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Trump Courts Evangelicals to Secure Re-election

President Donald Trump holds up a sign given to him by a supporter during a rally for evangelical supporters at the King Jesus International Ministry, Jan. 3, 2020, in Miami.
President Donald Trump holds up a sign given to him by a supporter during a rally for evangelical supporters at the King Jesus International Ministry, Jan. 3, 2020, in Miami.

U.S. President Donald Trump launched a new coalition to secure evangelical voter support for his re-election, delivering a rally-style speech in front of thousands of cheering Christians in a Miami megachurch on Friday.

“We have God on our side,” Trump said at the King Jesus International Ministry, a predominantly Latino church that also goes by its Spanish name Ministerio Internacional El Rey Jesús.

The ministry is one of the largest Hispanic churches in the United States. Trump’s rally there acknowledged the power of evangelical and Latino voting blocs as his campaign tries to shore up support ahead of the November presidential election. Evangelical voters made up a substantial part of Trump's base in 2016 and could pave the way toward securing the president’s re-election in 2020.

The president hit familiar campaign themes, boasting about policies that further the evangelical agenda, including restricting abortions, appointing conservative judges and his recent executive order to extend Title VI protections to Jews. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 bans discrimination on the basis of race, color, and national origin in institutions receiving federal funding, including colleges and universities.

Trump also announced that he will soon be taking action to “safeguard students and teachers’ First Amendment rights to pray in our schools.”

Evangelicals for Trump

Politically, evangelicals are relatively homogeneous and unified as they consistently champion four causes: pro-life policies, confirmation of conservative judges to the federal judiciary, religious freedom mainly for Christians and pro-Israel policies, said Professor Quardricos Driskell, an adjunct professor of religion and politics at the George Washington University.

“These four single issues make this group the most active supporters of not only Trump but most conservative Republican voters,” Driskell added.

Yet, like any group, evangelicals are not monolithic. Driskell said that a distinction has to be made between evangelicals and white evangelicals - with a tendency for more "comprehensive group-think" among white evangelicals who overwhelmingly voted for Trump in 2016 vs. black or Latino evangelicals.

There are also evangelicals uneasy with both the president’s demeanor and policies. After online publication the Christian Post recently issued an editorial supporting Trump, editor Napp Nazworth resigned in protest.

“There is a large contingent of evangelicals who agree that our faith shouldn't be associated with a president who separates immigrant children from their families, betrays our allies in Syria, inspires racists, and pays hush money to porn stars,” Nazworth said.

Into the fold

Trump has put effort into bringing evangelicals into the fold, including by appointing Paula White, a televangelist from Florida whom he calls a longtime friend and personal pastor, as head of the White House Faith and Opportunity Initiative. White introduced Trump at the rally as “a man of God” and lead a prayer session for him.

The "Evangelicals for Trump" coalition launch is yet another effort to solidify backing for the president, even when there are signs of erosion of support, including the explosive December 19 Christianity Today editorial that argued for Trump to be removed from office.

“By branding all evangelicals as Trump supporters, the campaign is trying to force those in that demographic who do not fully agree with the president’s policies to be pulled along because it is better to vote for President Trump than a Democrat,” said Shannon Bow O’Brien who teaches presidential politics at the University of Texas at Austin.

There was no shortage of Trump lines hitting on opposition Democrats, whom he accused of waging war on the faithful.

“Every Democratic candidate running for president is trying to punish religious believers and silence our churches,” Trump said to applause from the crowd, many of them sporting MAGA red caps and Trump campaign attire. "This election is about the survival of our nation," he said.

Trump also singled out Democratic Congresswomen Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib and Alexander Ocasio-Cortez, describing them as anti-Semitic. “These people hate Israel. They hate Jewish people,” Trump said.

Critics accuse Trump of weaponizing religion. “Faith and belief are highly personal things that should never be utilized as a partisan tool for electoral advantage,” O’Brien said.

Ahead of the president’s remarks, Florida Democrats issued a letter signed by 12 Christian leaders from five Florida counties that appealed to the president: “We cannot stand idly by while you attempt to co-opt our religion for your political gain and claim support from our community.”