When my airplane dipped beneath the clouds, I could finally see the earth: interminable horizon, crisscrossing bands of interstate, the cities of the plains, home to more than 7 million souls. Landing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex feels like drifting down to reality; if everything is bigger in Texas, it’s also more intense — the light brighter, the shadows deeper. I was particularly grateful for all that harsh relief in April, because I had come to take stock of a spiritual situation tailor-made to emphasize every challenge in the contest of conscience between heaven and earth. How are evangelical Christians faring in the age of Trump, and will they elect him anew in 2020?
Evangelicals — typically activist, biblically focused Protestants with an emphasis on conversion, or being born again in Christ, as it’s often put — span several denominations, all races and plenty of American territory. In 2014, the Pew Research Center found that 31 percent of Texans consider themselves evangelical, forming the largest bloc of religious voters in the state of more than 28 million. A full 65 percent of those voters are white, 22 percent are Latino, and 8 percent are black.
Exit polls show that Trump carried 85 percent of evangelical voters here in 2016, a touch higher than the national white evangelical average of 81 percent. That in itself wasn’t surprising: For decades evangelicals have been a reliable Republican constituency.
More intriguing was that a segment of white evangelicals had supported Trump all along — even during the Republican primaries, when more logical evangelical candidates, such as Texas’s own Sen. Ted Cruz, were still viable. At first, their numbers were relatively small, and ill-represented among regular churchgoers. But since coalescing in 2016, evangelical support for Trump has remained consistently high — even among regular churchgoers, who started out skeptical but now approve of Trump at rates identical to or higher than less regular attendees.
White evangelicals’ electoral drift toward Trump added an element of mystery to a story that was already startling. That the thrice-wed, dirty-talking, sex-scandal-plagued businessman actually managed to win the steadfast moral support of America’s values voters, as expressed in routinely high approval ratings, posed an even stranger question: What happened?
Theories about Trump’s connection with evangelical voters have long been dubiously elegant. The simplest, and perhaps most comfortable for Trump’s bewildered and furious opposition, is that evangelicals are and always were hypocrites, demanding moral rectitude from their enemies that they don’t expect from their friends. Others held that evangelicals must simply be ignorant, taken in by a campaign narrative that attempted to depict Trump as privately devoted to Christ, despite all the evidence to the contrary. Some argued that evangelicals just wanted an invincible champion to fight the culture wars, even if he didn’t share their vision of the good life. And then there was the transactional theory: Their votes were just about the Supreme Court.
There was probably some truth to every suggestion, with all the usual caveats about different individuals having different priorities, and all due distinctions made between the committedly vs. casually religious. But as 2020 approaches and evangelicals again find themselves evaluating against traditional, moderate Democrats such as Joe Biden and the ever-present possibility of just staying home, I wanted to ask evangelicals how they’re feeling about their alliance with the president and what their expectations are going into 2020.
The inquiry was equal parts spiritual and political, and maybe more so for me than the people I wanted to query. About half of my extended family is evangelical, and the thought of an impenetrable gulf of understanding between myself (a left-leaning Catholic and a member of the media to boot) and the people who had always seemed most familiar disturbed me. Had things really changed so much so quickly — and how? — or had I simply missed something long approaching? Of course, I should have known from enough time with this faith that probing mysteries only leads to stranger, harder questions.
I met Robert Jeffress on what is traditionally a Christian day of service that in some denominations includes the washing of feet, the Thursday preceding Good Friday in the great spiritual windup to Easter Sunday. Downtown Dallas’s glittering First Baptist church campus, where Jeffress regularly preaches to audiences of 4,000 or so (not to mention some 16,000 tuning in remotely), was alive with activity in preparation for the upcoming holy days. I was ushered into a first-floor meeting room with polished wood furniture and stained-glass windows that, despite being entirely interior, glowed from within. Jeffress soon joined me. The pastor wore a crisp suit and rich purple tie, common enough around Easter time, since the soldiers who mocked Christ before his Crucifixion draped him in kingly violet.
