HOUSTON, TEXAS —
Polls show that an overwhelming majority of non-denominational Christian evangelicals plan to vote for Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump, despite charges of immoral behavior. Many nationally known leaders of the so-called Christian right were critical of Trump when he ran in primaries earlier this year, but most of them now back him, despite his alleged sins.
Many Christian pastors favored other candidates, like Texas Senator Ted Cruz, in the Republican primary contests earlier this year. They cited Donald Trump’s two divorces, his casino ownership and what some of them saw as his “un Christian” statements about immigrants and refugees.
But voters who identify with the Christian right helped Trump win in many states where national pundits thought he would not fare well, like South Carolina, which was supposed to have been an easy win for Cruz.
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Now that he is the Republican presidential nominee and is in a tight race with Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, many religious leaders have changed their tune.
Even after several women have accused Trump of sexual misconduct, a large majority of conservative Christians support him. VOA spoke to a few of them outside a non-denominational church in Houston.
“I am not excusing him, okay?” said Julio. “But I don’t see why they condemn him when a lot of other men probably do worse than him, you know.”
Julio, an immigrant from Guatemala who is now a successful businessman in Houston, also dismisses Trump’s harsh rhetoric concerning illegal immigrants. He says he is also against crime and thinks there should be a way for people to come legally rather than breaking U.S. law when entering the country.
Alan, another churchgoer, says he likes Trump’s business background and his economic plans and is not bothered much by his more outlandish statements.
“Sometimes he says more than he should, but he has goals and values that align with mine,” said Alan.
Right to Life issue dominates
For many of these voters one issue is dominant, as stated by business owner and church volunteer Randy.
“The only person that has said anything that is really important to me is Donald Trump as far as trying to ban abortion,” he said.
Randy thinks the country has taken a moral downturn since the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that upheld a woman’s right to choose whether to have an abortion. He, like many other Christian conservatives, believes abortion is murder.
But there are many Christian women, especially younger women, who are offended by Trump and plan to vote for Hillary Clinton. Nineteen-year-old Claudia is one of them.
“I don’t believe the things he is saying; I don’t think he is respecting women,” she said.
This week, university professors and researchers who focus on religion and politics discussed these issues at a Rice University forum in Houston.
Diane Winston from the University of Southern California says many Christians have accommodated themselves to Trump.
“He supports some of their basic social and political positions,” she said. “He may be immoral, but he has a moral agenda.”
She said the biggest split among evangelicals in terms of politics is racial.
“According to most polls,” she said, “between 60 and 70 percent of white evangelicals are going to vote for Trump. Most evangelicals of color are going to vote for Clinton.”
A recent study by the Brookings Institution shows that moral questions have become less rigid among white evangelicals. In 2011, only 30 percent of them believed personal morality was separate from ethics in public office, whereas the most recent polls show 72 percent believe that.
Mainstream culture affects moral views
Religious leaders have been pulled along by their congregants, who are reacting to a number of societal changes and economic conditions.
Patton Dodd, a researcher from San Antonio, says the news media has sometimes overstated the influence of evangelical preachers.
“I don’t think the crowds are following them in lock step,” he said.
Both candidates, Clinton and Trump, have been in the public eye for decades, but Trump hosted a reality TV show called "The Apprentice" between 2004 and 2015, when he began his run for the presidency.
Dodd said Trump’s celebrity has boosted his popularity with evangelicals despite questions about his personal life.
“They don’t just listen to what their pastors say and behave accordingly. They are also interested in pop culture like everyone else is,” Dodd said.
How this plays out in the election will not be known until the votes are counted and the analysis of the results begins.