES: I'm Pearlie Hodges. I think that a lot of people think that Republican equals Christian. If you're a Democrat, you just questionable. I think our current president is not presidential material. He just isn't. And he knows nothing about government. He knows nothing about the Constitution. He knows nothing about war, foreign policy, any of that. I support the Republican platform. I vote my conscience. I've voted Republican, and I've voted Democrat. But the problem here, I believe, is Donald Trump is not presidential material.

CORNISH: So Pearlie Hodges is one of the 64% of Americans nationally who say they have an unfavorable view of the president. That's according to the Public Religion Research Institute. But Dick Button is among the 82% of white evangelical voters who have only drawn closer to Trump over the last three years.

BUTTON: The issue for me is not so much the detail of the values of the person but what is the result of what they're doing? Donald Trump has done some things to strengthen the ability of the evangelical community. He's loosened some regulations that were anti-evangelical.

CORNISH: Which ones?

BUTTON: Ones like the requirements to have transgenders (ph) access anything they want to, where I'm a person that believes in gender-specific. And so...

CORNISH: So that was an issue for you where you felt like...

BUTTON: That was an issue where...

CORNISH: ...He was protective of religious communities.

BUTTON: Yeah, he was protective of that.

BAKER: My name's Atia Baker. We're getting pressed on every side. It is like everything is magnified right now - the same-sex marriage, the transgender children. We're - the schools are being indoctrinated. Public schools are being indoctrinated. They are being taught this. The TV, the commercials...

CORNISH: Remember North Carolina was central in the national debate about so-called bathroom bills after it passed legislation that effectively required people to use restrooms matching the biological sex listed on their birth certificates. After boycotts and legal challenges, much of the measure was rolled back in court. But the idea of religious liberty as protecting their values has fueled evangelical support for the president.

A CLARK: Andrew Clark. I have a hard time looking right now into this next election on - to supporting any one that I've seen across the board because, you know, I look on one side - on a Democratic platform, and I see freedom of religion getting ready to really be hit hard. I see some different policies within that that are going to affect churches. And then you see on the other side, yeah, there's Republican support for things within churches and stuff like that. But there is also this character issue as well - and has been talked about earlier.

CORNISH: Now, this comes up a lot, vaguely described as character issues - President Trump's use of vulgar and abusive language, the persistent questions about his business dealings. But now that the president is facing a formal impeachment inquiry over Ukraine, the room is divided about whether to support him.

J HODGES: I'm John Hodges. And I really prayed before because I'm not Democrat or Republican. And all the things that Dick said about encroaching on our faith - abortion and that stuff - but if you've got someone who is going to destroy the country, why we still have him in there? I believe he should be impeached.

WIEGAND: This is Nick Wiegand. If there are grounds to impeach the president because he has broken the law, then I absolutely think we should absolutely follow through 100% with that. Should it be the only thing that the politicians that we have not only voted for but fund through taxpayer dollars - should it be the only thing they focus on? I think that's where we're falling short.

CORNISH: They find agreement on this point. Between the Mueller report and the various other investigations, these voters are weary of the constant scrutiny on Trump. The bar justifying impeachment will be high for these voters.

Before we end the night, I ask one more question. I want to know about the televangelists and Christian political activists who spent the better part of 40 years making the term evangelical interchangeable with Republican.

What does that mean for you now? Do you wish that that would be dialed back? Or do you see that as a problem? Or do you see it as a force for good?

NEILL: I'm William Neill. And Nelson Mandela said evil exists because good people do nothing. If we, as Christian people, begin to do what Christ has called us to do - evangelize, disciple - if we are going to make a difference in this country, then we've got to do more than just pray.

CORNISH: The voice of William Neill. He joined our talk with David Carlson (ph), Keith Howard (ph), Atia Baker, John and Pearlie Hodges, Andrew Clark, Nick Wiegand, Marcus Belt (ph), Dick Button and Dave Clark (ph). We spoke to them at Arran Lake Baptist Church in Fayetteville, N.C.

SHAPIRO: Tomorrow, same voters - one more topic.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: It's kind of the elephant in the room pertaining to the president in that if you ask a segment of white evangelicals what they think about him and then you ask a segment of African American or minority evangelicals what they think about him, you might get vastly different opinions.

SHAPIRO: Race, Trump and evangelical voters. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.