Jeffress, 63, has called himself Trump’s “most vocal and visible evangelical supporter,” which is no mean feat, considering that other local megachurch pastors — Prestonwood Baptist Church’s Jack Graham and Gateway Church’s Robert Morris — also joined the president’s evangelical advisory board, a group of spiritual counselors formed during the campaign.
Jeffress was an early and ardent Trump adopter — “I was one of the earliest,” he told me, recalling a conversation he’d had with Trump in January 2016. “I said, ‘Mr. Trump, I believe you’re going to be the next president of the United States, and if that happens, it’s because God has a great plan for you and for our country.” Trump pressed him, Jeffress said, to which the pastor replied: “Daniel 2 says God is the one who installs kings and establishes kings and removes kings.” For his faith and his loyalty (including an episode in which Jeffress’s gospel choir serenaded a Trump rally with an ode to his “Make America Great Again” campaign slogan), Trump has richly rewarded Jeffress, tweeting positively about the pastor’s books and inviting him to numerous events, including an Inauguration Day prayer ceremony, a Christmas reception and a White House dinner honoring an executive order signing.
Jeffress has a clear sense of how Trump fits into evangelicals’ political history. In particular, he felt that Trump couldn’t have come at any other time: that his success among evangelicals had, in large part, to do with the well-documented failure of evangelical politics to bring about change in the past 50 years.
The first president he ever voted for, Jeffress said, was Jimmy Carter, in 1976. “He was a Christian,” Jeffress pointed out. “People were excited about his candidacy.” But, though Carter was a virtuous, Bible-quoting, born-again Baptist, the pastor found himself disappointed with Carter’s presidency. His next vote, he said, was for Ronald Reagan: “the first divorced president in history.”
Jeffress suggested that it was the Democrats, with their support of Bill Clinton, who introduced the separation of character and policy in electing leaders. But the dawn of the split seems, in reality, to have come before that — even for Jeffress. Reagan predated Clinton, and Jeffress was, by his own account, already willing to cast his vote for a conservative divorced man at that point. And in 2011, Jeffress advised voters to shun Mormon Mitt Romney in favor of Jeffress’s preferred candidate, then-Texas Gov. Rick Perry, in part due to Perry’s evangelical virtues. “Do we want a candidate who is a good, moral person,” Jeffress told attendees at the Values Voter Summit, referring to Romney, “or one who is a born-again follower of the Lord Jesus Christ?” The objective value of a candidate’s personal Christian commitments in evangelical calculus appears, over time, hard to predict.
But one consistent trend in the relationship between evangelicals and their candidates did stand out in Jeffress’s telling: increasing disillusionment.
Reagan talked about recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, Jeffress said, as did George W. Bush — but both of them failed to act on it. And the Bush era, in Jeffress’s telling, was even more disappointing than the Reagan era. Not only were the gains for evangelicals disappointingly small, but also the losses seemed huge.
“I remember very well back in 2004,” Jeffress recounted, “being on a conference call with religious leaders and how disappointed they were with George W. Bush, and how they felt like he had just really misled us. … I don’t want to disparage him at all,” Jeffress added, “but what came out of that eight years? A $7 trillion war in the Middle East.”
Trump found an evangelical base still prepared to vote Republican, though soured by the failures of past leaders who had made much of their own personal virtue without accomplishing anything for their voters. Cynicism had set in, at least in Jeffress’s account, and Trump was especially well situated to speak to jaded disappointment.
Trump’s campaign was premised on the idea that only he could reveal and replace the secret weakness at the heart of everything — that because of his own personal riches, he could ostensibly fund his own campaign, freeing him from obedience to the wealthy interests that otherwise capture politicians. He knew this, he said, because he had been on the other side of things, spending money on his various primary opponents at times to purchase their services. “I give to everybody,” he declared in 2015, during the first Republican primary debate. “When they call, I give. And you know what? When I need something from them, two years later, three years later, I call them. They are there for me.” For a frustrated conservative wondering why Republican presidents had never seemed to make good on their promises to evangelicals while their cultural cachet continued to slip, Trump’s blatant indictment of corrupt, money-driven politics must have seemed refreshingly honest — even if part of his admission was that he himself participated in it.
It was one of many ways in which Trump’s less-than-Christian behavior seemed, paradoxically, to make him a more appealing candidate to beleaguered, aggravated Christians. “I think conservatives for decades have felt bullied by the left, and the default response was to roll over and take it,” Jeffress said. But Trump enacted a practice of hitting back twice as hard whenever a critic takes him on — not exactly turning the other cheek, I pointed out. Jeffress chuckled. “[Trump’s] favorite verse in the Bible he says is, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for tooth,’ ” the very maxim Christ was rebutting when he taught believers to return offense with peace.
Could it take a decidedly worldly man to reverse the fortunes of evangelicals who feel that their earthly prospects have significantly dimmed?
Could it take a decidedly worldly man to reverse the fortunes of evangelicals who feel, for whatever host of reasons — social, racial, spiritual, political — that their earthly prospects have significantly dimmed?
Jeffress didn’t think so, but not for the reasons I would have guessed. “As a Christian, I believe that regardless of what happens in Washington, D.C., that the general trajectory of evangelicalism is going to be downward until Christ returns,” he explained. “If you read the scripture, it’s not: Things get better and better and more evangelical-friendly or Christian-friendly; it is, they get worse and more hostile as the culture does. … I think most Christians I know see the election of Donald Trump as maybe a respite, a pause in that. Perhaps to give Christians the ability and freedom more to share the gospel of Christ with people before the ultimate end occurs and the Lord returns.”
It was strange to think of Trump as a bulwark against precipitous moral decline. After all, he appears to have presided over a more rapid coarsening of news and discourse than the average candidate. Even if you count modern history as a story of dissolution and degeneracy, few, if any, other world leaders have launched as many headlines containing censored versions of the word pussy.
But Jeffress didn’t see Trump pausing the disintegration of evangelical fortunes by way of personal virtue — or even cultural transformation. He spoke instead of “accommodation,” perhaps alluding to the kind of protections announced only a few weeks after our talk by Trump’s Department of Health and Human Services, which safeguards the jobs of health-care workers who object to participating in certain procedures for religious reasons. Rather than renewing a culture in peril, in other words, Jeffress seemed to view Trump as someone who might carve out a temporary, provisional space for evangelicals to manage their affairs.
That sounded familiar to Lydia Bean, 38, a researcher who taught at Baylor University and devoted her graduate sociological work at Harvard to studying the comparative politics of evangelicals in the United States and Canada. These days, Bean is a fellow with New America’s Political Reform program, where she writes and consults on political organizing and faith. When we spoke, she was gearing up to a run as a Democrat for a seat in the Texas State House.
“Basically, it’s like a fortress mentality, where it’s like — the best we can do is lock up the gates and just pour boiling oil over the gates at the libs,” Bean said as we ate dinner at a tiny German restaurant near Texas Christian University in Fort Worth that night. Among evangelicals, she said, “I really think one of the things that’s changed since I did my fieldwork at the very end of the Bush administration is a rejection of politics in general as a means to advance the common good, even in a conservative vein.” In that case, politics “becomes a bloodsport, where you’re punishing and striking back at people you don’t like” without much hope of changing anything. For that kind of “hopeless cynicism” regarding politics — walls up, temporary provisions, with just enough strength and zeal left to periodically foil one’s enemies — Trump is an ideal leader.
As to the cultural facts on the ground, Jeffress might have something of a point: Overall, American culture is hardly trending toward adherence to evangelical beliefs, with approval of same-sex marriage steadily rising among all religious groups (even evangelicals), religious affiliation quickly dropping, and support for legal abortion lingering at all-time highs. Jeffress is hardly alone in believing that evangelicals need some sort of special accommodations from a society that doesn’t share their values and that they feel persecuted by; according to a Pew Research Center survey released this year, roughly 50 percent of Americans believe evangelicals face some or a lot of discrimination, including about a third of Democrat-leaning respondents. If the rhetoric of spiritual renewal that at times illuminated the Bush presidency has ultimately faded, it makes sense that a figure such as Trump should inherit its dimming twilight and all the anger, despair and darkness that dashed dreams entail.
Still, the portrait of a bitter, brief victory amidst creeping defeat felt somehow ill-fitting as I thought over the day’s conversations on that spring evening so near to Easter. Was it really all so perilously close to the end? Jeffress had his man in the Oval Office, after all, and his justices on the Supreme Court. And all along the highways linking Dallas and Fort Worth, megachurches were advertising their upcoming services; Jeffress’s communications assistant had even invited me to a Palm Sunday procession through the streets of downtown Dallas that she estimated would attract thousands. And thousands did come.
The next day, my husband and I drove more than an hour northeast of Dallas to Farmersville, a town of fewer than 4,000 that lies on plains across a shallow lake studded with the bare branches of half-submerged trees. We arrived at the First Baptist Church of Farmersville shortly before the evening service, accompanied by a steady stream of worshipers and a warm wind. A plaque on the red-brick building’s exterior states that its roots stretch back to a meeting of 15 men beneath the shelter of a brush arbor in 1865; inside, its sanctuary is stately and well preserved, with a high vaulted ceiling and glittering stained-glass windows. We were immediately met by a greeter who assured us we were more than welcome, and despite the now well-known tensions between the media and red America, I knew he was being sincere.
As we settled into a maroon-upholstered pew, a middle-aged man with bright eyes and a crisp suit approached to welcome us, too. His name was Wesley Sisk, and when he learned we had come to talk about Trump, he was elated. “We think he’s doing a great job,” he enthused, “despite what some people think,” with a mischievous grin.
Sisk was one of the narrators that evening, reading from the Gospel of John. After opening prayers and a pair of hymns, Sisk took the lectern before the hushed congregation — elderly and young, some in suits and some in boots, with several babies and a few cowboy hats in laps — and began to relay the story of the night of Christ’s arrest.
The narrative unfolded between hymns and Communion: Jesus, betrayed by Judas and denied by Peter, faces a range of accusers who finally turn Him over to the Roman provincial governor Pontius Pilate, who seems more frustrated with the disturbance than committed to justice. Pilate interrogates Christ: Is He really, as his accusers say He has claimed, the king of the Jews?
Jesus famously replies that his kingdom is not of this world, an answer that has proved fertile ground, over the centuries, for Christian disagreement over the proper theological management of earthly affairs. Is there a Christian politics, or only a brief and remote sojourn on Earth, during which Christians ought to seek their own peace, but leave political rule to earthly kings? Or is there a way to join the two paths?
After the service, I joined First Baptist’s pastor — a tall, gentle-spoken, bespectacled man named Bart Barber — along with several members of his flock for a dinner conversation that seemed to revolve around those long-standing points of contention, and their immediate incarnation in the figure of Trump.
Barber invited us to the home of Bob and Claude Ann Collins, two congregants active in local and national GOP politics, whose farmhouse sits on more than 100 acres of prairie dotted at this time of year with bluebonnets and Indian paintbrush and soft, high grass. Along with Barber and his wife, Tracy, and the Collinses, we met David Coleman, a retired insurance agent who now raises cattle with his 93-year-old father; Dale and Maria Ivy, a chef and recently naturalized American citizen originally from Mexico, respectively; a local journalist who wanted to observe the evening, and several of the gathered couples’ adolescent children.
For Barber, at least, warming up to Trump had taken some time. He wasn’t alone in that: An October 2016 poll by LifeWay Research, a Christian polling group, found that only 39 percent of evangelical pastors planned to vote for Trump. Barber himself voted for independent Evan McMullin, “and my congregation knew about that,” he added, “although almost no one agreed with me.”
Trump’s character nagged at Barber. Citing John F. Kennedy, he pointed out that almost anyone running seems to have skeletons in his closet. “But the things that really bothered me,” he said, “were ways that [Trump] would react to things in ways that seemed intemperate and harsh.” Barber remembered with particular distaste an incident during the 2014 West African Ebola outbreak, when Trump tweeted that two critically ill American missionary health-care workers shouldn’t be treated in the United States — but should instead “suffer the consequences” of their decision to provide charitable aid. Trump “had an inclination to stoke the fears of people,” Barber said, whether it related to illness, religious entry bans or immigration. And he seemed like a “Johnny-come-lately” to many evangelical issues.
The Collinses and Dale Ivy went into 2016 rooting for Cruz; Ivy said Trump was initially his last choice. Barber had hoped for either former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee or Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). But as the primaries heated up and dropouts began, each of them began to review his or her choice. At a six-week Bible class, the group and other congregants explored the question of whether one votes for a candidate’s politics or character, Dale Ivy remembered, and they decided that “policy is character” — a conclusion a few of them recited somberly in unison, like received wisdom. Dale Ivy came to align with Trump, he recalled, “because we needed change,” while Coleman ultimately decided that, “as flawed as Trump’s character is, it was a lot better than Hillary Clinton’s.”
Even as Trump took office, doubts lingered. Maria Ivy, who was naturalized several years ago, expressed some misgivings about Trump’s tendency to generalize about all illegal immigrants. “I’ve been blessed,” Maria said of her experience. “I was a professional. But if you do not have an education, you can’t just go apply for immigration. A lot of the people who come here illegally, they are poor and just trying to come to survive, and help their families.” Maria and Dale Ivy both agreed that vetting is an important part of the immigration process, while Bob Collins voiced concern that someone or something malign is behind the surge of migrants at the southern border. For them, Trump’s quest to build the wall and halt immigration from Latin America has come as a welcome check on these nefarious forces. Barber, meanwhile, still has his concerns: He knows illegal immigrants in town, he offered, “and none of them are rapists.”
Meanwhile, others warmed up to Trump quickly. Trump, Bob Collins said, “has done something no other politician has done: He’s circumvented the press. The press has a problem now. … I wish he would not do the personal attacks, but he needs to get the message out, even if it’s a blunt, brute-force message.” For them, the message was a welcome one. “We’re deplorables,” the Collinses intoned in unison, when I asked them what messages they had heard from Democrats. “We cling to our religion and our guns,” Coleman said, mocking the famous Barack Obama remark from 2008. “I don’t think there’s much room in the Democratic Party for evangelicals like me,” Barber added. “Even though Donald Trump is different than me, the Donald Trump White House tries to move toward evangelicals like me.”
Barber now considers himself willing to vote for Trump, despite his concerns about the president’s temperament. First, there’s the abortion issue. “Trump might say some things that run against the basic ethos of evangelical Christianity,” Barber acknowledged, but he has also put in place two Supreme Court justices who are known to take antiabortion positions. It was abortion, too, that delivered Coleman — who considers himself an independent — to Trump in the first place: “[Clinton] would not say she was against partial-birth abortion,” he said. “I understand — but don’t agree with it at all — but I can understand their thinking in the early trimesters. But killing a child …” This issue has, among evangelicals, become more important since 2016: Renewed attention to the question of late-term abortion stirred by the passage of a state law in New York and an attempt in Virginia has brought fresh fervor to the group, shoring up support for Trump in the coming election.
Barber also noted that the things he strongly disagrees with Trump on — immigration and threats to infringe upon the religious liberty of Muslims via travel bans — have been, in his view, mostly unsuccessful. Thus, he reasoned, many of the excesses he worried about in 2016 now seem unlikely to unfold. So with Trump delivering more than evangelical skeptics had expected and causing less damage than they had feared, Barber now feels more open to casting his vote for the incumbent in 2020.
But perhaps the most illuminating moment of the evening came when I asked whether any of them would be willing to vote for a more traditional evangelical challenger to Trump, should one hypothetically rise to oppose him in the primaries.
The president is having to deal with a den of vipers. I’m not sure Pence could do that.
At first, there were murmurs about the possibility of Vice President Pence. But then Maria Ivy warned that Pence is soft compared with Trump, too decent and mannerly to take on the job. Bob Collins agreed: “The president is having to deal with a den of vipers,” he said. “I’m not sure Pence could do that.” “It’s spiritual warfare,” Dale Ivy added, emphasizing Trump is the only man in the field who seems strong enough to confront it. “The Constitution allows us a space,” Bob Collins said, to live according to their faith, and Trump has provided that for them, in part through his Supreme Court nominations. Claude Ann Collins agreed. “What space are we going to have to be able to live in and follow our beliefs,” she wondered, without a president willing to carve out such provisions despite widespread criticism?
In some sense it seemed that Trump is able, by being less Christian than your average Christian, to protect Christians who fear incursions from a hostile dominant culture. But that paradox also supplies a handy solution to the question of whether Christians should direct their efforts to worldly politics or turn inward, shunning political life for spiritual pursuits. By voting for Trump — even over more identifiably Christian candidates — evangelicals seem to have found a way to outsource their fears and instead reserve a strictly spiritual space for themselves inside politics without placing evangelical politicians themselves in power. In that sense, they can be both active political agents and a semi-cloistered religious minority, both of the world and removed from it, advancing their values while retreating to their own societies.
“Being on the precipice of being in a minority group strongly disliked by certain groups of people has made me reflect on people’s rights of conscience,” Barber mused as the evening wound down. The sentiment appeared to have led him in seemingly contrary directions, both into politics and away from the scope of extant legal regimes. He mentioned a Texas state bill he helped author that would protect nonprofit staff, including clergy, from civil liability for warning other nonprofits of allegations of sexual misconduct against former employees. Barber said he was moved to work on the bill by allegations of widespread sexual abuse involving Southern Baptist church leaders and volunteers published in the Houston Chronicle. When we parted ways in the mellow blue night, Barber was still praying the bill would pass — which it did, unanimously, in May.
In Texas, as elsewhere, evangelicals take many forms. In 2000, Texas was 53 percent non-Hispanic white and 32 percent Hispanic; by 2016, it was 43 percent non-Hispanic white and 39 percent Hispanic, with the state’s black population holding steady over time. And while most of the rising Hispanic population is Catholic, a growing number are evangelical Protestants, a trend emerging elsewhere both at home and overseas. Meanwhile, Pew Research Center identifies some 6 percent of Texans as belonging to historically black Protestant churches, which often share significant theological ground with white evangelical counterparts, despite vast social and cultural differences. Just as Texas is by no means the sole province of white evangelicalism, evangelical Christianity itself is by no means strictly white, or strictly conservative. Faith and politics in Texas swirl inside this multiracial, multifaith sphere.
A little before our trip to Farmersville, I met Lola Vinson and Wes Helm, members of a multiracial, progressive community organizing group called Faith in Texas, whose projects have included local criminal-justice reform, anti-police-brutality efforts, a living-wage campaign and agitation against predatory lending. Working with several faith groups in Texas, including evangelicals, is key to the organization’s mission, and I wondered how Vinson and Helm’s experience might have shifted since Trump’s ascendancy.
For Vinson and Helm, both progressive Christians, organizing across those lines comes naturally, a pillar of their shared work. But, they said, trying to operate across the breaches widened by Trump’s rise among evangelicals has been daunting. “All of that has gotten more difficult in the last two years,” Helm said.
Vinson pointed out that racial, political and ideological divides among different Christian groups, and even within evangelicalism itself, had always existed. But Trump, she said, has intensified them. “I see [Trump] as a figurehead, a representation of just a much larger … insidious movement, and ideology. None of this is new,” she added. “It’s just now been emboldened and brought to the surface because there’s someone on such a large platform with seemingly all the power uplifting this toxic rhetoric.”
Helm said that, among the evangelicals he works with who support Trump, “their sense of being under attack has gone up a lot,” leading to a “feeling of a binary choice in a lot of those folks — like, ‘I have to back Trump, because we’re in the middle of a war for our country.’ ” That sort of defensiveness can make organizing difficult. But Helm also seemed concerned about its spiritual costs.
“I’ve seen a lot of evangelicals making arguments that I cannot imagine them making two or three years ago,” Helm remarked, “like trying to play devil’s advocate on things like the immigration policy, or locking up kids.” Justifying Trump’s policies regardless of whether they fit into a Christian ethical framework is, in Helm’s reckoning, “very much a devil’s bargain of like — yes, he’s awful; yes, he does not represent our values; but he’s allowing us to pack the courts with justices who do.”
So many invocations of the Devil at once left me wondering what Helm and Vinson would make of the prospects of their politics: Did they, too, feel, as Jeffress had, that American Christians are destined for ever-greater cataclysms in public life, until the eventual apocalypse resolves in the return of Christ? It struck me that, in the contest between conservative and liberal values Jeffress envisioned his community on the losing side of, nobody seemed to feel he or she was winning: Even Vinson and Helm felt they were undertaking a difficult and oftentimes uphill battle against forces material and intangible.
For Helm, much of the agony many evangelicals experience as citizens has roots in private pain: “If we’re talking about Trump voters, people don’t react with this kind of hatred or fear unless there’s pain at the root somewhere, and if you don’t address that pain, you’re never going to break through the hatred and fear.” But neither Vinson nor Helm seemed to think that some kind of values consensus — and shared work across the divide — is altogether impossible. They didn’t envision any easy victories. But they did have hope.
“I’ve got hope for everybody,” Helm said; “yeah, likewise,” Vinson added. “So I choose to see the God in everyone and hope that that’s for everyone, even the people who are on the other end of the spectrum from where I sit and believe. … I wouldn’t be able to get up every day and do the work that I do if I didn’t.”
On Holy Saturday, the day before Easter, I met Joe and Daniel Aguilar, both evangelical, 65 and 33, father and son. While age has increasingly defined political divisions nationwide — most notably inside the Democratic Party — research has revealed a surprising continuity between older and younger evangelicals. As Professor Ryan Burge of Eastern Illinois University has found using survey data, while younger evangelicals show signs of parting from their elders when it comes to prioritizing issues such as immigration, young white evangelicals voted for Trump at roughly the same rate as their parents and grandparents. But a fraction — less than 20 percent — didn’t, and Daniel was among them.
To see Joe and Daniel sitting together side by side, as I did, in a Fort Worth taco restaurant, you might guess they’re related; you might also guess that there’s some tension between them, at least where it comes to politics. Joe, a retired CPA, was warm-skinned and a little slighter than his son, with a white beard and a bright yellow T-shirt sporting a prominent icon of Texas situated on the breast. Daniel, an attorney, had his father’s hazelnut eyes and dark, short-cropped hair with a frontal cowlick. They eyed each other warily as I broached the subject of Trump.
“You know,” Joe said, over chips, salsa and beer, “we created Trump. He’s a result of everything that happened before, it could have been someone else with that same kind of ridiculous, outlandish outbursts and thoughts and actions. I mean, we got what we deserved. I mean I don’t like everything he says, but I’m going to vote for him again.” Joe said his 2016 vote for Trump came down to a comparison between Republicans and Democrats — he printed out the two party platforms, considered them and came away convinced Trump was the only way to go.
Daniel intervened, skeptical. “Looking back in the primary starting in 2015, I mean — evangelicals put Trump over the top among, what? 16 other otherwise sane candidates. [He] was riding this wave of evangelical support.”
“He was married several times,” Joe acknowledged, a little grudgingly.
“Yeah, and I shouldn’t lead off with that because it’s not even the main reason — it’s demonizing immigrants” and remarks about keeping out people from “shithole countries,” Daniel said.
“Basically,” Joe argued, “Trump is everyone, without the filters. I’m sure at some time you’ve thought some horrible things, but you had a filter there to keep you from saying it.”
“But is that a defense?” Daniel asked.
“No, that’s just —”
“A fact to you?”
“Just an explanation of why. I mean, he is a raw personality with all filters removed. … I think he pretty much exemplifies this sin that we all carry with us. He just doesn’t know how to repress it.”
Daniel nodded, and pressed: “But it would seem like a natural question would be, you just sounded like you just described some pretty good reasons not to support the man.”
Back and forth like this, on and on: the Green New Deal, taxes, climate change, abortion, with Joe holding that Trump’s essential toughness set him apart from the other slick, polished Republican alternatives, and Daniel pressing as to whether that belligerent approach to politics really accomplishes evangelical goals. “Trump accepts evangelicals,” Joe said, unlike the Democrats. “I think ‘accepting’ is probably a friendlier term than ‘exploits the talking points they want to hear,’ ” Daniel parried. There were the usual sparring sessions over media dishonesty and the extremes of Trump’s policies, such as family separation at the border, which Joe admitted he didn’t approve of.
Even as father and son staked out a mostly generational conflict between the evangelicals who readily accepted Trump, and those, like Daniel, who remain skeptical, they still shared signs of affection: little jokes (“You know, Daniel, I can change my will at any time …”), an arm around the shoulder, a hand resting on the back of a neck.
Whatever the costs have been — and for many, the price of Trump’s policies has been cruel and devastating — the Aguilars seemed to exhibit that faint hope that Helm and Vinson live on: that evangelicals attached to Trump and those who oppose him can find some common humanity to hold them together, even in the heat of contention; that there might be better things on the horizon than continual decline; that the promise of pursuing those beautiful things might be the key to sealing the rift between Trump’s Christians and all the rest.
I had set out to Texas with the intention of spending Easter Sunday with my own family; my uncle, aunt and cousin are evangelical Christians, and have been for as long as I can remember, stretching back to days spent at Sunday school, when my aunt would teach and my cousins would sit together in semicircles to read, play and sing. It was only much later in life, long after I had left Texas and spent time among vastly different political and religious climates, that I realized not everyone knew evangelicals personally, and that their world was in some sense exotic to a vast number of commenters who write about them.
In the end, I couldn’t summon the objectivity to commit my family’s views to the page. I wonder if anyone can, whether they have intimate connections to evangelicals or similarly charged connections to those who fear evangelical politics will endanger their lives, loves, livelihoods or families. There scarcely seems to be a neutral approach to this curious group of voters, whose essence reaches for the extremes — incorporating the deeply spiritual and the basely practical, focusing primarily on matters of love, sex and reproduction, envisioning both a legal regime transformed by friendly Supreme Court justices and a world set apart from the dominant culture in which their increasingly unusual way of life can flourish.
However he reached them, Trump has undoubtedly made greater inroads with his evangelical adherents. Jeffress predicted an even bigger win for Trump among evangelicals this time around, surpassing his record-setting success last time; all of the Farmersville Christians were prepared to vote for him in 2020, as was Joe Aguilar. Much depends on the many months between now and the general election, but I would no longer underestimate the possibility that evangelicals will turn out in stronger numbers for a second Trump term than they did in 2016, partly to ensure another Supreme Court pick and partly because the backlash against them has cemented so much of what they already suspected about liberals’ attitudes.
However he reached them, Trump has undoubtedly made greater inroads with his evangelical adherents. Jeffress predicted an even bigger win for Trump among evangelicals this time around.
Which raises a series of imponderables: Is there a way to reverse hostilities between the two cultures in a way that might provoke a truce? It is hard to see. Is it even possible to return to a style of evangelical politics that favored “family values” candidates and a Billy Graham-like engagement with the world, all with an eye toward revival and persuasion? It is hard to imagine.
Or was a truly evangelical politics — with an eye toward cultural transformation — less effective than the defensive evangelical politics of today, which seems focused on achieving protective accommodations against a broader, more liberal national culture? Was the former always destined to collapse into the latter? And will the evangelical politics of the post-Bush era continue to favor the rise of figures such as Trump, who are willing to dispense with any hint of personal Christian virtue while promising to pause the decline of evangelical fortunes — whatever it takes? And if hostilities can’t be reduced and a detente can’t be reached, are the evangelicals who foretell the apocalypse really wrong?